Bigger than Texas

Disclaimer: This blog post is memoir. It reflects present recollections of my personal experiences over time. My intent in sharing my history is to empower anyone coping with trauma caused by mental illness, abuse, religious harm, and discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender. Please be advised, the following read is raw and vulnerable and may be inappropriate for some readers.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010
Me, around three or four years old, clutching my King James Bible.

Growing up in Texas meant growing up with Texas pride. Nothing is bigger than Texas, and, no, Alaska doesn’t count so don’t even bring it up. Everything is better in Texas, Texas is the best, or so I was taught for as long as I can remember, and I believed it with all my heart. As a kid, I believed I lived in the best State in the US, hell I lived in the best place on Earth! I learned in elementary school that the Texas flag was the only State flag that could fly at the same height as the US flag, because Texas was its own country for a while after gaining its independence from Mexico. I felt pride swell deep in my little Texas heart at this honor granted to my home state and would ride my bike about the blacktop roads of my youth screaming out, “Remember the Alamo, remember Goliad!”, as if I was a brave soldier fighting for God and country. Yes, it’s true “Don’t Mess with Texas” because (caucasian) Texans are raised with an inflated sense of do or die pride. The reality is that, yes Texas is a beautiful place, but it is full of a sickness, a darkness that exists just beneath the surface of smoked brisket, bluebonnets, sunburnt summers, and holiday pecan pie. My personal Texas history is something I’ve spent years trying to run away from. After leaving Texas behind, I literally tried to keep being a Texan a secret as much as possible for many years, something which completely contradicted how I was raised. I practiced pronouncing words more accurately and precisely, and so painfully so, that most people have trouble pinpointing where I’m from based on my speech alone. Running away and hiding from my origins, although necessary in my case, solved zero of my problems in and of itself. I’m still learning that it doesn’t matter how fast or how far away I run from my past it’s always going to be a part of who I am. Standing still is a hell of a lot harder than running away however, especially when I’ve had a nomadic lifestyle to hide behind for most of my life. My past, my family specifically, has cast an overbearing shadow over me that proved bigger than Texas, and the process of figuring out who I am and what sort of life I want has been a country mile of uphill battles. It seems the best way to sort through my present social anxiety, mild depression, and on again off again relationship with drinking is for me to take a sober look at what I’ve survived, the very thing I keep trying to run away from. In short, running away offered me immediate, yet temporary relief from the chaos and trauma I was trapped in. As soon as I stopped to catch my breath, the tangled web of my-stuff verses all the toxic white-trash-stuff, that was forcibly dumped on me, is still there waiting for me to do something about it. The baggage I have to sort through and throw out often seems too daunting and too painful to deal with. Sorting through it all however, is the only hope I have of ever figuring out how to rise above the heartache I inherited enough to become the wise woman I long to be. That’s the the thing with tangled webs though, the more you try to free yourself, the more trapped you actually are. So where do I start? How do I begin? As Julie Andrews sang, “Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.”

I was born in Henderson, Texas on Easter Sunday April 11, 1982 to a couple of lost, impoverished 19 year old kids. According to my mother’s own confessions, and other family member’s recalled memories, my parents had a shotgun wedding. Not only that, my mother actually had to break off her engagement to another guy before marrying my father. Rumor has it, both my parents were heavy drinkers who enjoyed getting around the small town they lived in. The facts of my birth and my parents marriage is something my mother often tries to stretch and bend to fit into the fundamentalist expectations of her current lifestyle. Until I was old enough to understand how to count the lack of forty weeks between their wedding anniversary and my birthday, I was lied to about it and told that they had met, fallen in love, gotten married, and then had me a respectable year later. This tale was spun to uphold the ideal Christian narrative my mother desperately wanted me to believe about her, that she wants everyone to believe about her. Once I was able to fit the pieces together however, the lie didn’t work anymore. For my mother’s version of my birth to be true, I would have had to of been born premature. When she confirmed that I was not a preemie and being the curious, inquisitive child I was, naturally I asked why the time frame didn’t add up. My questions were not appreciated at all and I was shamed for asking them or “talking back” as my mother liked to call it. She then changed her story a bit to pacify me and told me that her doctor said I could have been conceived two weeks before or two weeks after their wedding date. As a young child, I bought this newly polished lie easily enough. As an adult however, the truth is more than a little obvious. My mother still insists that I accept her lies and insistently brings up how lucky she was to get pregnant with me two weeks after her marriage. Two weeks after their wedding still doesn’t add up to forty weeks. It’s 8 months, 21 days to be precise. So I just can’t, or won’t rather, make-believe with her about it anymore. The mere fact of the matter is that my parents met each other, had unprotected sex, as poor, undereducated 18 year olds in the South often do, and when she was late a month later they found out they were pregnant. She then broke it off with her fiance at the time, which she claims she did for Jesus, and married my father instead. That’s the simple truth of it as best as I can put it together. Her insistent lie about my birth, one in an enormous web of many, is especially painful for me, because of the relentless pressure she put on me to be the perfect Christian lady. If not for all the emotional terror, spiritual shame, and physical abuse inflicted on me by my mother every time I strayed from the straight and narrow, this lie of hers might not burden me as heavily as it does. It really negatively affected me as an adult when my parent’s imperfections, or sins as they call it, came to light and it did so only because of the unrealistic expectations put on me to be perfect. My parents raised me in a very strict, authoritarian, abusive religion and they taught me about God through shame, corporal punishment, and isolation. You see, they believe Hell is a literal place and, therefore, it is their assumed responsibility to save my soul from eternal fire and brimstone, and, of course, to keep me from being anything like the shameful people they believe they were in their youth. Neither of them grew up as devoutly entrenched in religion as they forced me to. Nothing mattered more to my family than my mother’s borderline personality disorder, bipolar episodes, and making it to church on time. Every single aspect of my life was saturated with the religious teachings of the Church of Christ. I was taught to pray for the forgiveness of whatever sins I might have committed during the day every night before bed and to pray to God every morning I woke up to help me not to sin during the day. If I happened to stray from the straight and narrow, my mother’s switch, belt, paddle, or wooden spoon was always there to whip me back on the path of righteousness. Momma firmly believed in corporal punishment and she beat me into submission regularly and often bragged about doing it. According to her faith, the harder she beat on her children the more secure their souls were from Hell and the better mother she was. So, I learned very early in life, that if I wasn’t diligent enough in maintaining my faith, of doing exactly as I was told, then I would get a beating from my mother and/or I would burn to death in Hell for all eternity. I grew up terrified of Hell, terrified of my mother’s rage, and resentful of the bible that gave her permission to unleash her violence and terror on me. My mother’s sister told me a story once recalling a time when I was three years old when I confided in her that I wished God hadn’t made any trees. When she asked me why in the world I would wish that I replied, “If God didn’t make any trees there wouldn’t be any switches.” That’s how severely my mother tried to save me from all the mistakes she had made, by the time I was three years old I wished there weren’t any trees.

Proverbs 13:24 He who spares his rod hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him promptly

Despite my mother’s harsh and unrelenting discipline, I was a stubborn little girl with a tomboy streak a mile wide. It took her several years to break my spirit down. I wanted to stomp and play, climb trees, and run faster and hit the baseball farther than the boys, but my mother expected me to be a prim and proper little Christian lady. However, I got grass stains on the dresses she would force me to wear, and, basically, I defied her every opportunity I got. She was hell bent on molding me into the ideal Christian she thought she should be. Momma often reminded me that her grandest aspiration for me was to one day marry a good Christian man and raise good Christian babies. She hoped I’d be blessed enough to find a man who was a preacher or elder of the church and it was her responsibility to make sure I was prepared for my married life. However, I had a vivid imagination, a headstrong temperament, and questioned everything about the world around me. Who I was did not fit into the mold my Momma had in mind for me and we butted heads more often than we didn’t. At first I was brave and spoke up for myself and ran from her when she came after me, her yes crazed with a switch in her hand. Often I tried to quote the bible at her in my defense. “Jesus says to forgive Momma!” I would plead with her trying to avoid the lashing she’d promised me. Obviously, I lost every one of these battles, and it didn’t take long for me to realize my Momma was a truly dangerous person. Perfection was expected of me. Everything from my behavior to how I spoke to how well I cleaned my room. Everything about my existence was meticulously scrutinized by my Momma. When I didn’t put my toys away properly she’d come into my bedroom, pull all my toys back out, pile them in the middle of my room, and then tell me to put them away again. I’d have to do this multiple times before I managed to put everything away good enough for her. So needless to say, after enough of this sort of abuse, my defiance subsequently slipped into a defeated disposition, and I faded away in a shell of fantasy and imagination.

Along with the unrealistic expectations placed on me by my mother, and the physical abuse from her that followed my inevitable failure, I was also sexually abused. My memories on this are freighting, elusive, and dark, like a haunted, winding hallway leading down to the demonic corners of a dank and terrible dungeon. What I can remember is mostly feeling confused, ashamed, and desperately wishing someone would save me. I’m guessing I was around the age of six or seven when the first instance of abuse occurred. The older neighborhood boys, brothers who lived in the trailer house behind ours, lured me into my daddy’s work shed one morning and took turns teaching me things, “girls should know boys like.” Most of what I remember is being in that sweaty, dank and dark shed with a mixture of oil and dirt and mold suffocating my nostrils and hearing my momma call out my name. Relief and panic flooded my tummy and I was of course coerced by the brothers to play it cool. I didn’t want to get into trouble, now did I? I popped my head out of the shed and saw my momma leaning out the back door of our trailer house.

“Yes’mam?” I innocently inquired of her.

“What are ya’ll doing in there?”, she shouted angrily.

“Just playing hide-and-seek, Momma.”, I lied.

“Well ya’ll better not mess up any of your daddy’s stuff!”, she shouted angrily again.

“Yes’mam, Momma”, and she closed the door leaving me there to fend for myself.

Next, I remember being called in for lunch, having a bath, and then being put down for a nap. Momma sat on the bed and asked me again what I’d been doing in that shed with those boys. I lied to her again. She didn’t press the matter further. Later on, and I’m not sure how much later, I confessed to one of my cousins about what had really happened in that shed, then that cousin told their momma, who in turn told mine. I remember her being livid at me for lying to her when she asked me what we were doing in the shed and shaming me for being in there with them in the first place. I remember crying a lot and begging her not to tell anyone else about what had happened. I remember that my daddy went next door and told the brothers’ father that the boys weren’t allowed on our property anymore. Then sometime later, we moved and it wasn’t spoken of again. As an adult looking back on this, I wonder why the hell Momma didn’t walked out to that shed and send those boys home herself, rather than relying on a six year old girl to manage the situation alone. She obviously had some suspicion of what was going on and should have in the least been protective enough of her child to comprehend how inappropriate it was for a six year old girl to be alone with two older boys in a shed with no windows and a closed door. Yet, she went back inside that trailer and left me out there alone to fend for myself in a situation no little girl she ever have to deal with. If only this was an isolated incident in my childhood, but devastatingly enough, it isn’t. Later on, after we had moved back to Henderson from whichever one horse town we’d just passed through again (we moved around constantly), I was again the target of sexual assault. This story is a bit longer. I guess it truly begins with the birth of my sister. My sister was the golden child and daddy’s favorite and obviously, I was the scapegoat and bore the brunt of my mother’s mental illness. My sister was exceptionally spoiled, and to the extent that, even on my birthdays, my parents gave her presents to open too anytime I received any type of gift. However, I was told I was old enough to know better and did not receive any presents in return on her birthdays. My mother’s family, especially her sister, did not like this practice at all. So, my aunt opted to shower me with extra attention and gifts in an attempt, in her own way, to make up for the extreme favoritism my parents showed my sister. This in turn pissed my mother off. Momma did not like the favoritism I received from her family at all and regularly guilt tripped me about it, shamed me because of it, and kept me from seeing my aunt and grandmother off and on throughout my childhood. Momma went as far as to appeal to my dad’s sister to show my little sister favoritism (in front of me) because Momma’s family favored me and it wasn’t fair. So my dad’s sister obliged and whenever we stayed with her she and my sister would spend the day locked away in her room watching tv and eating sweets and I was left alone to entertain myself. No little girl was safe alone in that house, however. A cousin, my dad’s sister’s son, 12 years my senior took me under his wing and into his bed. I have no idea how long this went on between he and I, but I do know it was a dark and miserable time in my life. I began acting out at home, at school, everywhere really. When I did finally break down and confess what was going on between my cousin and I to my parents, they didn’t believe me. They accused me of making it up, just mimicking my mother, and so it was several years before I ever brought it up again. Soon after my confession, however, we relocated from Henderson to SouthEast Texas. If I had been in a shell before, that shell was now buried deep within the cold, icy dirt of depression. After our move, my parents broke up several times and we changed schools so often that I can’t even recall how many different ones I went to. We were homeless off and on living with people from the church or my daddy’s family and then my great grandmother died of leukemia. After her funeral, my mother’s mental health took a severe nosedive.

Around the age of 10 or 11 (or maybe 12 as it’s difficult to sort out a timeline as chaotic and nomadic as mine) shortly after we had relocated to Southeast Texas, I knew without a doubt my Momma was a very sick individual and no amount of praying could keep me safe. I was forced to let go of the little that was left of my childhood innocence and face the ugly world around me. As young as I was, I didn’t grasp the true meaning of mental illness and only knew that the woman who was supposed to protect me couldn’t even take care of herself. It was the first time I began to feel doubts about God, even though I wasn’t quite sure what that meant. One lonely afternoon not long after another relocation, I walked into the tiny bathroom of our trailer house and caught my Momma changing the bandage on her arm, that she’d been wearing for a couple of days. She’d explained to me that she was wearing the bandage because she had hurt herself while working in the yard. So, and to my surprise and complete horror, I saw she had literally carved the word “PAIN” down the length of her arm, with a either a knife or razor blade. It hadn’t been an accident at all. She had cut herself and deeply, had let me see what she’d done, and there was just no going back from there. At that moment I lost all respect for and trust in the woman my Momma is. I recoiled from her like she was a rattlesnake waiting to strike at me and to this day my skin crawls and my heart goes numb whenever I’m near her. Of course, the church was there in the background telling Momma to just pray harder and have faith and everything would work out. I would pray, we would pray, the church would pray but the trauma and abuse never stopped. Momma would try this pill and that pill and mix and match them and go off them cold turkey as much and as often as she liked. All the while, she and her entire family warned me to be wary and afraid of my Pawpaw, my mother’s father, who was a diagnosed Paranoid Schizophrenic. However, my best and most beautiful childhood memories are the summers I spent with him and my Memaw at Lake Palestine. He never once hurt or scared me, and I never saw him hurt himself like Momma did. As a kid, I just pushed my feelings of doubt, anger, insecurity, and fear down as best I could and for as long as possible, but I’m not the sort of person who can suppress my true nature for very long.

Normal is not something to aspire to, it’s something to get away from. -Jodie Foster

By the time I was 14, I was darkly depressed, knew I liked other girls, and was also struggling with memories of the sexual trauma I had endured. I think the memories of the abuse resurfaced because of the internal panic I felt wondering if anyone, especially my parents, could tell that I didn’t like boys in the way I was supposed to. The stress was very real, my night terrors returned, and that’s when my memories did as well. I naturally went to my parents about the assault again, thinking maybe this time they would believe me. Did they offer me help in dealing with the pain, shame, and anger I felt or take me to therapy? Of course not, they did absolutely nothing. They responded with, “Well what do you want us to do about it now?” It was obvious to me then that my parents were incapable of keeping me safe as a little girl and were still incapable of keeping me safe as a teenager. I instantly developed a deep seeded resentment towards both of them and detached from them quite rapidly. If they couldn’t help me sort out the sexual abuse I had endured, then I knew better than to think they could help me sort out liking girls. I knew they’d call me a sinner, shame me, and tell me to never speak of it again, just like they had when I told them about the assault. I just pushed my feelings down, yet again, and tried to hide them from everyone. While I was going through all this, Momma was in and out of her manic-depressive bipolar episodes and many days she lay in bed not eating or talking or functioning at all. I detached from her even more and spent a lot of time fantasizing about living in a world far away from my parents. By my freshman year in high school I was also spending a lot of time thinking about having a girlfriend, but equally spent a lot of time convincing myself I was going to Hell for thinking that way. The constant internal struggle I felt over it all only pushed me further inside my shell, but I found an outlet in our church. I started winning the favor and respect of older members and clung to their “positive” reinforcement like a security blanket. I started shadowing a couple of women at church, who were my mother’s age, and began modeling myself after them and dreaming of living lives like they had. I was astute in Sunday school and took my lessons extremely seriously. For a while, church was the only place that made me feel good about myself, even though, ironically, the Church of Christ taught me that women were to remain silent, were to fall in place behind the men, and that I was to be ever aware of how my sins had nailed an innocent man to a cruel Roman cross. I tried my best to pray my gay away and spent many late nights in my bedroom on my knees, my head bowed into the carpet, tears splashing the worn pages of my bible, as I begged Jesus to save me from my sins, while reading Psalms 51 over and over again.

Psalm 51 KJV Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.

Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.

For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me.

Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest.

Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.

Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts: and in the hidden part thou shalt make me to know wisdom.

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

Make me to hear joy and gladness; that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice.

Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities.

10 Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.

11 Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me.

12 Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me with thy free spirit.

13 Then will I teach transgressors thy ways; and sinners shall be converted unto thee.

14 Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation: and my tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness.

15 O Lord, open thou my lips; and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise.

16 For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering.

17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.

18 Do good in thy good pleasure unto Zion: build thou the walls of Jerusalem.

19 Then shalt thou be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness, with burnt offering and whole burnt offering: then shall they offer bullocks upon thine altar.

God never answered me though, and my feelings towards other girls only grew stronger. So all through high school I thought liking girls made me a freak, made me a sinner, made me unlovable. I tried to convince myself, if my faith was just stronger or my memorization of the bible better, then I could save my soul from Hell. I was confused, scared, and carrying a burden no teenager should ever have to deal with alone. After all the zealous effort I put into church without any results, I began to wonder why an all powerful, all knowing God would create me just to destroy and punish me in an eternal lake of fire in the first place. It just didn’t make any sense to me. I searched diligently within the worn pages of my bible looking for clues, but all I found were more and more unanswerable questions. I read the bible from Genesis to Revelation studying and analyzing it as if there was some epic exam I needed to prepare for. I also read a lot of Xena/Gabrielle fan fiction online at the same time. I kept trying to cure myself with the bible, but the more I studied the more confused I was, and the more questions I asked the more annoyed the adults seemed with me. They often responded to my inquiries with “that’s where faith comes into play” or “doubts are just the devil’s temptations” or with something as equally meaningless. By the time I was a freshmen in college, I began visiting other churches with friends in hopes that a different denomination might answer my questions more sufficiently than my church had. I also started staying away from my Momma as much as possible, which meant staying away from home as much as possible. I spent a lot of time over at my first boyfriend’s house, which didn’t last long because I refused to have sex with him. He eventually broke up with me over it, and I don’t think I even cried about it. I just wrapped myself up in work and classes and hanging out with the few friends I had at the time. College brought me out of my shell and opened my mind to the world around me, and the more freedom I had, the more I wanted. Then my Pawpaw was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and my mother went back to East Texas for three months to rotate with her siblings in caring for him. Naturally, this new found freedom in her absence only strengthened my desire to get away from her.

My Pawpaw died August 2002. I was utterly devastated. Losing him was extremely painful for me and Momma and I didn’t get along at all during his funeral. Hell she, dad, and my sister all sat together at the funeral without me. I sat behind them convulsively weeping, with Momma turning around ever so often giving me one of her reproachful stares, as she wrapped a loving arm around my sister. Thankfully one of my great Aunts sat next to me and comforted me through the service. After the funeral, Momma was back home full time, and the space I had enjoyed from her was over. The freedom I was demanding didn’t go over well with Momma or the church. My visits to other congregations outside the faith of the Church of Christ wasn’t accepted either. I was harassed and hounded by both my Momma and multiple church members about my “wavering faith” and “sinful lifestyle.” I was still in the closet at the time, and so the “sinful lifestyle” I was accused of was due to my little sister snitching on me to my parents about my nights out country line dancing and dabbling with alcohol. It was all much milder and less inebriated than your typical college student lifestyle, but according to my Momma and her church I was a Hell bound sinner bringing shame and reproach down on my family and community. Northeast Church of Christ in Beaumont, where I was a member with my family, excommunicated me in 2003 when I was 20 years old over dancing and a few glasses of Zinfandel. My parents and sister turned their backs on me as well. As much as it ripped my heart out, I knew I wanted nothing more to do with my Momma or her church. So, and quite traumatically, I moved out of their trailer and onto a friend’s sofa. My mother, and members at Northeast, proceeded to successfully chase me away from the area in their attempts to force me back into the fold of the Church of Christ. I had thought moving out of my parents trailer would cease the war they were waging against me, but I was wrong. My mother called my friend’s employer, who I was temporarily staying with while apartment hunting, and spread vicious rumors about her until my friend was no longer comfortable offering me her sofa to sleep on. Momma went on with her rampage against me by opening my cell phone bill and calling my classmates and friends demanding to know where I was and what I was doing. She was on a maniac’s mission to prevent me from living out on my own and the church threw fuel on her crazed fanatic fires of control and manipulation. Momma intentionally backed me into a corner thinking I would cave in and come back home, but that completely backfired on her. After enduring as much harassment and chaos and trauma as humanly possible, I stuffed a few belongings into the back of my broken down Ford, dropped out of college, and fled from them to go live with a cousin a couple hundred miles away. It was a two and half hour drive and I cried the entire way there.

Moving back to East Texas where I was born proved not far enough away, however, because Momma kept showing up at my Aunt’s house next door spreading rumors about me and cornering me, as often as she could, demanding I admit she was a good mother. My cousin and Aunt told me she was telling anyone who would listen that I was a lesbian and alcoholic. At the time, I vehemently denied both accusations and Momma denied ever saying either about me, but she knew I was gay, even if she refuses to admit it. Members of her church kept sending me threatening letters about how shameful my choices were and how I was bound for Hell. I’d often escape from all this with long drives to the middle of nowhere or deep dives down to the bottom of a bottle of whiskey or tequila or rum. I wasn’t drinking regularly at this point, but my previous dabbling was quickly morphing into a self destructive habit. Then a couple quiet months passed by and I thought for a moment the worst was over, and that my Momma and her church cronies were giving up and would leave me alone. I could not have been more wrong. I moved out of my parents house in February and the following May Momma staged her first suicide attempt trying to get me back under her control. It sounds harsh, I imagine, but staged is exactly the word I meant to use. She called my dad, her sister, and a few church members and alerted them she had just swallowed bottles of pain pills and muscle relaxers and they’d better call an ambulance for her. Momma had also perfectly staged her diary. It lay open with her handwriting projecting her blame on me, my moving out, my quitting the church for us all to read, as she had been careful to ensure the pages where in plain sight so her manipulation couldn’t be missed. While her stomach was being pumped at the hospital, her little church minions cornered me in the ER bathroom and demanded that I move back in with my parents and come back to the church, because my mother couldn’t handle what I was doing to her. My sister wouldn’t even look at me, my dad avoided me, and then I had to face Momma. She lay on the hospital bed with the charcoal staining her mouth, throat, and chest and grabbed my hand and started crying and begging me to move back in with her. Of course I convulsed straight into a panic attack and left her room. Back out in the waiting room, I was passive-aggressively assaulted with not-so-quiet gossiping whispers from said group of church minions about these supposedly awful things I had done to the church and to my poor Momma. So, I didn’t hang around very long. A friend picked me up from the ER and I spent the next five days dealing with the pain of it all by beating the hell out of my liver. Barely 21 years old, barely out of my parents house, because I had simply decided I no longer wanted to abide by my parents and their church’s rule, and now nearly everyone I had trusted and had been close to accused me of shoving those pills down my Momma’s throat. Young adults move out of their parents homes all the time, and it’s no cause to need your stomach pumped out at the hospital and send the church hounds out after your straying youth! To this day, I’m baffled as to why my Momma couldn’t handle her 20 year old daughter moving out and beginning an independent life. My mother should have been there to support, love, and guide me not attack, terrify, and isolate me. All she managed to do was solidified once again how dangerous she is and resolutely defined religion for me as nothing more than a means to passive-aggressively control and dominate others through guilt, shame, and isolation. It’s tragic to have your faith destroyed in the way mine was, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. However, I am eternally grateful that I had the strength and willpower and perseverance to get out from under my mother’s toxic thumb and far away from the cult like practices of Northeast Church of Christ.

After Momma’s suicide attempt, my soul was exposed and vulnerable and I was lost out in life all alone for the first time. The year after Momma’s stunt, I was extremely self destructive. I drank excessively, didn’t eat, popped diet pills like candy and had a short affair with one of the Veterinarians I worked for. I was 21, he was 35 and he was dating several other women at the same time. I cried on the way to his house and cried after leaving his house. Nothing I tried made my feelings towards other women go away. Several blind dates and random hook ups and marriage proposals later, I eventually felt like I had to come out of the closet or kill myself. It was a horribly twisted time in my life and I hurt several people in the wake of lying to myself. New Year’s Eve 2004, I went with a friend to my first gay bar and about seven months later, at 22 years old, I was living in a small apartment with my first girlfriend and her son. Coming out was life altering for me. It seemed that overnight I had transformed from a popular small town 22 year old, with friends and a decent job into this broke ass, friendless lesbian. After moving out of my parents house, I was homeless, either staying with my cousin or on a friend’s sofa, and so I was fully aware of what poor felt like, but I had had a support system to lean on. That all changed once word got around that I was gay. I lost a lot of friends, lost the last of the family support I had, and lost two different jobs back then just for having a girlfriend. Then to top it all off, while struggling with unemployment, my brand new car was repossessed. Real poverty hit me hard for the first time in my adult life. However, being out of the closet felt so right for me, my soul started feeling alive again and so the rejection and poverty and heartache seemed worth it at the time. The first eight or so months of being out and dating another woman for the first time was terrifying, exhilarating, and mostly happy. My life went from Cloud 9 to white trash Lifetime movie real fast though. Shortly after moving in together, my ex became physically abusive. As I’ve said, I’m a very inquisitive, analytical person, which just doesn’t bode well with shady people. My ex often ended our arguments with her fists, because she just wasn’t witty enough to keep up with all the lies she told me. As if things couldn’t get worse, I was also the primary caregiver for her son while we were together and had grown immensely attached to him. I read to him every night before bed, cared for him while he was sick, held him when he cried, bandaged his scraped knees, took him to soccer practice, did his homework with him and loved him like family. Because of him, I ignored and excused my ex’s behaviors and turned a blind eye to my own well being. Of course, I did try to leave my ex on one occasion, after she had hit me with a baseball bat. I decided it would be safe to move in with my sister, who was renting the trailer house at the front of my parent’s property, but not even 24 hours later the three of them were standing over me yelling about how I needed to go back to church and date men. After I broke down in a massive panic attack, begging my parents to take me back to my apartment, I was once again living with my toxic ex just so I could get away from the religious fanatics and the box they wanted to shove me in. Eventually, my ex lost complete control of her raging, violent temper and beat me so bad she scared herself. She left me the morning after it happened and abruptly severed all contact between her son and me. Losing that little boy broke my heart. Of course, her moving out wasn’t only about the beating she gave me. She was also back together with her ex girlfriend, and had gotten back together with her before breaking it off with me. After I realized that I had not only been beat up on but had been cheated on too, I had a Miranda Lambert style This Ain’t My Momma’s Broken Heart meltdown. I got shit faced one night after my ex didn’t show up to collect the last of her things, stumbled down the street to where she was staying and started beating on the door demanding she move her shit out of my apartment immediately. It was, of course, late at night and the cops were called. I spent a night in jail for public intoxication and then had to deal with my ex’s family and friends attacking me as if I deserved to be beat up on, cheated on, and dumped. Finally, however, she moved her stuff out of my apartment, which she had been using as an excuse to continue controlling and manipulating me, and less than two weeks later she and her new/old girlfriend were bedded up together just down the street from me. I could actually see their cars sitting in her new driveway, while out smoking cigarettes on the front steps of what had so recently been our second floor apartment. In the midst of all this, I finally realized I had completely hit rock bottom and decided it was time for me to leave Texas. Once again, I had to traumatically break away from everything I knew. Over the next couple months, I scrimped and saved as much money as I could on my minimum wage pay and settled as many of my affairs as I could manage. I had to pay two months worth of backed up bills I’d been left with, had to pay off loans I taken out for school clothes, and had to pay off a huge fine for an old inspection ticket I had forgotten about on a car I no longer owned. When I decided to leave Texas, my Momma again swarmed me with her crazy and I left on bad terms with her, my dad, and my sister. Broke ass, brokenhearted, and pissed off I boarded a jet plane in Houston and left Texas, with five suitcases stuffed full of what was left of my possessions, $500 in cash, with no car and no job in sight.

When the soulful life is being threatened, it is not only necessary to draw the line and mean it, it is required. -Clarissa Pinkola Estes

I landed in Baltimore December 16, 2006 and lived in the basement of another cousin’s home for a few weeks before my first date with Amy. Amy and I had spent several weeks emailing each other via MySpace, before she finally asked me out to dinner. After dating a short while, (about two months, honestly) Amy asked me to move in with her and we’ve been together ever since. Amy introduced me to Vindaloo, documentaries, tofu, recycling, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, live bands and the downtown beauty of several different cities. I fell head over heels for her, and, although I was terrified in my new big city surroundings, I felt alive again. Rummaging through Amy’s library, I was further enlightened on the many different ways there are to view the world. Two particular books in her collection expanded my perception of myself and my past. Everything You Know About God is Wrong and Women Who Run with the Wolves. The first book helped me tie up the loose ends of my tattered faith and the latter empowered me to trust my intuition. Aside from reading together, we traveled all over the East Coast and New England trying out the local food scene, shops, and just loving each other with all we had. Eventually, life caught up with us as it tends to do. We moved around too much over the first few years of our relationship, and honestly we just never stopped moving. Amy broke up with me at least a hundred times and we fought constantly. The stress of moving around just compacted all the negativity building between us. We lived in two different places in Delaware before moving up to Massachusetts and lived in two different places on our move up there. We only managed to stay put in Mass for five years. I ended up absolutely hating our location in Springfield, even though our home was beautiful. Amy ended up hating the rat race she found herself caught up in. Although I experienced my first home with Amy in Mass, and we were married in front of our fireplace on Thanksgiving day 2011, I feel like Western Massachusetts was the most unwelcoming place I’ve ever lived. Amy and I both regret moving up there and selling our home was a painful and extremely expensive ordeal. We moved twice more before getting settled down in our current home. So needless to say, we nearly lost ourselves and each other in the seven times we moved over the past ten years but we made it (are making it) through somehow. Now, we’re back in Maryland living on the Mason Dixon line right on the border of Delaware. I guess you could say I’ve come full circle, since leaving Texas, since I’m living in Maryland again straddling the boundary between the North and the South. Amy and I have promised one another the moving around ends now and so we are planting deep roots here. I was extremely particular and unwavering in my demands on the type of location I wanted for us this time. I kept reminding Amy we weren’t just buying a house on a lot, we were buying our forever home. Now I can hear song birds instead of traffic. There are deer wandering through my yard, not thieves. My neighbors smile, wave, say good morning and cheerfully extend a helping hand. I see the stars at night and the bright white glow of the moon instead of the orange, artificial glow of the city. I love our home and our location and I’m finally finding my way back to my soul and it feels really damn good. Right now all the moving around feels worth it and happiness is drifting back inside my heart. Amy and I are more in sync now than we’ve been in years and the future is something we enjoy talking about again. We’ve even registered for Foster Parent licensing and are nervously anticipating extending our family within the next year. I’m on a path I believe in now, a path that feels like my own rather than an escape route from the backwoods of Texas.

I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better. -Maya Angelou

When I look back I realize I was just a terrified 24 year old inexperienced country girl when I left Texas but leaving was the best decision I’ve ever made. It’s funny how crazy seems normal when you’re living in it and it’s funnier still how hard I cried over toxic people that I’m now embarrassed to have associated with in the first place. My life still has setbacks and disappointments and I still struggle with unemployment. However, I am free to walk any path I choose, free to question, free to love with all my heart, and I may never have discovered what empowerment feels like, if I had not left Texas. Presently, my family still can’t get around the fact that I’m a gay atheist and I still can’t get around the fact that they are abusive fundamentalists. I went back to visit my sister May of 2015 in hopes of rekindling a relationship between us but of course my Momma tried to make it all about her. I guess it’s true that some things never change. I discovered that Texas is still racist, still backwards, and still bigoted. My sister is still selfish and manipulating her “golden child” status for material gifts and favors from my parents. My parents are still beating on the defenseless but since they’ve no children left at home they’ve resorted to beating on their cat with flip flops. My Momma is still lying about her past and denying the trauma she inflicted on all of us and my father is still enabling her and ignoring me. In fact my dad barely spoke to me at all and when he did it was to comment on how he “could barely understand [me] with all that proper English” or how he is “as far North as [he] ever wants to be”. I discovered from my sister that Momma even attempted suicide again about five years ago and was involuntarily committed for two weeks. Of course, they swept all this under the rug, like it’s no big deal, while my Momma goes around bragging about how this time her doctor has got her medications right. My problem isn’t, necessarily, with the anti-psychotics she’s taking, but with her inability to take them as prescribed, along with her obvious inability to not down bottles of them at a time. My main concern is not only with her specifically, but with my father, sister, and their church, who all cover up and shush up the truth about her mental illness. Enabling her is dangerous, as she is dangerous and no amount of Southern tight lip is going to change that. Denial with a side of denial and don’t forget to wash it all down with a big gulp of Jesus! I wash my hands of it. Going back down there did nothing more than remind me of exactly why I left and why I don’t want to live there or be like them. Going back down there served only to remove my guilt and my self doubt about leaving and empowered me to finally feel okay saying, “No, I do not want to be around the person you choose to be.” Accepting my family for exactly who they are has been difficult for me but accept it I must. The past 14 years living without my parents and their superstitious beliefs has been more liberating than I could have ever imagined, and more challenging too. However every time I’ve fallen flat on my face, every time my heart was broken, every time I was deceived by fair weather friends was just an opportunity I used to propel myself closer to the soulful life of my dreams.

And you deserve to be loved and you deserve what you are given. -Florence Welch

Stepping out into this massive world alone has given me the courage to experience my life outside the constraints of religion, mainstream expectations, and the tiny boxes of the closed minded. Soulfulness no longer means how well I follow the rules of the church or the rules of family and society. It means living a life that makes my soul feel happy to be alive. My soul is happiest in my kitchen serving beautiful ingredients to my family and friends. My soul is happiest planting potatoes and harvesting kale at the organic farm down the road from me. My soul is happiest with a big bowl of Miso Ramen noodle soup, a spicy dish of Ma La chicken, or steaming bowl of Bibimbap. My soul is happiest with a bag full of organic local produce and farm raised proteins. My soul is happiest living a quiet life connected to my community and aware of the universes around me. My soul is happiest at home hanging out with my wife and our fur-kids. My soul is happiest out in the sunshine listening to the breeze ruffling through the leaves. My soul is happiest learning about different cultures, cuisines, and sustainable living. In fact, owning my soul rather than enslaving it to religion has redefined happiness for me altogether. Yes I’m gay, I’m atheist, estranged from my family, and married to another woman. So, maybe not many people would define or describe my life as soulful but that no longer matters to me anymore.

For me it’s no longer about answering what is a soulful life and what isn’t. It’s about questioning what happiness is for me and then reflecting that happiness back out into the world. I can live my life as myself without facades and with an open heart and mind and still have happiness too. I’ve got mountains yet to climb, but for the first time in my life I’m climbing my own mountains and not the ones forced on me by my family or their religion. I’m not waiting for the hereafter or eternal rewards anymore. Life is too short to always be looking up towards some paradise or out at what your neighbors are doing. A soulful life is defined within and is as unique and as personal as our fingerprints. I believe that the sooner we realize this the sooner we can stop the abuse and trauma caused when attempting to force what we think is the “right way” onto others. The more I practice this the more my life feels like it has a soul and a life full of soul is something no one can ever take away from me. With this epiphany, I now appreciate the difficult and traumatic past I endured, because without it I would most likely not possess the fortitude of character and intuitive perceptions I now have. Running from my past was never the answer, but in running I found myself.

So, if you find yourself as trapped as I was, feeling alone and defeated please remember that no one has the right to tell you who to be or how to live. Stick to your guns, as the saying goes in Texas, and take it one step at a time. With patience and courage you can arrive on the other side of your trauma, as I have and live any life you choose. At the end of the day, that’s all any of us has. Making choices based on love and intuition is far improved compared to the life of fear I was living before. Let go of fear and see just how beautiful and peaceful your life can become.

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? -Mary Oliver

written 2017