0155: Boy Afraid


Content warning: the following story contains references to sexual assault, alcoholism, and depression, which may be triggering for some readers.


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“Boy Afraid,” David Cave

I was maybe 10 or 11 the first time John held me up against a wall with the force of his body and rubbed me up and down, kissing my neck. His hot breath made me shiver, I felt violated, disgusted and impossibly tainted, paralyzed by fear and shock. Over the next few years, this would happen nearly every Sunday at the Baptist church my family attended three times a week. As I got older, I grew resistant to John's physical prowess over me, threatening to tell on him. I never did, I still haven't told anyone of consequence what he did to me. Every time I threatened him with action, refusing to play the docile deer-in-his-headlights he threatened me with violence, or threatened to do the same to my brother, instilling a terror that casts a long shadow over my life. In the same turn he would add more time to the clock that he counted out in his head while he felt me up violently and kissed my neck by the storage shed behind the church, often arbitrarily adding time to my sentence for the slightest transgression. I quickly tried to get out of going to church as much as I could, faking illness and trying to maximize time around the friends I knew I was safe around that might provide protection (because John's fear of being found out trumped his violent sexual urges).

John was often referred to as my friend, as we were constantly around each other, and eventually I bought into this lie (the truth was he wouldn't let me far out of his sight, terrorizing me every second he could just through his oppressive presence). He would refer to my brother and I as "pretty boys," something which my mother realizes the true gravity of in retrospect, but at the time came off merely as jealousy at my family's middle class existence. What he was really saying was that we were worthless and unlovable, just like him. I can't recall what eventually led to the end of John's reign of terror on my life, my memory of those years is hazy and missing large chunks likely due to the trauma inflicted on me. I understand this phenomenon as the activation of defense mechanisms within my mind shutting off sections to protect me, like sailors closing off bulkheads to keep water from spreading to different areas of a ship, threatening to sink them all.

It wasn't until my late twenties that I learned my brother, two years my junior, had been John's de facto victim when I wasn't around. My family eventually moved on from that church when we moved to a new neighborhood on the North side of Denver, but I heard that John, one year younger than me, had gone to juvenile court for assaulting his cousin. The story as I recall was that his cousin had been sitting on his shoulders and he had "accidentally" reached up her skirt and grabbed her inappropriately. Inherent in this was the insinuation and insistence that it had been an accident, that it was harmless and there's no way John could have committed such an act. I didn't speak up. I felt ashamed, I was speechless, and I knew exactly what he'd done immediately. I froze, and couldn't say anything.

There were rumblings around the time my family joined the church (that I would hear until years later) that John's grandfather, the former pastor of the church, had physically and sexually abused his grandchildren. This fact was rarely brought up, not even as an explanation for John's actions, but it has provided me some much needed context with which to frame my experiences. Hurt people hurt people. I guess. It doesn't excuse what he did, but it helps me to understand and maybe begin to empathize a bit. Is this how Stockholm Syndrome begins?

Regardless of this, it's clear the church and the community systematically failed us. The patriarch of the church abused his grandchildren (and very likely other people in his family), with no repercussions and no one did anything to stop him. He was even fondly remembered by his family, who I've been told knew what he did. How can someone look back at their abuser and feel fondness? Although I understand he too likely underwent his own abuse at the hands of someone, I find it hard looking back at that period of my life with any sort of fondness for John or even his family for that matter.

For years I kept these events locked up in the furthest recesses of my memory, threw away the key and refused to look at them. I found solace in video games, places that I could feel powerful, worlds where no one really got hurt (Pokemon Red was a favorite of mine around age 12, a joyful cartoony escape from what I endured outside the game). I took solace in punk rock, shouting along to all the words of Black Flag, Minor Threat, and Descendents. The pain, frustration, and boredom of suburban white teenage boys raised in stifled, emotionally closed off environments appealed to my internal need to be be heard but paradoxically not knowing how to vocalize how I felt. I was angry at my parents and the church for not protecting me. I was angry at society for the mere existence of people like John. Most of all I was angry at myself for not telling anyone and not stopping the cycle of sexual violence John perpetrated on me and countless others. I got it stuck in my head that it was my fault, that somehow I was culpable. I believed I was broken, damaged, I was a piece of shit. Henry Rollins was the only person who knew how I felt, so I drowned out the pain with Greg Ginn's wailing guitars and alcohol.

The ensuing years went on, I didn't think about John or what happened to me, it was locked up deep inside and it never came up in my thoughts. It was almost like it'd never happened. Almost. Looking back now, it's easy to see that at least to some extent it helped fuel my alcoholism, my depression, my unending loneliness as I sought to find a real connection with other people (but failing miserably at every turn). I manipulated people I was in relationship with when they disagreed with me, when I felt insecure and afraid they would leave me alone with myself. These were tactics I didn't learn from my parents, they were maladaptive behaviors I learned through my abuse. Even when I got sober at age 20 the fact that years of abuse could have influenced my behaviors or my alcoholism hadn't occurred to me until I got to my fourth step inventory in Alcoholics Anonymous. I was working on my inventory, in which I chronicled my resentments, what had happened, my part in what happened, etc. John just flowed out of me and onto the page, along with all the parts I blamed myself for- not saying anything for years, not stopping him, not protecting my brother or anyone else he assaulted. I shared this with my sponsor, who remains until now the only person I've ever told at length about what happened to me. It was also the first time someone told me it wasn't my fault. Something in me broke open, and memories came flooding back. My emotional reaction was still muted, still disconnected, but I wasn't living with the trauma just under the surface anymore. Maybe I could live with it. Maybe I could be vulnerable without fear of being hurt. For the first time the possibility that I could be fixed occurred to me.

I spent years as part archeologist, and part palmist- examining what I remember of who I was before John, how what he did changed me throughout the years, trying to remember changes in my personality and moods; also trying to trace the lines of trauma in my daily life, who I am now, what I want, how I can be more like my original childhood self, and what sort of psycho-sexual effect the abuse has had on my long-term development. I was processing, trying to find the answer why so I could fix myself. I still don't like people being forceful with me in intimate settings for obvious reasons, but there seemed some possibility the complete eradication of agency in my life at a young age jumpstarted the depression and anxiety I've struggled with as a teenager and adult. If only I could think my way through it hard enough, I might solve my problems. Now I understand how futile an endeavor this was, no amount of thinking could undo what was done to me. It wasn't going to make me healthier or more adaptive in my daily life. I had to find a new way to exist, but what thinking did help me do was process.

I'm still at a loss for what I do with this now, I've had this horrible hex put on me by someone else, yet when I try to follow in the footsteps of notable men who've undergone sexual harassment and abuse like Terry Crews or Brendan Fraser, I'm often met with incredulity that a straight, white, able-bodied cishet man such as myself could have an experience many associate with women. I even had a woman in a multicultural social work class tell me that my experience was invalid because as a man I "don't experience things like that every day," as though the frequency at which I experience assault is a qualifier for being a victim. I talked about it in a journal paper that I had to turn in to my professor in hopes that maybe she might bring it up in class to show that in the social work field we can't make assumptions, but was met with silence. I was left wondering why I even bothered to share my experience in the first place, despite my professor prompting the discussion about sexual assault on men. Now I understand first-hand what it's like to have your experience invalidated by those around you, shutting down uncomfortable discussion with pointless qualifiers and platitudes that "it could always be worse." As though human suffering is quantifiable. All I seek is validation, a seat at a table where I can be vulnerable with others who've gone through similar experiences that I can learn how to heal from.

I've never felt I had a place in this world as a victim or a "normal man". I still don't know where I belong, as Jacob Bannon sings in the Converge song "Last Light":

"I need a purpose and I need a reason
I need to know there is trophy and meaning
to all we lose and all we fight for
to all our loves and our wars
keep breathing
keep living
keep searching
keep pushing on
keep bleeding
keep healing
keep fading
keep shining on
this is for the hearts still beating"

With tears in my eyes for the things I've lost, and resolve in my heart, I keep pushing on.


About the art:

David is one of my new best friends - we met in September and quickly hit it off. Since then, we’ve shared so much of ourselves in learning how to have a healthy male relationship. David is one of the most knowledgeable and insightful people I’ve ever met. For a story like this to come from David was a pretty big surprise for me.

When I first read his story, my heart sank - I hated learning about a struggle he’s lived with throughout his life. While he has this experience, I know this piece took a lot for him to write, but I’m so thankful he did because I know this piece will help many people heal.

So for the art, I went off his affinity for Converge’s “Last Light,” matched the colors from the artwork, wrote all of the lyrics in the background and focused on the last two lines as a symbol of motivation for David.

- Craig.

Tattoosday 22: Super Ken & Emilio

Content warning: The following story contains references to losing a loved one to a drunk driver, which may be triggering for some readers.

"Super Ken & Emilio," Katy Hamm

I met my best friend Emily Kidwell in high school.

We both played percussion in the school band. We both loved pop-punk and metal music - attending every local show we could get ourselves to. We got our noses pierced together, and frequently drew up ideas for our future tattoos while ogling over members of My Chemical Romance. We both had the strange sense of humor that would lead us to inside jokes about the movie Muppets in Space and "beasts in stairwells." She was Emilio, and I was Ken.

Instead of writing notes to each other, we used to draw these tiny comic books of all the adventures we dreamed of going on as a duo, and occasionally with friends. From Warped Tour escapades, to escaping a R.O.U.S. at school, to traveling to the movie theatre with our friends from youth group - we battled everything as a super hero duo. I was Super Ken, a stick figure with a cape; and she was my sidekick squirrel Emilio... also with a cape.

I still have every single comic we made for each other, including one that we turned in as an assignment for our French class which I can no longer read without looking up the translation. So many memories and those hurt-your-gut laughs attached to those tiny pieces of paper. 

Even with her weird and sometimes dark sense of humor, Emily was one of the most genuinely accepting and loving human beings I have ever met. She was the first person who ever talked to me about being accepting of people of all races, sexualities, gender identities, physical and mental ability, weights, mental health status, and more. I owe a chunk of my drive for social justice and advocacy to her steering me in that direction years ago.



In 2008, Emily was killed by a drunk driver. 

I remember receiving the phone call from one of our mutual friends. I remember slowing falling to my knees in my grandmothers living room, feeling like I should be crying and also not being able to. It didn't feel real. How could she be gone just like that? 

Losing my best friend, and the only person I ever felt truly understood me at that point, was soul crushing. I consistently had nightmares about her crash, and the funeral following. I imagined all the things that could have saved her, and all the things that happened when they didn't.

Shortly after losing Emily, I was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. This affected everything in my life, but especially school. I was going into my second year of college, and as a first-gen student, I really needed extra help surviving. My mother pushed me into counseling, and it was one of the best things I ever did for myself.

I was able to channel my energy into planning local concerts with my school's programming board - where I found my home at UW Oshkosh. I was able to bring the love and drive Emily and I had for local music to new relationships with new friends. I was finding bits of Emily in new people, and it always made me smile.



I was extremely lucky to have Emily's older sister, Amanda, become a big part of my life during this time as well. Although this didn't happen immediately after losing Emily, when it did happen - it happened fast. We connected on such a deep level on so many things. She has been my shining light through all the rough patches, and I hope I have been the same for her. Amanda and Emily called each other "Skister," a name that Amanda and I have now adopted for our friendship. 

In June, we decided to get a "Skister" tattoo together. We had a goofy inside joke about hedgehogs, so we went on got ourselves each a cute little hedgehog. Hers, looking like it was throwing serious shade, fit her very well. Mine, on my left arm, serving as a constant reminder of one of the rocks in my life. Someone who inspires me daily. One of the most fierce and resilient humans I know. Someone I look up to.

Since losing Emily, I had spent years trying to figure out a way to keep her with me forever through a tattoo. I cycled through ideas, but nothing seemed right until this past July when I came up with the idea to get a squirrel. My sidekick squirrel, Emilio. Always right there on my arm when I need her.

One month later, my little furry super-friend has been inked into my skin. I smile every time I look at it, and it makes me especially happy that it is near the hedgehog I got with her sister. I know Emily would love it, and I am so thankful to have her by my side for the rest of my life.


Thanks to Alex Rojas at Horseshoes & Hand Grenades Tattoo in Springfield, MA - I have my sidekick squirrel with me at all times.

Thanks to Alex Rojas at Horseshoes & Hand Grenades Tattoo in Springfield, MA - I have my sidekick squirrel with me at all times.



About Tattoosday:

Tattoosday is way to demonstrate the storytelling quality of tattoos as well as the healing quality of tattoos.

If you would like to share the stories behind your ink, send us a picture of a tattoo or tattoos that have a significant story tied to your survival in life. Then write at least 400 words (you can write as many as you'd like) about the tattoo, it's meaning, and what it means to you today.

These stories will all run on Tuesdays!
One per week! So you have plenty of time to submit them to us!

The caveat with TATTOOSDAY is that we will not be making you a free piece of art, instead, your ink IS the art we will share with the story—which makes the most sense. BUT we will send you some stickers for sharing your story with us!

CLICK HERE to share your Tattoo story!

 

0105: On Moving Forward


Content Warning: The following story contains reference to loving someone with an addiction.

"On Moving Forward," Ali

Whenever I leave my girlfriend’s house in the morning, I always have to allot myself twenty minutes to get to main campus. 

I don’t mind this; I love walking. Whether it’s to music, or just to the life of the streets in Somerville, the act of walking allows me to energize my thoughts, and to feel their depth move in line with the incline of Summer Street. It’s almost as if they become a tangible thing, a knot I can work out just by choosing to step forward, again and again—but, sometimes, when things aren’t that deep, it’s nice to just stand at the top of a hill and think, “With my own two feet, I made it here myself.” 

May 12th brought the spring semester of my Junior year, and my final exams, to a close. I had woken up a little earlier than usual, setting a louder alarm for 9:00 a.m. in hopes for studying my Spanish II notes. There wasn’t anything I was sincerely concerned about, but I knew reviewing the material would give me greater comfort walking into my test. As I was sitting cross-legged on top of her yellow, floral-patterned bed, my partner nudged me in the side of my thigh, rolling over. “Try not to worry too much.” she mumbled. 

After a quick shower, I began to gather my things into my backpack, stowing them away for later in the day: my laptop, hidden behind my girlfriend’s bed; my extra, gray sweater, folded over the wooden chair of her desk; my shoes, which had retired underneath her pink towel, and elicited expletives that were whispered with fervency in their search. I only found my phone as it began to ring, its vibration humming loud enough for my partner to stir. “All good?” she asked, lifting her voice and propping herself onto her elbow.

I waved a hand, and in a single motion, she fell back to the pillow. As I looked to the screen, I didn’t recognize the number; it had a 617 area-code, and my phone said it was from Jamaica Plain. I normally didn’t pick up unknown numbers, mainly because I’m too anxious to make small-talk to somebody I don’t know, but this seemed local. 

Standing in the center of her room, I was so caught up in the act of making a decision that I actually missed the call. “Shit,” I groaned, and pulled the other strap of my backpack over my shoulder. Slipping out of my girlfriend’s room and through her front door, I started my trek down her street, crawling my way to Somerville Avenue. If I had left any later, I would actually be tardy for the start of my exam. 

Popping my headphones into my ears, I kept thinking about the phone call. Although I could not quite articulate it, there was something about this that felt hurried, and rushed. Even the way it rang seemed to have a sense of urgency in its tone, annoyance, almost, creeping into each bzzz, bzzz, the more I had ignored it. Who had called me from JP? And would they call—

I felt my palm vibrate as the number reappeared once more. White, stark digits against a darkened background, I tried to memorize their order, whispering them to myself once before answering. I needed to know I could call back, if possible. 

“Hello?” 

“Ali?”

Although I could not place it immediately, I knew the voice from somewhere. It was a woman’s voice, and she sounded older. “Yes?”

“This is Mrs. Grane, your mother’s landlady. I’m sorry for calling you this early in the morning.” An accent accompanied this voice now, and it influenced the weight in which she placed her words. She spoke slowly. 

I had only met Mrs. Grane once, in passing, a few months previously. She was an on-call nurse at a nearby hospital in Dorchester, and often spent the afternoons sleeping. Even shaking my hand that one evening, I felt the callouses of her toughened fingertips and the deepened grooves within her palms. She was a woman who had seen it all—she was a woman who didn’t fuck around. 

I didn’t realize how quickly I walked until I found myself at the base of my girlfriend’s road, my knees trembling as I looked to my feet. The sun’s shadows were cast with the faint tracing of the morning light, and although the day promised beauty, my chest was beginning to heave a wreckage. I didn’t need to be the daughter of an alcoholic to know that this news, whatever it was, was not going to be good. 

“Please, don’t apologize,” I began, turning the corner onto Summer Street. I continued my route to class, my free thumb looping around the strap of my backpack. “How are you?”

Mrs. Grane answered honestly, and to the point. “I’m not too good… I’m not too good. I’m calling to let you know that your mother—she’s not well. She’s very ill.” 

As Mrs. Grane spoke, I kept walking. My phone was pressed to my ear as I did, and often, she kept telling me to calm down, or to take a breath, or to stop crying. She explained to me every, single, excruciating detail of my mother’s relapse—she spared nothing. She recited the words, verbatim, that my mother had used to plead with Mrs. Grane, crawling toward her on her knees as she begged for help. She told me how many empty bottles she found in my mother’s house when she was at the hospital. She told me I had to pack up her things soon, because she was evicting her two weeks later. 

Since I began college, my mother has relapsed once a year, and almost always around the same time. In the beginning of my freshman year, it was my father and then-partner who helped me move into my college dorm room that sticky, August afternoon. I couldn’t ask her opinions on the menial things, like room décor, what kind of stationary to buy, or even how to take effective notes in my classes, because she wasn’t there.

She was finishing the last month of her three-month rehabilitation program, which she had begun in the previous May. The last time I had seen was in a Marshall’s parking lot, wishing me well for my first semester as her ex-husband drove her back to New Hampshire. With my mother moving to Boston a year later, I thought there would be a change. I thought, and hoped, that this would be the part of her life where this ends, where she can find balance, and her own definition of normalcy again. But it’s still not like that. 

By the end of Mrs. Grane’s phone call, I had arrived to campus, five minutes before my exam. Steadying my voice, I thanked her; her response was flat, but sincere before she hung up, the sharp click of the other end’s disconnection echoing in my head. Shoving my phone into my backpack, I sunk into a patio chair and wept, because there wasn’t a way to put it beautifully: this hurt me. A lot. 

When I collected myself, I stood in the center of my campus with a lingering sense of confusion, wondering how I managed to arrive here when I thought of it: choosing to step forward again and again was my strongest way of survival. It’s difficult and frustrating and downright heartbreaking when someone you are supposed to love seems to turn to their addiction more than to you. It’s especially hard to admit that out loud, to hear the ring of its truth sing past your lips. But I think my sanity has come in knowing that the more I choose to move forward, the less inclined I am to allow her behaviors influence my actions. By doing this, I have been able to find goals to move toward, passions to pursue; my love for writing, my yearning to always learn more. I found these things all on my own, and there’s a comfort in that. I’m an entirely different person than my mother, simply because of the steps I took by myself. 

My exam was supposed to start in two minutes from then. Rubbing the backs of my hands beneath my eyes, I chose to step forward. I took the test.

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About the Art:

For this piece, I wanted to create an image that would represent what this survivor does to keep moving forward every day. Lacing up her Vans, and taking life one step at a time. 

I hope this can serve as a reminder for Ali that even when the going gets tough, slipping on your shoes, and putting your best foot forward is what you need to do to survive. I'm so proud of her resilience, and I know that even in times when family is stressful to her, she has created her own family of friends who will help her through anything.

099: I Found My Voice


Content warning: The following story contains references to domestic abuse, drug abuse and violence, which may be triggering to some readers.

“I Found My Voice,” Jenna Glazer

Most people look at me and see an overachieving teacher's pet, who tries to hard in school. Those people would be 100% correct. However, what many people don't know is that academics saved me. 

For my entire life school was my safe haven. The place where I was good at something. Where people would praise me and we're proud of me. The place I felt safe and loved. School was my home, because my home was a battleground. 

Although I didn't really know what that meant when I was six, I realize now that my mother and brother's physical and verbal abuse was not some form of tough love. It took me about 17 years to finally admit it, but I was (and still am) a victim of domestic abuse. Both my mother and brother suffer from anger management issues, and combined with my brother's drug abuse my home became a ticking time bomb. For the majority of my life I've had to worry every day about saying the wrong thing, entering a room at the wrong time, or even watching the wrong television show. My parents promised me for years that they would help my brother get over his anger management issues, that he'd stop smoking pot in the house, and he'd stop bringing his drug dealing friends around. As a young girl I believed them with every ounce of my being. 

I believed them until one day at the beginning of my freshman year of high school. I was watching a TV show called, "Beyond Scared Straight" about kids who were on the wrong path and needed a push in the right direction. Earlier that day I got into a fight with my brother about his own drug abuse and the family members in the episode were saying the same things I believed. My brother walked into the room and as soon as I looked into his eyes my heart began to pound and all my brain could think was "run."

While running toward the door I grabbed the phone, because maybe, just maybe I could find my voice. I make it to the door but it's shut and I'm cornered. “I’ll call them,” I say, but just like the times before, he knows it’s an empty threat. The anger between us scares me, and as I clench the phone he looks at me with hatred in his eyes. He snaps. The force of his body slams me backward and my right arm hits the handle of the door. The pain shoots up my arm, and the tears begin to stream. But through it all, I saw my chance to escape. I wasn’t afraid anymore. I dialed 9-1-1.

I had finally found my voice, but looking back it was almost all for nothing. According to my parents, I ruined my brother’s life by calling the police. That guilt convinced me not to testify at his domestic assault trial, but despite my silence, our relationship has never healed: anger still looms between us. I still fear for my life every time I walk into my house, and over the years my brother's issues have seemed to multiply. 

Sometimes I wish that I could go back in time, not call the police, and stay quiet. But then again, speaking out for my well-being, even if it meant betraying my family, made me stronger. Reaching out to my high school teachers, and discussing my options with administration, I discovered that my voice matters, and I hope to do the same for others.

That's why I'm now at Lesley University, becoming a teacher. I'm ready to pay it forward. School was my saving grace and I hope to make my future classroom the safe space that my students deserve. No one should feel unsafe, unappreciated, and unsupported. I found my voice and it is time to help others find theirs.


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About the art:

This is exactly what Jenna wanted!

We both like flowers and I suggested incorporating a hand or hands to simulate taking control and finding your strength. She was into some Ophelia vibes as well. The flowers pictured are representative of strength and poise.

- Kelsey

088: Carrying Separate Halves


Content warning: The following story contains references to drug use, a drug overdose, and the loss of a family member due to a drug overdose, which may be triggering to some readers

"Carrying Separate Halves," Jaran Stallbaum

On Halloween of 2015, I found myself swallowed by Sixth Street in Austin. During the day me and some co-workers were attending a student media conference, wide-eyed and diligent. On the last night, we celebrated the holiday as any twenty-somethings would. We drank too much. We crumpled into our hangovers on separate planes. That morning, I had an hour to get myself from a stranger’s apartment, to my university funded hotel, to a shuttle that would eventually lead me home. My mother and grandmother picked me up from the airport, a burrito and water bottle offering in hand. I scowled at them. I wanted nothing but my cat and the sinking hole of my mattress. An aggressive one-night stand in Texas left my body bent, ribs cracked. I was feeling awfully sorry for myself.

My brother would be dead in less than 24 hours.

The following evening, I unpacked just enough to visit a friend-or-something-like-it’s house for overdue affection. I’d been single for two months at this point, and craved an exit from loneliness. 

My mother has always called me too much. My phone buzzed somewhere on the mattress, between blanket folds. I let it ring six, maybe eight times before I couldn’t kiss through the sound anymore. She needed me home. She refused to tell me why. I yelled my apprehension at her until it ran out. My guessing game fizzled. My grandmother didn’t die, or my cat, dad was fine. Her car hadn’t broken down on the highway. Possibilities were running out. I knew then.

And then I was driving on a dark highway, sobered from the call but still whiskey punched. I was calling my best friend for 20 minutes straight, but she wasn’t answering. I walked into my house at quarter to 2 in the morning. My parents had their shoes on. We were going, somewhere, we had to, but where do you have to run to when your brother is dead? Where do you go now? I can’t remember if the car radio was on.

My brother’s fiancée found him slumped in her bathroom, blue and sticky with puke, all needles and dried blood and stillness. 

We stopped at my eldest brother’s first. My dad banged on his door and collapsed with sobs when it opened. When we all reached the hospital, the secretary pointed with no sounds to a closed door.

I went in first. I still don’t know why. They warned me about the tubes shoved all inside him, taped to his lips. He still had color, no heartbeat. My dad came in just to scream at his dead face. “Look what you did to yourself!” And then he wept.

I stood there and felt the blood dripping around my stomach. I almost threw up my own heart. I didn’t cry until the next day. The sun rise looked ugly through the gaps in my bedroom. I could not rise with it, not for hours at a time, and then days. Everything I ate tasted like salt.
Justin was my half-brother, but the fraction never counted. His mother asked me to compose a eulogy and I did, unblinkingly, read without one tear in front of a hundred people. I sat down next to my mother after and collapsed in my own cries. People I’d never met told me how beautiful it was. They blinked around tears and said they liked my dress. I was being complimented in front of a body. It felt wrong.

I bawled over the casket when everybody left. My father was more worried about my dead brother’s fiancée than me. At the cemetery, someone’s little niece handed me a flower after the casket hit the dirt. I stepped on it with my heel. It felt as though someone had aborted all my emotions, except for numb and angry.

Between edible arrangements and sympathy cards and the solemn, understanding eyes, I found myself sick of saying “I’m okay,” or even worse, “Thanks for asking.” So I stopped apologizing. Eventually, they stopped asking – about me, anyway. “How’s your father?” “Is his mother doing okay?” “Your mom, I know she wasn’t, but…she knew him his whole life.” 

My own ball of grief weighed even heavier when no one wanted it anymore. 

And then I just floated in this new version of routine—my father wearing Justin’s clothes and my mother picking out flowers for the stone, the way you’d pick out a new blouse. Christmas morning two months later and all eyes on Dad, sullen in the space at the table where his son would have sat. Forget about the way my oldest brother keeps his eyes on his plate, how he can’t look up at the gap.

Forget about me, Justin’s only sister, how I sat detox program lobbies with bags of socks and underwear and new toothbrushes, or courtrooms with crumpled proof that my half-blood enough could section him behind bars. Baby sisters to their brothers are just play-things or parasites, sometimes both, never more. “At least now,” a drunk family friend tries to relate to me once, “You don’t have to see him suffer anymore.”

They were wrong. I see it every day. I can still hear how my feet sounded on hospital tile. I remember how glassy Justin’s eyes got when he got off his bike and barreled into my house for dinner, and how angry his highs made me. I can recall the hung silences as he walked away injured from my bedroom door when I didn’t want to talk to him, not really, because he was so selfish in choosing the needle over me. When I look in mirrors I see his tiny eyes and his sneaky grin because they match mine; because in ways we were the same, after all, since now I’ll just go out and drink to forget him just like he went out and got high to forget me--

And the rubber band snaps back, because that’s grief.  It’s harsh and then it disappears. When, for a second, I feel almost at peace, but there’s days where my lungs just don’t fill up right and I want to sit with him again, feet crushed under his weight. How I’d rather him here and hurting me over hurting me while being gone.

I don’t know why they aren’t asking anymore, but I think I’ll eventually stop wondering. It’s just, I think people assume that loss is concrete, and since someone says there is nothing worse than a parent losing a child, that means all the other floating victims of loss are only hurting for a phase. That phase could be a month, or a year, or on the schedule of whenever his birthday comes around, but a phase nonetheless.

I would like to stand up and say that my grief as a sister is not a phase. My panic late at night or my memory bites making me ache until I’m dry, and hard, and then soft again, it’s not going to leak out.

I no longer feel resentment for the people that don’t ask me if I’m okay anymore. I should have known this a lot sooner, but now it’s definite – not asking doesn’t substitute for not caring. Just like, not crying doesn’t substitute for not hurting.

While I appreciate your tip-toes around the subject and the way the air hisses between your teeth when you think you’ve said too much, I sincerely disagree. Losing him hurts me all the time, every day, nearly every second. You can numb me up or hug it out, but the ache’s not going anywhere.

My grief has taught me that my brother’s death has not caused a bruise. It’s broken something in half. I’m learning to carry both halves now, that’s all.

The first time after my brother’s death that someone asked if I had siblings, I stammered. I almost cried. One was still alive, after all, but where do I go from here? I tried to explain. It felt artificial. Now, I say two, there’s two brothers I love, and I leave it there.

Grief breaks you forever. You won’t heal, and that’s okay. You’ll learn to carry your separate halves.


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About the art:

I ran through a few ideas for this piece before coming to this concept.

As someone who has also suddenly lost someone close to me, I really connected to the idea Jaran had about floating through time with a constant ache, and hitting hard ground on certain anniversaries or birthdays. The pain never goes away, but you learn to live a new normal. That new normal can sometimes feel unreal, or like you're floating and watching everything happen around you like you aren't there.

I created an image of Jaran floating in what could be sky, space, or water - finding herself hovering over and looking down at time passing below her as the seemingly unreal reality continues around her.

It may be damn near impossible on some days, but I hope Jaran continues to float on.

- Katy 

086: In the Darkness


Content warning: The following story contains references to alcohol and alcoholism, which may be triggering for some readers.


“In the Darkness,” Tat Hatase

Eight years ago, I was wasted. In every sense of that word. Wasted. One particular day—August 27th to be exact—I believe I started out that afternoon by ordering two pints of beer and three shots of tequila for appetizers. Who knows what I ended up eating. I probably didn't. But I made sure to have a full serving of alcohol. Probably had some dessert too. And that was just the beginning.

The rest of the day was just dreadful just like my mindset was that summer. I had to drink to help me ignore the voice in my head. Or in my heart? Where does that voice even come from? My past, perhaps?

Anyway, I was spiraling out of control. I hated myself. I wasn't sure why this was happening to me. Why was my life doing this to me? Why must everything be so painful? That was pretty much how my thought process went around that time. Or for years and years leading up to that day.

I was so selfish.

Anyway, I kept on drinking that night. Well into the night, I drank. In the darkness, I drank.

Later that night, I came to realized that I had locked myself out and in at once. Literally and metaphorically. I got home, and I had the key in my hand, but I was not able to use it open the door. (Note: the house is a metaphor for my inner self.) A part of me was locked outside, and a part of me was locked inside. If I were a better writer, the whole metaphor would be worked out and presented in an amazing way, but revisiting that time of my life makes it difficult to concentrate, so you have to excuse me. The point is that I had lost control.

I don't know if I had hit the rock bottom, but I sure did not enjoy the way people were looking at me. I was being judged. I was being pitied. I was being a complete fucking idiot. But there was nobody watching me.

Eight years ago, I woke up and hated myself as usual. So... I said no more. I am stubborn enough to maintain that stance this entire time. It hasn't been easy, but it made sense. I had that logic thing on my side which is nice.

Am I a better person for it? I don't know. Probably not. I'm still not all that great. Still an asshole; that didn't really change. But I feel more functional. Even when I am pissed off and/or being an ass, I feel that I am doing those things with good reasons and some sense of purpose.

It was never about fun or anything like that with me and drinking. It was more about my past and memories and following the family tradition. Alcohol made me feel free from many of those things for a while, but the pain comes back. It comes back stronger, or maybe I was just weaker each time the pain came back to visit. And you can never trust the way you feel while you are drinking because... You are drunk! Either way, it was that whole downward spiral thing which was getting out of control. 

It was the shitstorm tornado of fucking up.

So, you know, I quit.

Now, the pain hurts in the right way. Now, I get sad, and it feels awful. But it's real. It's all real, and I'm living with it. It feels like shit.

I really don't know what will happen to me in terms of drinking. There is a good chance I will go back to it. That's just statistic; we always go back. I am not going to deny that. I think it's dangerous to look away from what is basically a certainty. Know thy enemy or some shit.

But, for now, while I am clean, I will continue to... Yeah, I still don't know how to finish that sentence. After eight years, I still don't know where I am. I have a vague idea on where I am not, and I know where I don't want to be. The only things I feel certain about are not entirely in my control. Because life sucks like that, and I have to live in this real world and face all of that without giving myself excuses.

What goes up must come down... Is that really true? Sure, if you throw a rock, it will come down. Because of that gravity thing science likes. But if you blast the fuck out of something with enough momentum, it can leave this planet forever, right? We've done that. There are some stuff we've shot out into the space and that shit's never coming back. Things that go up do not necessarily have to come back down. It's just basic rocket science.

And I'm still going up. Going up strong, baby! (Doing my best George Costanza impression.)

Maybe I will come back down. Maybe I will head straight down to the bottom again. Stay tuned, because if that happens, it will be a great show. I guarantee it.

Or, you know, I will just keep going up.

And I didn't get this far on my own. I did most the work, but some people helped. There are always some people who care for reasons I have not yet fully understood.


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About the art:

Tat is one of my best friends. We met a couple years into his reclamation of sobriety, so I never knew THIS Tat. But I know a Tat. And the Tat I know is exactly this contemplative, witty, and self-critical. I learned much of how to be self-critical from observing and interacting with Tat. The constant desire to do and be better than how you were actually performing as a human being.

And the Tat I know is pretty private, but I reached out to him in hopes he would be willing to share. I asked him to share his story because, 1. I knew his sobriety anniversary was coming up, 2. I know a few of his stories from when he used to drink, 3. I knew that he'd present his experience in an incredibly clever, artistic and reflective manner, and 4. I know how proud he is of himself for remaining sober - even if he doesn't say those exact words!

So for this piece, I wanted to combine two artistic aspects that I know are near to Tat's heart, as far as influences are concerned - Ralph Steadman's art and the gonzo writer himself, Hunter S. Thompson. So I tried some splatter and water colors as an homage to the great Ralph Steadman, and I used a Hunter S. Thompson quote, "Morality is temporary, wisdom is permanent." It's a quote that certainly reminds me of Tat's approach to life.

And while he might not understand why some people might have helped and cared about him during his journey to sobriety, I can at least say that on my end, it's because he's a dude that always looked out for me. Even after we first met, he treated me like someone he had known for years. And that's something I love about this man, he treats the people he truly cares about like they are family - a family of which I know he has had to create on his own since moving from Japan nearly two decades ago. That's no easy task, but he's definitely created a great life for himself over the past few years.

And while we aren't in the same state together anymore, I always know that he has my back when things get rough, and I KNOW that he is often the first to come up with a witty retort to any of my tweets or comments online. Because that's how he shows his love - with wit and humor.

I'm proud of Tat for sharing this piece. I'm so happy that he did. I think it will help a number of people understand what it's like to get sober and stay clean. 

- Craig. 

084: Roseann


Content warning: The following story contains references to drug use, addiction, associated loss, and murder.

“Roseann,” Jessica

I’ve known my fair share of people who have lost their lives as a result of drugs, alcohol, or the lifestyle associated with such. There was Casey, who overdosed on heroin in a halfway house; There was Derek who tried to rob a drug dealer and was shot in the head. There was Anthony who died from falling off a roof – and no one is quite sure if he jumped or was pushed or just fell. 

None were as impactful as the death of a woman I hardly got the chance to know.

Roseann was 49 years old when she died.
Stephanie was 13 years old when she found her.
Robert was 29 years old when he murdered her.

On Monday, August 14 2006 I cheerfully walked into my home after returning from a hardcore show in New York City. I was a pipsqueak, just fifteen; My dad had driven and picked up myself and my buddy Zack. We felt like grown-ups at a concert in the city by ourselves. We were invincible.

I walked into the kitchen to let my mom know I was home before retreating to my room; That’s where I saw her hysterical at the table. I initially assumed my great-grandmother, Nana, had passed away. After all, Nana was ninety-something and the family somewhat awaited the still-dreaded phone call. 

“It’s my sister Roseann,” my mother managed to get out between tears. I did not immediately reply. I did not know my aunt well, or at all really. I did know she was the “black sheep," for lack of a better phrase, of the family. I knew that she had struggled with drugs and alcohol, and had left the house she shared with my mother, her siblings, and their mother, at a young age. I wondered if this distress was a result of the end of those struggles.

Over the next few minutes I learned that this death was not attributed to an overdose, or a drunk driving accident like I, and perhaps some others may have initially thought. My aunt was struck and killed by her boyfriend with a baseball bat the night before. He later noted alcohol and anger as the driving force for his crime, reporting that he drank a 12-pack of beer as well as most of a bottle of vodka prior. After killing her, my aunt’s daughter entered the bedroom. She was initially told that her mother was sleeping and not to bother her. After he fled the house, my 13-year-old cousin entered the room once again to find her mother bloodied and lifeless on the floor next to her bed. 

A few days later my family went to my aunt’s apartment to gather belongings and clean it out. Her daughter was there, as well as her older children. Many of the family members did not have a close relationship with my aunt, likely because of the path she took in life. Robert took away my aunt’s chance at ever repairing those relationships. 

Robert stole more than my Aunt Roseann’s life that night. He also stole her daughter Stephanie’s life, who has never remotely recovered from this trauma. She entered the foster care system after her mother’s death, and went from home to home. She was aggressive, belligerent – she was traumatized, and always will be. Robert stole a child from a mother, a mother from a child, a sister from a family. 

He was charged with third-degree murder, also known as voluntary manslaughter. This crime is often referred to as a “crime of passion.” It is described by its lack of intent to kill prior to the time of the crime, an on-the-spot killing, and states the crime is committed under such circumstances that would “cause a reasonable person to become emotionally or mentally disturbed.” The intent to kill is present, however is not considered before the action. While I am aware alcohol and anger can certainly cause a lack of judgment, I cannot believe or understand the idea that his actions were reasonably provoked to the point that murder should be the intent. 

He did not address my family in court. News articles say my family agreed with the plea and the sentence. I think they were worried he could get off completely. I would hardly say the family agreed that his sentence was fair. He was sentenced to 10-20 years in prison.  When he gets out, he will be younger than my aunt was at the time of her death. He was recently denied a chance at parole; My mother was told he lacked signs of remorse. 

My family is strong, and has very seldom discussed the pain this loss has caused. My grandmother, a rock, sometimes recluses around the anniversary of the death, however remains stoic throughout the rest of the year. My mother, the strongest person I know, almost always holds her own. She does not discuss the impact this loss has had on her, but every year around the anniversary of her sister’s death, she struggles a little bit more. This year I expect the impact to be greater, as it is the 10-year anniversary. 

My family will never overcome the loss of Roseann, but will forever remember the time they had with her. Ramble on baby, settle down easy. Ramble on Rose. 


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About the art:

This painting was inspired by the song "Ramble On Rose" by the Grateful Dead. This song is one of Roseann's sister's favorites and it has really resonated with her. Jessica wanted a traditional red rose because roses have become symbolic of Roseann to both her and her mom.

I started this painting by pasting dictionary pages to the background of the canvas to give it dimension and depth. The color splash behind the rose symbolizes the instability of her life with drugs and alcohol. But the white in the color splash surrounding it represents her purity and kind spirit. As this is the 10th year since Roseann has passed, I hope this painting will be a comfort to them as well as help keep the memory of Roseann alive.

- Emily Silkman

083: Survival Isn't Pretty


Content warning: The following story contains references to drug use, drug overdose, and recovery, which may be triggering for some survivors.

“Survival isn’t Pretty,” Andrea

My friends started dying my freshman year of high school, and it hasn’t stopped since. My grandmother used to call the obituaries the “Irish funnies,” and it was amusing until she had to hide the Herald when I visited because I’d immediately turn to the death notices to see if I recognized any names. 19 years later, I don’t even need to do that. My Facebook feed has become a roll call of the dead and barely-alive. I deactivated social media and, still, my phone lights up with texts asking, “Did you hear…?” 

I always know what it means: Another person I know has succumbed to the disease. Another coma that may or may not offer a second (or 92nd) chance. Another 911 call that doesn’t require sirens because it’s already too late. Another needle, another line, another cocktail of chemicals that an exhausted and broken body couldn’t sustain. Another one bites the dust.

Sometimes, though, we survive.

Survival isn’t pretty. It’s painful and non-linear and dirty. Survival isn’t just waking up from an overdose and breathing again; some of us never overdose. Some of us hit our bottoms in glass after glass of wine, or waking up and needing to smoke some weed before facing life. Some of us graduated from top-tier universities and got impressive jobs and then blew all that potential on prescription pills we didn’t get at the pharmacy. Some of us had families who cared, with resources to spare, and we ended up in therapy with counselors who said things like, “You’re growing up in a war zone.” Some of us lived in that war zone at home with parents who were also addicts. Many of us eventually lost every home and person and dream we’d ever had. Many of us ended up incarcerated, or in detoxes and mental hospitals, or dead in a train station bathroom.

But some of us survive. 

The people I survive with gather in dirty church basements, in police station conference rooms, and on the beach on Friday nights during the summer. We share our experiences: the places drugs took us, the feelings we suppressed in active addiction and have to face in recovery, and the ways our disease manifests when we stop using. But we also share our strength and our hope. We learn that whatever happens, we don’t have to go through it alone. We learn how to process trauma and loss, trust ourselves and others, and become responsible members of society. We form and develop our values, and begin to understand and apply the principles we want to guide our lives. 

We fuck up – frequently, and in catastrophic ways at times. But we welcome one another back with unconditional love.

We understand recovery is a process, and that we don’t get to graduate. We put an empty chair in the middle of the room to represent the addict who died before finding recovery. We laugh at really dark jokes and sit in silence while men cry for the first time and go out for ice cream to celebrate milestones. We find joy in life again and hold each other up during the really hard moments. We cheer each other on as those dreams we squandered turn back into possibilities, and we practice rigorous honesty and intimacy with people whose last names we may never know. We answer the phone during crises and when we put some time together, we help others. Service has become crucial to my survival; when I help others I also help myself.

Survival isn’t an upward trajectory, at least for me. It’s more like a heart monitor – there are going to be ups and downs, but as long as it keeps moving I’m going to be OK. Without drugs clouding my thoughts, I now have a lifetime of pain to address. I’ve been sexually assaulted. For years I blamed myself for the death of my boyfriend. I still struggle with self-harmful behaviors like cutting. I’ve caused others harm and don’t know how to forgive myself. I’m learning how to negotiate my sexual identity and define what being queer means to me. I’m responsible for the life and safety of a child as I do all of this. There are times when I think I’m starting to figure it all out, and the next day I’m so overcome with fear I can’t move from my bed. 

But I keep going—I don’t have any other choice. In recovery I’ve learned to begin letting go of some of the guilt and shame that kept me using for so long. I’ve started turning those lost dreams into reality. I found a career I love, I’m in graduate school, and I plan to pursue a PhD. I am the best parent, friend and partner I can be. I’m not perfect and much of the time I’m unsure I’m even worth the effort, but I’ve surrounded myself with people who remind me I am.

Survival isn’t pretty, but I was never big on traditional beauty standards anyway. There’s something to be said for landing in the gutter and crawling back out, for wiping the dirt off and remembering how bad life can be if I turn around. There isn’t a finish line. It’s either survive, or don’t. Today I choose to survive.


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About the art:

This survivor’s story emanated resiliency, and so I wanted to create a simple piece that would remind them of this. Throughout their story, I heard the repetition of “I survive” and thought of a heartbeat, as they describe in their writing.

With every heartbeat, I hope this individual is reminded of their joys, their struggles, their progress, their community, their resiliency, and most importantly their survival.

~Becca

082: Addiction Doesn’t Let Go


Content warning: This story contains references to drugs and alcohol that might be triggering for some survivors.

“Addiction Doesn’t Let Go,” anonymous

Note: All survivors who reach out to The Art of Survival are given the option to remain anonymous in sharing their story. Any specific details about the survivor are shared at their discretion, and not the creators of the page.

 

You know the quotes people share about their sisters? One I see a version of often is this―"Having a sister is like having a best friend you can’t get rid of. You know whatever you do, they’ll still be there." ~Amy Li

These quotes always make me wonder what my relationship would be with my sister if her relationship with Meth had not started. Sometimes these quotes are nothing more than a painful reminder of the relationship I still wish for, but do not know how to create.

My sister’s addiction started young, at age 13/14 with a plethora of different substances before she picked her drug of choice, Meth. As a sibling of someone with addiction I don't want to tell you her story, only she can do that. I do think often siblings of addiction are in a hard spot. Watching your parents relationship bend and almost break time after time over what to do, and how much to support, enable, or let go of their child. Watching the sibling you love fall deeper and deeper into their addiction, logically knowing they are sick, emotionally being so angry, scared, hurt, and even at times jealous. Not hearing from them for months, even years at a time. Being so afraid to answer the phone after a certain hour. Knowing it could be the hospital again, and this time not to release a live person.

All the attention of your parents and family are going to save the life of the sibling you love. At times it felt like there was nothing I could do to redirect. Every phone call from family revolved around my sister’s addiction. I moved to Michigan, and no one could visit me, my sister was pregnant and all the time, money, and energy needed to go to supporting her. My brother got lost in the shuffle. I started avoiding phone calls because I couldn’t handle hearing them complain about my sister, or hear about the most recent disagreement between my parents about what to do for her. Worse was when there was a good day, I knew would be followed by disappointment.

Watching your parent’s hope crushed over and over is a hopeless feeling. 

Every time my sister got pregnant the hope would come back to my parents. This time! She will get better, because of the baby! And she did try every time. But her addiction also made it hard for her to remember others.

Leaving for a trip? She is likely to have a crisis and need you.
Birthday―no, addiction makes people some of the worst versions of themselves.
Holidays? Great time for a breakdown.
Death of a beloved grandmother―addiction meant stealing from your grieving mother.
Over and over again.

My mother was going to help me move for graduate school one summer, we were supposed to leave on a Monday, the hospital called Sunday night, she was there, we hadn’t heard from her in months. Instead of leaving for graduate school I got to help my mother find a rehab center that would take my sister and our insurance. I told my sister you either need to go to rehab or I am taking you to a women’s shelter because you can’t stay here anymore, my parents couldn’t do it, not to their daughter. While my mother sobs in the room next to us and while my father is outside speaking to the officer who came to let us know she was wanted by the police. Her one year old son toddled in and out of the rooms confused by the tension in the house that day.

Addiction doesn’t let go.

Have you ever resented a baby? It is a horrible feeling.

But knowing the child is enabling your addicted sister because no one will make her have to take care of her child, for a real fear for the child, and seeing the loss of your parents golden years to raising another child, sometimes two - is infuriating. Don’t get me wrong, I love my niblings like they are my own children, heck one or more of them is likely to come live with me at some point. Every time my sister is pregnant it is not the socially constructed celebration on a hallmark commercial.

It’s a devastating blow:
Will they be healthy?
Who will feed them?
Where will they live?
How will they live?

And since I work in higher education I go further and wonder―
Will they continue in the cycle of teen pregnancy and addiction?
How can we educate them and support them?
Will they have mental health support and opportunities?

The list goes on.

Sometimes her addiction has meant crying in an airport coming back from a work conference begging my parents to call child services. Sometimes it meant avoiding going home for holidays, or knowing holidays would not be restful but stressful. It meant throwing myself into positions where I could learn as much as possible about addiction and substance abuse.

It means working with students on college campuses around these topics and being able to watch people overcome and work within their addictions. It means wishing I could give my sister the same resources my students have. It means knowing all the right things to do, and still being helpless. Sometimes knowledge is power, but it also creates an understanding of when you are absolutely powerless to help someone. 

Recently someone told me―a mother can only be as happy as her least happy child. Nothing has ever made more sense to me and described our family dynamic over the last 7 years of my sister’s addiction. As the child who wants to make her parents proud and happy, it feels impossible at times with the overshadow of addiction.

After two different rehabs, Child protective services taking away one of her children for six months, three children, and countless sleepless nights as a family―my sister seems to be in recovery. She is asking for help, and using it. She is actively seeking what she needs to care for herself and her children.

She recently called me. The first time in 5 years. She asked what kind of dress I wanted her to wear to my wedding. After the phone call I broke down in tears, it was like having someone come back from the dead, well really worse than death since I believe when people die they are in a better place and I could see she was not in a better place. Sometimes I think I might get the sister relationship all the quotes talk about, but I always worry that addiction will come back to take it away.


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About the art:

The painting I made for this survivor is based on how addiction has changed their family's lives forever.

This painting is not my usual style but is much more messy and chaotic because addiction is messy and chaotic.  The darker colors at the bottom represent the isolation and depression felt during the dark times of addiction when it comes back and takes hold.

The trees growing at the top represent how something great can emerge even from the darkest times.  There's a quote at the bottom right that says, "Sometimes when you're in a dark place, you think you've been buried, but you've actually been planted."

I like this quote because even when life is especially difficult, great things always emerge out of them.  Often it's not easy to see at first, but takes many many years to show (much like how a tree grows).  I hope that whenever things are looking dark, this survivor can look at this panting and know that eventually, growth will arise out it.

- Emily Silkman

081: The Choices You Make Affect More Than You


Content warning: The following story references an incidence of drunk driving, and associated loss, and the grief thereafter, which may be triggering to some survivors.

"The Choices You Make Affect More Than You," Amanda Myers

There is one specific day in my life where absolutely everything changed. I don’t mean in a poetic sense where I had an epiphany, or in a reflective looking back, what I know now way. But in a truly life shattering way that caused a schism between my old self and who I am now that runs incredibly deep.

On July 10, 2008, I had gone to bed somewhat early after a day of running errands. A phone call on our apartment phone rang in the distance, and my husband came into the bedroom, and told me my dad was on the phone. It didn’t alarm me immediately- this was far from normal, but I was sleepy. After I said hello to my father, he told me my sister was dead. After a stunned moment of disbelief, he told me she had been killed in a car accident. That she was hit by a drunk driver, head-on, about two miles from my parent’s home, and was killed instantly. I told him I was coming home as soon as I could, and hung up the phone. And then I started screaming.

I had read the word “keening” before as a way to explain a profound grieving cry, and I realized in that moment that I understood what keening really meant. It was heartbreak leaving my body through my voice.

We left almost immediately, and drove for 15 hours to get back to my parents. Once the sun arose above the horizon, somewhere on the far side of Nebraska, I had to start making phone calls. I called friends. I called family connections. I called neighbors. And I listened as I broke their hearts, one by one. As they started crying and didn’t know what to say. I listened to their shock. And I hurt.

My sister was 18 years old when she died; it was just over two weeks before her 19th birthday. She had been out for dinner with her fiancee, and was killed on a Friday night by someone I vaguely knew from high school, who was incredibly drunk by 9 p.m. It was the other woman’s birthday, and she did not have a designated driver. She was leaving one bar and heading to another when she crossed the center lines, and hit my sister. The other woman died shortly after the accident and left behind a young son.

Emily and I at an early morning family breakfast. This was the last time I saw her.

Emily and I at an early morning family breakfast. This was the last time I saw her.

Emily was my only sibling, and was truly one of my best friends. We were very close throughout my time in high school and college, and I was lucky that we spent most weekends together my junior and senior years of college. Even though I had spent the last year in Denver, Colorado, quite a distance from home, we still talked regularly and saw each other as much as we could. I cannot fully describe the pain and grief the loss of my sister caused in my life. It changed everything. I no longer had my best friend. I was an only child. I was heartbroken. And it was someone else’s fault. Someone made the choice to drink and drive, and it didn’t only kill that person, but also killed my innocent sister who was trying to get home.

Emily’s death was also the first death I really experienced. I was too young to remember the loss of my grandfather or my infant cousin. I had no experience with death, and this was life altering change. Most of the first year after Emily died is foggy; I don’t have many memories. I know I felt disconnected, aloof, and overwhelmingly alone. I considered my own death, however, I never took any action toward it. I thought about how nice it would be if I was killed in an accident myself. I was so broken.

To cope with her death, I did find several things that worked for me. I wrote in a journal, and in the journal I not only wrote about my feelings and thoughts each day, but I also wrote down as many memories as I could think of about Emily. All the details about what she liked, adventures we had, music we sang to in the car, and what made us laugh together. Having that journal is a huge comfort to me now, as time marches on and I sometimes forget the details about certain events or things she liked. I go back and read about memories I have forgotten, and it makes my heart happy instead of sad.

My other major source for coping with Emily’s death was learning how to knit. I read a book about loss where a woman learned to knit after the death of her child (Comfort: A journey through grief by Ann Hood), and I signed up for a knitting class. I truly think that knitting saved my life. It was calming, and it gave me something to do that didn’t require a lot of energy or intense thought. I could just knit. In the book, it said that with knitting, “every stitch is a way to say I love you.” I would meditate on that as I knit, and would find some sanctuary in the repetitive motion as I created something from yarn.

It has been a little more than eight years since my sister was killed by a drunk driver. I am still passionate about driving sober. A choice to drink and drive doesn’t just impact you. It can potentially impact hundreds of others in profound ways that can never be repaired.

So I have two main messages:
1) Take an Uber. Call a cab. Get a friend to drive. Drink at home. I don’t care, just don’t drink and drive.
2) If you’re grieving, find what gives you some small semblance of peace. Write, read, knit, sing, write music, travel, get a tattoo, join a group, cry.

Take each day knowing that some days will better, and some will be impossibly hard. Eventually the hard days are fewer and further in between, although they never go away completely. Find a way to say ‘I love you.’

IMG_0753.JPG

About the art:

Emily was my best friend in high school. Losing her was also a very huge shift for me, one that really affected the way I would live the rest of my life. She was literally the coolest person I have ever met, and had such a big heart for bettering the lives of others.

I met Amanda my senior year of high school, but we didn't become close until after losing Emily. We both found our own ways to cope, and eventually found a new normal together, years later. Amanda is now my closest friend, confidant, dance partner, inspiration, and most of all, my Skister - a title that had been held between Amanda and Emily growing up.

I've become a part of Amanda's family, but I always think about how things would be if Emily were still with us. I think about how much fun Emily would have with her nephew. I think about how much closer Amanda and Emily would have gotten over the years. I think about how I would fit into that picture.

With this piece, I wanted to be able to give Amanda a slice of that life by creating an image of Amanda, her son, and Emily were walking down a street together. I looked through old and new photos to make sure I created an accurate enough image that would make Amanda so happy she might cry (which she did). 

Although 'what ifs' can become a painful part of losing a loved one, sometimes imagining them as a part of your current life years later can be a rewarding experience. Thinking about how proud they would be of you, or how much they would love you regardless of where your life has gone, can be one of the most comforting things.

I like to think that Emily would be extremely proud of me, and I know with certainty, that she would be so proud of Amanda, thankful for her friendship and advice, supportive of the challenges she faces, and how much of a fun, loving aunt she would be to Amanda's son. 

I miss Emily every day, and I'm so thankful for Amanda. This project was really soothing to me in sort of a therapeutic way, and I'm so happy Amanda chose me to do this piece.

- Katy

079: Not to Fit a Mold


Content warning: This story contains references to drugs and alcohol that might be triggering for some survivors.

"Not to Fit a Mold," Tom Dickson

I don’t often think of myself as a survivor. Just someone who has experienced some challenges I tend to avoid discussing, especially in professional circles. I am going to break that silence today. 

THE BACKSTORY

First off, I am the child of an alcoholic – but that is only part of the story I am here to tell. The background is certainly helpful in understanding other factors, so here it goes. In middle school, I found out my Father had started drinking to excess on a regular basis. To my recollection, my Dad was never the type to drink. I can remember having the same one or two beers sitting in the fridge for 6 months or more; asking my Mom why we even kept them in there if no one ever touched them. He maybe had one drink every year; maybe. I never knew why it started at the time, but later I found out my Father had repressed memories of some unresolved childhood trauma. We think he did it to cope and dull the pain, but to be honest I don’t think anyone will every really know.

I have tons of adolescent stories of sneaking into his truck at night and stealing his alcohol in order to throw it out, of learning how to remove his keys from his belt while he was passed out so I could hide them, and in once instance, of carefully taking a loaded gun out of his hand while he lay unconscious in an armchair. Even after repeated attempts at counseling, interventions, and the support of his family, my father always returned to his alcohol. His alcoholism ruined a marriage, distanced him from his children, lost the family home, forfeited generations of family heirlooms and antiques, all his other possessions, and finally the respect of friends and family. My contact with him evaporated back around 2006 when he stopped replying to emails. I don’t know if he is still alive or not. I check the obituaries every couple of months, but haven’t found anything. 

STRAIGHT EDGE

Around 5th or 6th grade, before my Dad became an alcoholic, I started going to punk concerts with my cousins. They introduced me to the world of punk and the philosophy of Straight Edge.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Straight Edge, it is a punk philosophy centered on the primary tenants of self-respect, respect for the beliefs of others, and most importantly in abstaining from drugs, smoking, and alcohol. Some take it to varying levels beyond potentially inclusive of abstaining from sex, caffeine, over-the-counter medicine, meat, and more. Let’s not get bogged down with the details; however we should talk about what the choice to not have alcohol has on one’s life.

HIGH SCHOOL & COLLEGE

In high school and college the mindset and scripts were nearly the same. You have people waiting around trying to find you slipping up, they purposely offer you drinks (or drugs), and they corner you into having arguments on the merits of inebriation. You constantly avoid the majority of parties just to avoid having to be someone else’s designated driver, to not deal with drunk people, to avoid being on clean-up duty after the latest drunken accident, and to not be the responsible talking to the cops and neighbors. Given my family history, I cannot sit by and watch others hurt themselves, so I inevitably will get involved. I also worry. I worry their control will falter and they will lose everything. Just like my Father. 

The most awkward is not being puked on, urinated upon, or yelled at by the intoxicated. It is simply in dancing the dance of avoiding explanations about your family history to every new acquaintance at the party. You can avoid the parties. Eventually if you stop going the invites stop as well. And if I am fully honest, this model doesn’t stop once you graduate. 

MY PROFESSIONAL EXPERIENCES

At times it feels like in the student affairs setting alcohol can be as pervasive with staff as it is among the students. Offices have happy hours as team-builders, host officially scheduled office meetings at local bars, retreats have drinks, and celebrations of accomplishments and events are out at the local taverns. Even professional networking outings and tweetups are done over a happy hour or in a bar.

If you go, you end up not drinking and inevitably have to explain why. You can come up with an excuse and not be genuine to yourself or honest to them. Or you can tell the truth and you leave everyone feeling awkward.

If you don’t attend, just like in high school or college, over time the invitations dry up and the network is cut off. In many circles, the social friends of administrators are the ones who have extra time to articulate their goals, plans, and ideas. Many of these discussions and decisions are made ‘over drinks’ and frequently, somehow, magically turn into promotions for those with access. If I choose not to attend, I cut off that professional avenue. If I do attend, I have to explain why I am not drinking.

Alcohol is just as pervasive inside the office as well. I regularly have to attend functions with donors, alumni, senior administration, and faculty. The majority of the time there are options for alcohol. A few years ago my college even implemented a happy hour in the middle of an afternoon during the doctoral student orientation week. A cash bar was open for any students, faculty, and staff. From the faculty and other administrators, I regularly get a few bottles of wine each December. 

Rarely does a day go by where references to needing coffee (mornings) and a drink (afternoons) isn’t mentioned. Right now on social media some higher education professional in my feed is posting a photo of themselves out with their colleagues, friends, or families out at a bar. I don’t feel like this is discrimination, but I can sometimes feel left out. For some quick stats on the subject - my twitter feed, filtering for only my personal contacts, had 31 references to ‘beer’ and 12 to ‘drink’ (alcohol) just today….today! Three of those included pictures. Two included references to supervisors drinking with staff. Most of the statements were made about going out for drinks to relieve stress or as a reward for suffering through workplace frustrations. It seems to be everywhere. 

If you know me or meet me, please know I am not against drinking or being around those who do. Know however that I will continue to worry for my friends and colleagues. Especially those who rely upon it. I have concerns they will need help and they might not get it. I also am selfishly concerned that my own career has/is being stunted because I am not going to have access to those side conversations that become increasingly vital in advancing ones career. Above all else, I will continue to agonize over what the loss of control could mean. I worry if they became an alcoholic, their friends, family, colleagues, and students will lose respect for them as others and I once did for my Father.


About the art:

So I made this painting for Tom a few months ago as he wanted a straight edge-themed piece for his office. Being straight edge, myself, I was very excited to make this piece for Tom!

I love this classic Straight Edge credo. It's something I think about every day when it comes to how I live my life and I'm so thankful to have a punk mentor in the field that knows where I am coming from and supports my lifestyle.

This piece was done in my typical splatter style with the not-so subtle edge X in the middle of the piece. This piece gave me so much strength while creating it, especially knowing it was going to a home that would love it and share a proud story behind it.

Thank you, Tom. For your inspiration to stay clean in a society that tries to make us compromise that value.

- Craig.