When you first start to use your voice, you're afraid people will turn away from you. They will think you're a monster. They will scorn and persecute you, take away your privileges.
When you first start to speak out, it hurts.
But soon you realize that if you don't use your voice, you will never change a thing. If you stay silent, you will enable the evil.
So you use your voice, because you owe it to the ones who came before. You use it because silence no longer is an option. You use it even though it hurts. And people turn away.
But in their place, new people come. The right people. Your soulmates, your compañeras, your comrades, your family. So you use your voice some more, and the abundance blossoms all around you.
And then you run through the streets yelling USE YOUR VOICE! USE YOUR VOICE BEFORE YOU'RE DEAD! like a madwoman. But who cares? You don't. And maybe you are a madwoman. But you aren't silent and you never will be again.
Your voice is the only thing you truly own. It's like a fingerprint, you know? Nobody has one like yours.
There is absolutely zero benefit to trying to have a reasonable relationship with an unreasonable person.
It’s a horrific lesson in the power of entropy, at best.
At worst, an extended interaction with an abusive or narcissistic person can leave you scarred for life. Or dead, hung on your own need for closure, common sense, or any spark of rational behavior.
But it ain’t gonna happen.
And sometimes the best closure you’re going to get is to accept the fact that closure is not going to come. Not from them.
I get it though. Sometimes you can’t prevent somebody from hurting you. The first time. And sometimes you even get sucked into continuing a relationship with a consistently hurtful person.
It’s ok. We’ve all done it, at some point.
We’ve all put up with weird behaviors and ignored reddish flags along the proverbial quest for magnificent love.
Still, the fact remains, and is worth repeating:
There is nothing to be gained from negotiating, collaborating, or even corresponding at all, with an irrational, abusive person, and the sooner a person can embrace this fact, the better equipped she will be to live a happy, drama-free life.
Think about it.
Wouldn’t you rather put that energy into something beautiful, positive, and productive, like spending time with people who see you, listen to you, and respect your boundaries?
But sometimes it can be hard to decide when to cut people out of your life, and these days it seems like everyone’s talking about “narcissism.”
Sigh. Consider the possibility that none of that is your problem. Not at all.
But...what if you love them?
Yeah, it can be tough. And breaking free of an abuse cycle is no small task, that’s for sure. But sometimes you just gotta cut the cord, so how can you tell when that's the case?
You need a litmus test, of sorts.
A way to tell if you’re just having a temporary hard time with someone, and it’s worth it to persevere, or if you’ve gotten sucked into a whirlpool of insipid, narcissistic abuse, and you need to get OUT before the undertow does you in.
So, what exactly are the behaviors of a narcissist, and why are they so hurtful?
If you’ve ever been under an abuser’s spell, you already know how awful it can be, and how hard to break free.
If there’s anything that can help, it’s facts.
Forget about why they are doing these things. You won’t ever figure out why and it doesn’t matter. Focus instead on WHAT they are doing, and recognize if you might be enabling them by continuing to play along. Don’t worry about the explanations and excuses and stories you’re making up in your own head about it.
Focus on actions that actually occurred, words that were actually spoken, and sensations you, personally, felt.
Focus on the time spent feeling bad. That was real. Do the math. How much time was it? One hour? Five hours? How many hours per week, per year? What percentage of your waking life was that? Was it worth it?
Besides doing the math and focusing on the facts, I have found that having a tangible checklist makes a huge difference in how clearly I can see whether or not to end a tricky relationship.
This is what I call my “Aw Hell No! Checklist,” and it describes specific actions that abusive and/or narcissistic people tend to take.
Personally, after surviving more abusive relationships than I care to enumerate, I now have a zero-tolerance policy for people who do any of these things, even once. Twice? They’re out. Life’s too short for that kind of drama!
So, if somebody in your life is acting in these ways, consider cleaning house and making space for somebody who’s capable of an actual friendship. In case you want to do some googling, the clinical terms for these behaviors are gaslighting, bypassing, bullying, manipulation, passive-aggression, violation of consent, and good old-fashioned physical and emotional abuse.
Set the bar wherever it works for you, but take it from me, who grew up with narcissistic parents and spent my entire 20’s and most of my 30’s playing out the exact. Same. abusive. Crap. over. And over. And over….
And then I learned:
It’s not my fault all that bad stuff happened. But it is my responsibility to at least try to say NO, the next time somebody tries to suck me in. And the time after that.
Because why would you want to be around somebody who abuses? Even if you don’t want to call them out--that’s fine.
Ask yourself: how do you want to pass your very short amount of time here in this life?
And trust me, if you stick to this list, you’ll open a whole new niche in your life for authentic, mutual and loving relationships! I’m now two years into a calm, happy relationship with a healthy and kind man, something I never would have believed was possible. And it’s been six years since my last PTSD-induced depressive episode.
Because I learned to say Aw Hell No!
And you can too.
Releasing old pain by dealing with grief, caring for your body, making art, and getting dirty.
by Heather Jo Flores
Sometimes it seems like everybody has some version of Post-Traumatic Stress.
If you’re at all aware of the world outside of yourself, if you live in modern society, if you spend any time on social media, chances are you’ve got trauma lodged up all in you.
For many years of my life, I thought I had depression. I would spend days at a time crying, eating, sleeping and hating myself for having no control over the process. I sabotaged relationships and hated my family and the world for what had been done to me. I tried different kinds of therapy but held a general disdain for it. I never tried pharmaceuticals, but I dabbled in many forms of self medication.
And then a few years ago, I was diagnosed with Complex PTSD. Complex PTSD is a disorder that comes about from constant exposure to a long term trauma that often involves repeated abuse and/or abandonment throughout childhood often from a caregiver.
The type of PTSD that is usually discussed occurs after a more specific event and results in different symptoms. Due to the long term trauma Complex PTSD ends up affecting a person’s basic identity. One ends up seeing themselves in a constant negative light.
I realized that I wasn’t suffering because of a chemical imbalance in my brain, I was creating the chemical imbalance through denial, negative thought patterns, and self-abuse (weed, binge-eating, bad boys).
When I finally identified the cause, deeply rooted in a failure to properly grieve several traumatic losses, I was able to begin a healing process. A big part of that process was about learning how to grieve. My grief wasn’t associated with the death of a loved one.
It was associated with the loss of other things:
These things, compounded by my years spent as an environmental activist and the direct trauma that comes from witnessing firsthand the devastation of the planet (and the brutalization of the people trying to stop that devastation) had sent me into a downward spiral of grief, and I had never taken the time to really deal with it.
And so, since I had just started grad school when these realizations occurred, I focused most of my MFA on using art, music and movement to overcome trauma associated with loss. I learned a lot of amazing stuff! I’m doing a ton of writing and teaching on these topics now, but this article is just a teaser.
The main point here is that it helps a TON to learn about the grieving process and look at your patterns. See if you might be stuck somewhere, like I was.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross first proposed the five stages of grief in her 1969 book “On Death and Dying.” Since then these stages have become widely accepted as a path that we can move through to cope with loss and put it behind us.
The stages of grief are:
Anger, Denial and Isolation, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Reconstruction, and finally, Acceptance.
I would add another stage to this: Sovereignty. Liberation. A freedom from the pull of the lost relationship.
If you find yourself stuck in one of these places, see if you can keep moving forward. Like climbing a mountain, it won’t be easy and parts of it will suck really bad. But when you reach the summit, you will feel triumphant at having persevered.
There is so much juice in this topic and I could write on it for days! But for now, I’ve assembled a little toolbox of stuff that can be super helpful for navigating the grieving process and reconnecting to whoever you might have been before the trauma messed you up.
How to let go (tools to help you get through the grieving process)
If you can talk yourself into it, see a professional therapist who specializes in grief and trauma. I know I said I have a disdain for therapy, but I eventually found the right therapist to help me work it all out. I only saw her a few times but I don’t know how I could have done it without her. Most cities offer free and low-cost options, and if you do have to spend some money, what could be more worth it than your own healing and happiness?
However, this is not to say I want you to develop a co-dependent relationship on some expensive therapist or life coach. Nor do I want you to end up on a cocktail of pharmaceuticals that are probably causing more harm than good. All I am saying here is that sometimes, somebody who is trained in grief-therapy and/or treating Complex PTSD could really help you snap out of a dark pattern.
And if you do find yourself in a dark hole, please: don’t let Facebook and people who know you personally be your only therapy. They are not qualified. Find a well-recommended professional, and GO talk to them! Or, just treat yourself to a massage and some good vigorous exercise classes. These will seriously help. This brings me to my next point:
Diet and Exercise.
You already know this. Moving your body releases endorphins that help you feel happier. Getting in shape helps you feel better about yourself. Avoiding toxins like corn syrup, sugar and too much cholesterol gives your liver a chance to process the good food you are eating and give you energy instead of making you feel sluggish and depressed. For me, I found that certain types of exercise, namely dance and yoga (and the breathwork that comes with yoga) were especially helpful to my healing process.
Any movement practice helps to not feel stuck and blocked. Horrible events that happen to us leave a residue of sorts behind and exercise can help clear that out. At worse you’ll end up feeling healthier. I really started to change how I felt when I began doing yoga on a regular basis. I was cynical about it at first, but it works and has for thousands of years. I doubt you will find anyone who says they regret starting a yoga practice.
There are many ways to go about finding the right sort of yoga for you. There’s a lot of yoga online or you can most likely find a local class that you like. Some places even offer trauma informed classes. Yoga can give you a sense of awareness and control of your body that had been lost. Commit to a program and stick it out for at least four months. Think about all the time you have spent feeling bad, and try to strike a balance by spending that much time exercising and preparing healthy food.
As for food, the most important part of that puzzle is to make sure that you get some sort of natural protein in your face within a half hour of waking up. Not a breakfast person? I don’t care. Eat a handful of nuts and get on with your morning. Protein feeds the new neurons that are forming in your brain just after you wake up, and you need those new neurons to form the fresh pathways that you are trying to create with your healing process. No protein, no new pathways. That’s just scientific fact.
Yoga lead me to the practice of pranayama which is loosely translated to mean breath control. It has been the single most important healing technique for me. It has been proven that controlled breathing calms the nervous system. A regular practice of even just conscious deep breathing can reduce anxiety, stress, and depression. There are many other simple breathing techniques that can be used. Find a couple that work for you.
Drugs, sugar, alcohol: these coping mechanisms are only making things worse. They are taxing your liver, hijacking your digestive system, and literally messing with your head. Brain and body chemistry are a big part of this, so be diligent and I promise you, you will see results.
It can be helpful to make a list of different coping mechanisms that you use. Take note of which are healthy and which ones are destructive. For instance, exercise would be a healthy coping mechanism while getting wasted would be a destructive one. Save your healthy coping mechanisms on cards or on a list and pick one to use the next time you need help coping with your emotions or a bad situation.
I’m not saying you have to be stone sober your whole life! Just that, while you’re dealing with the grief, consider keeping a clear head.
We are so wrapped up in sight and sound that it is easy to lose track of our other senses. One of these is our “felt sense.” It’s our gut feeling, our intuition, and our deeper emotional response connected to our tangible feelings. Being in touch with these feelings places you more in your body. Our “destiny” is linked to who we are in our bodies moment to moment. It puts you more in touch with the ever elusive moment of NOW and opens you up to the moments of happenstance that could have easily been missed. Go exploring. Notice what’s around you with all of your senses. Stop and write. Noticing ourselves with all of our senses and immersing ourselves in the moment can counteract the feelings of disconnection that arise from Complex PTSD.
Getting your hands in the soil has been scientifically proven to make you happier. Go out and plant something. If you don’t have a garden, go help a friend. Caring for plants on any level is nourishing. Even growing a few flowers in some pots will give you a positive experience. Focusing on the needs of others, be they people, plants or animals is another great way to overcome grief and loss. Gardening covers all of these bases, and also connects to better nutrition and exercise habits. It is much harder to live a self-actualized life without a relationship to plants. If your life is not how you want it to be there is a high likelihood you are not spending enough time barefoot in the dirt.
Whatever approach you take, I wish you luck on your healing path! Remember that self-care (I prefer to think of it as self-love) is activism. Don’t let anyone tell you different. I was an activist for many years and then my mental health put me out of the game for a long time. Now, after learning all of these techniques, my community work is stronger, more meaningful and more effective than ever. And, it’s emotionally sustainable.
Channel all of that passionate, if dark, energy into something productive. Learn an instrument, take some dance classes. Make pottery. Paint big creepy pictures of that proverbial monster under your bed. Whatever feels right, do it. Don’t let all that power go to waste. And when you have turned those horrific feelings into something beautiful, you will feel better. Even if you fill your room with the worst art and poetry that was ever made, you will still feel better.
My entire Decolonize Yourself Creative Immersion, a 60-class intensive that teaches you how to heal yourself, find your purpose, and manifest your best work, is built around an acronym of the word “CREATE.” Because creating, expressing, and manifesting new things is the very best way to let go of that crusty old trauma. (And it's priced on a sliding scale, starting at only $1 per class!)
The last thing I want to say (for now) is something that took me a long time to accept:
There is no short cut.
Emotional trauma is a lot like physical trauma. It takes time to heal. Inagine if you broke your femur. If you didn’t set the bone right, if you didn’t get help and give it the healing time it deserved, it could cripple you for life. But if you take the time to heal it right, you’ll eventually be right back on your feet, and stronger for the experience. It’s never to late to start healing, and I’m here to tell you: you CAN be happy. Without drugs and without years of expensive therapy.
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by Heather Jo Flores
What do you want?
Back in 2015 I spent the entire Spring and Summer touring around the USA for Food Not Lawns. I taught workshops, turned lawns into gardens, and made hundreds of new friends. When I got to Indiana, I took three days off to catch up with my friend Garry, a sort of Uncle From Another Muncle character, who has been my writing mentor for thirty years.
Garry describes me as having been “a very serious child,” and loves to tell the story about how I made a Rubix Cube costume out of a painted cardboard box and won First Place in the Cerritos Mall Halloween Contest. I used to show him the weird little stories I wrote and he always critiqued them with clarity and sincerity, always encouraged me to “just keep writing.”
These days, Garry is a successful screenwriter with a dozen feature films under his belt. He just turned sixty. He has a wife and three grown children, and writes Hollywood movies in his cozy studio on the old family farm in Northwest Indiana. I found it beautiful there, pastoral, as long as you don’t mind the mosquitoes. Cornfields sprawl in every direction. I found zen in the monoculture, peace in the predictability of rural Indiana. It is basically the opposite of the West Coast. There are no hipsters, no gentrification to speak of, and coffee still costs a dollar. I found comfort in that. But of course it was an illusion.
Garry and I stayed up late, cracking obscure literary jokes, carrying on about the hero’s journey, and geeking out on the ancient art of storytelling. I told him about my MFA thesis, about my assertion that a true female heroine wouldn’t use violence to solve her problems, she would use her mind, her wit, her lineage, and her experience. She would negotiate, rather than fight. And she wouldn’t just solve her own problems or quest for her own treasure, she would only find satisfaction in a victory that helped others. We talked about how the proverbial beast, the dragon to be slain, in whatever form manifested, shows up in all great stories ever told, and how that beast is a metaphor for what lies within each of us. We mused over whether perhaps the problem with this profit-driven, destructive culture is that we have been spending too much time trying to slay and control our beasts, but not enough time trying to understand and befriend them.
My last night in Logansport, I went out to dinner at a Mexican restaurant with Garry and his whole family. All of the clientele, including our party, were white, blonde, tall and thin. I, with my raven black hair and short, curvy body, was by far the brownest person in the room. Until I saw that the staff was entirely Latino. When our waiter came to our table, he asked each person in turn, in English, what they would like to order. But when he came to me he said, with a broad smile:
“Que quieras, mija?”
What do you want, my child?
My grandmother used to call me mi’ja. It’s a term of endearment used commonly in Latino families. And it warmed my heart to feel seen here, by this brown-skinned waiter in this Mexican restaurant in Indiana, as one of his family.
Later that night, while Garry and I were having our chat, he brought it up.
“Did you see the metaphor there?” He asked me.
“Aren’t you searching for something?” he asked.
Garry laughed and shook his head. “No, Heather, not the way you are. You think everyone is searching? Most people are sleeping. Most people are just going through their lives without embracing any quest at all. But you, you are on the quest of your life right now. And as a writer, you are your own protagonist. The heroine of your own journey. So, in keeping with the pattern of any good protagonist, tell me: what is your greatest desire? What is your simple, concrete goal?”
Que quieras, mija?
What do I want? I want a home, a focus, and to feel like I am doing meaningful work in a community that appreciates me. It’s an easy sentence to type out but what do those things actually mean? Dare I unpack that?
A place to live, a practice to love, and a way to contribute that makes use of my skills and provides for my needs in return. Seems simple enough. Permaculture, sustainability, community, right livelihood — these terms are familiar to us, but what do they really mean? For me they imply regenerative human ecosystems, habitat, shelter, interaction. Connection. I want to be an animal in the system in which I live. Not exactly like Tarzan and Jane but…close. But more than that, I want to feel like my unique set of skills and experiences is doing the most it can do.
Is this what I would call “home”?
Wherever you go, there you are. Physically. And wherever you find yourself, that’s the path. Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan talked a lot about the “path with a heart.”
Is that the way home, then?
Home is where the heart is, that’s what they say.
Hmm. My heart is in my body, and my body can’t seem to stay in one place for more than a few seasons. Ok, I know that old saying means home is where your family is, where the people you love, live. But for me those people are spread out all over, and to be honest I wouldn’t want to live with most of them anyway.
Perhaps home is where the art is? And again we come back to the body. I use my body to make the art, but where do the ideas come from? My brain, also my body? Or somewhere else? I have never been able to settle on a belief system for that one. All I know is that I don’t know.
Where does the art come from, and where does it go? In my case, everywhere. I have left my art in every house I have ever lived — more than a hundred houses now. My life has taken me to so many places, and I leave a trail of art-crumbs so that my family can find me, in case I get lost in the woods. I leave the art behind, but my body goes with me, and everything I have done goes back to it.
We cannot talk about home without talking about privilege.
In this culture where a basic human shelter is not considered a basic human right, the question of what it means to have a home becomes inextricably connected to the question of what it means to be a human. And for me, my decisions to be childfree, and to eschew the norms of an “average American woman,” have profoundly affected my perceptions of both home and humanity.
Having a safe, secure and stable home is a privilege, but it should be a right. We are born and we exist. We didn’t choose that. And while we are here, we need a place to sleep, to eat, to shit, to make love. We need a place to be, to live, to express and create. And the entire capitalist system is built around forcing humans to work in order to have a place to live. And, according to the particular destiny of vicinity in which we might find ourselves, some people have to work a lot harder for a lot less space to live in than others.
Me, I grew up on the road. Single mom, two kids, and we never stayed in one place more than a year. It wasn’t because we enjoyed traveling. It was because my mom had such a hard time keeping a roof over our heads that, a lot of the time, we didn’t have one. It was just cheaper to sleep in the van. Mom was a hippie, a groupie, a teenage single mother and survivor of severe sexual, verbal and physical abuse. We parked the van, the car, the station wagon (we also went through a lot of cheap used cars) in somebody’s driveway and stayed awhile, then moved on. Sometimes we had an apartment. Later on mom got better at finding cute little houses for cheap rent. She fixed the place up, made curtains for the windows.
By the time I dropped out of high school in tenth grade, I had attended nineteen different schools. As an adult, the longest I have ever lived in one house was about three years, and that only happened twice: once at the Ant Farm (our punk house named after the colony of carpenter ants who lived in the kitchen ceiling) and then again at the Hope Farm (it was an acronym for Holistic Organic Permaculture Education.) Both times, it was a love affair and garden that kept me there so long, and the falling apart of said relationship that forced me to move. The agriculture was the part that made it feel like home, and the sex was the nexus, the vortex, the nucleus of the experience. Biology runs the show.
So, what do I mean when I say I want a home? Do I mean that I want to find a house and get a mortgage? No. Hell no. That is not at all what I am talking about. When I say I want to find a place that feels like home, I mean I want a tribe, a connection that feels like I can finally, for the first time since I was born, stop running. I want to belong. To be loved. To grow food and share it. To express my ideas and opinions and have them feel useful, valued, accessible. A farm and some dogs. A field of seeds and a grove of trees. A group of friends who laugh together and trust each other without question.
Forget all the reasons I shouldn’t want these things or why I think I don’t deserve them. Forget how untouchable they may seem at this moment. I want them and I don’t have to justify that to anyone. All I have to do is find them.
The Destiny of Vicinity
Sometimes I talk about “the destiny of vicinity.” Whatever I find myself around, that’s what influences me. That’s my quest, my personal yellowbrick road. That’s what I do, whom I meet, who I love and fuck and live with. And those relationships influence my thoughts, my feelings, my choices. No man is an island, and women? Even less so. How about you? Are you at “home”? Or just in a house somewhere? What is the compass you use to navigate your life? How has the placement of your physical body affected your path through the world? Have you mastered the fine art of being in the right place at the right time?
We all follow a path through life that unfolds according to where we find ourselves living, working, studying. Often these locations were not choices made by ourselves, but rather are connected to our families, employers and opportunities. I am fascinated by the way a person’s life is ultimately connected to where they find themselves. This connects to community work, partnership, and so much more.
Comfort vs. Free Will
People always say to me “I envy you, you have so much freedom. I feel trapped in my life and you just seem to go and do whatever you want.”
But freedom can become a prison of its own, and what a lot of people don’t realize is that my ecdemomania is largely fueled by economic and social imperative. It costs a lot of money to stay in one place. And it really helps if you fit in, or you might find yourself in danger. I don’t have a lot of money, and I certainly do not fit in. And so what many people seem to see as me making “choices,” I see more as me making the best use of the limited options I have available.
And so, back to the destiny of vicinity.
If I refuse to accept the options that fell into my lap by accident, then where do I place myself in order for the things that I want to become available to me?
Where do I go?
Do I continue the path of happenstance, feel my way, clue by clue, through the world?
Do I accept my destiny as a vagabond, a life spent entirely on the move, and just keep running? Trust that this ability to run is the pattern that was given to me, my super power that will guide me through?
Or do I hover and wait and focus and pray?
I am determined to figure it out, one day, one step, one mile at a time.
I wrote this piece at the tail end of ten years of perpetual wandering with no partner, no stable home or job to speak of. I had just spent several months in an adobe house in the hot springs town of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, and was about to hit the road yet again, still searching for my true place in the world.
But then something shifted. It was as if, through writing this, through allowing myself to explore the layers of my predicament, I broke free from the pattern. Shortly after, I stumbled into what can only be described as the healthiest and happiest relationship of my life, moved to Spain, and settled into an abundant, effortless creative practice that seems to hold none of the daily turmoil that used to follow me around. What comes next remains to be seen, but for now, I have finally, at forty-six years old, come home.
So now it’s your turn:
Que quieras mija?
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