Yesterday was January 23, which is a significant date for me. For the past two years, I have struggled to come up with some way to commemorate that date, to turn it from a very negative memory into something positive.
This year it passed without me realizing it, until bedtime.
The 2017-18 school year, which was my 14th year of teaching special education, began with hurricane Harvey ending the first week early. Which was a wonderful blessing, because the first four days of school already had me considering a career change.
My class was overwhelming, but I was not physically injured until after we came back to school. I spent my birthday on assault leave, with a shoulder injury that was never properly diagnosed or treated. (It is only because my yoga teacher–who is not a physical therapist or doctor–worked with me, doing stretches, while I was waiting for access to medical treatment that never happened, that I currently have a full range of motion with my left arm).
When I returned from leave, nothing good had changed. I am not going to tell the details of what ensued over the following 4 months, but it was escalating, it was constant, and it was often sexual in nature. Yes, I sought help, repeatedly, but I am not retelling that part of the story either. It is in the past, and it is fine staying there.
January 23 was the beginning of the end.
It was that morning that I received the worst of my injuries, and I still have scars from it today. It was when I got people’s attention, and for a short period of time, it seemed that things would change.
And things did change.
Yes, after that day I was at less risk physically, but not only because of the inconsistent support I received. That was the day that something shifted inside me, where I realized that maybe I was worth more than this. Maybe it would be less scary to leave and to chance losing income and possibly losing my career. Maybe the status quo was absolutely unacceptable.
We will celebrate March 1, because that was the day I finally left. I took unpaid leave until my contract ran up, and during that time I rested, joined Weight Watchers, and cared for myself, rather than planning my next moves.
When I started working again, I took two years off of teaching, until I found my current position. There were initially some challenges in going back. I would get emotionally triggered by situations that reminded me of what happened at my previous job, and in the two years where I wasn’t teaching, I noticed that my memory and ability to multi-task were not nearly as good as they used to be. But all of that improved with time, and other than the scars, I seem to have no lasting negative effects from the trauma.
Which brings me to today. I nearly missed the “anniversary,” and I noticed that realizing the date, did not bring up any strong negative emotions for me. In fact, writing this did not either. Yes, I skipped over some parts of the story, but that was only because I did not think telling them was necessary for writing this post.
However, I do feel strong emotions today. But rather than anger, vengeance, or fear, the emotions I am feeling are appreciation, love, and gratitude.
I am grateful for my yoga teacher, who never cancelled a 6 am class during that time, even when I was the only one who showed up. I am grateful for the conversations we had, and especially for the time we prayed for the student who was hurting me.
I am grateful for my friend at work, who helped me to find a more supportive union to work with, took me out for coffee after work, and encouraged me through texts during the day.
I am grateful for my union rep, who tried to find a way to help me and acted as my lifeline of sanity.
I am grateful for the lawyer who helped me to get out of the situation, even when there was not anything he could do beyond that.
I am grateful for the assistants in my program, who did what they could do to keep things running and moving forward.
I am grateful for the co-worker who came to check up on me that day and was able to intervene.
I am grateful to myself, as I was ultimately able to leave and to find a much better path for my life to take.
During the situation, one of my friends shared a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, which said that, “In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.” But I don’t remember the silence of my friends, although there were plenty of people who looked away and pretended they weren’t seeing what they were seeing.
I remember being surrounded in love and feeling more connected to those around me, than ever. I remember the many people who were not silent in their words and actions.
I know that our calendar is arbitrary. And that the craziness that happened and the challenges that we faced had absolutely nothing to do with the number “2020.”
And yet, still, the turning of that number always feels like a victory. It feels like we have met the challenges and learned the lessons of the previous year, and now it is time to start over.
January is a calm, consistent time, following the hectic holiday season, and it always feels like a good month for establishing new habits and becoming more disciplined.
2019 was a year that ended with discipline for me. I reached my goal weight in early December, right after Thanksgiving week. I did my 6 weeks of maintenance during the holiday season, tracking every bite that I ate at our Christmas feast. I was successful, and made Lifetime membership in Weight Watchers in early January!
January was also a time of optimism, as Iliana was adjusting to her new school well and had finally gotten out of her arm sling, after her second broken arm!
I began 2020, three months away from my one-very sobriety anniversary. I worked in a place that I loved, in a position that I liked, and my boss and I were already talking about the possibility of me moving in to the special education department, which was my area of expertise.
February brought Rob’s birthday, and he had one day off. I booked us a studio apartment in Montrose, the artisan neighborhood in downtown Houston, for two nights. We work up at 6 am, with the Jeep already packed, and headed out there. We ate breakfast and had coffee when we arrived!
What followed was an incredibly fun day of bicycling (using the folding bikes Rob got me for Christmas) on the Buffalo Bayou trail and thrift shopping. Everyone downtown had cropped peasant shirts and fun colored hair. I couldn’t do the hair, but I did finally have the figure for the clothing!
That weekend was the beginning of the end. Rob started to have problems with a sore right after, and he was in and out of the doctor’s office. Soon he was sick “with a bug,” which I caught shortly after. I attributed it to stress. While I was taking a day off, I had to pick up Iliana due to emotional and behavioral issues, and soon she was sick too. But before, that, Iliana got to enjoy her Valentine’s dance!
Happily, we all recovered before spring break, not thinking that we had experienced anything other than a nasty bug. By then, we had heard of the coronavirus, but we thought it was just another problem that would soon be solved, not unlike H1N1. I saw people getting worried, but people in Houston are germaphobes. We headed off to Elijah’s retreat, for a completely normal getaway.
Iliana cried on our last day there, which is typical, but she cried more than usual. Miss Cheryl, the owner, was there when she cried, and she suggested that we reserve our next trip. We ended up booking a trip in July, right after Iliana was scheduled to get back from camp. We had no idea how important this trip would end up becoming.
There is no need for a spoiler here, because you already know. Spring break never ended, and camp was cancelled. We had signed up for Camp Be an Angel in April, which was also cancelled.
I have lost 60 pounds. I have quit drinking. I left a job that was physically and emotionally abusive to me. And through all these changes and challenges, I have had one thing. And that one thing was my yoga practice and my yoga community.
Our last yoga class was March 18.
Nothing seemed right. I was losing my community, and my biggest support. Since I was still being paid, I continued paying for classes and encouraged everyone who could, to do the same. But there was no guarantee that anything would still be there, once this was all over.
For awhile, we thought Rob would be laid off. Due to the large live aboard community, his store was deemed “essential,” and we were planning to sublet the apartment above the store. However, we had no idea how the store would weather the upcoming storm.
And then there was my job. While I love school breaks, being stuck in limbo without a consistent routine made me very anxious. Iliana did wonderfully with distance learning for about a week, until she didn’t. Everyone was down, and everyone was worried. I had no idea what I was supposed to do. I saw Easter items in the store, and I cried.
I read Facebook posts about Italy, where hospitals were overfilled and people were being left to die.
My parents have health problems.
I have a friend who is in remission from cancer.
Another friend’s husband got sick on ended up on a ventilator.
We knew people who had friends who died.
Nothing made sense. There seemed to be no leadership, no direction.
And then my yoga teacher told me to have faith.
In our last class at the studio, I said that my sobriety birthday was in a week, but it didn’t matter (because everything would be shut down). She said, “It matters to me,” then, looking me straight in the eye, “Don’t let this break your spirit.”
On Iliana’s second day of distance learning, I needed to go to the store. I am not sure what I needed to buy, since I had already hoarded an insane amount of food, thinking that grocery stores would be closed during a lockdown. But that is where I saw exactly what we needed…
When I returned to the car, Iliana had texted me, asking what she needed to do next. I texted her back, asking if she wanted her hair to be green or blue!
While it felt like the world was falling down around me, I walked around with my blue hair and sparkling eye shadow, smiling at those around me. I may have only been trying to keep myself from falling into despair, but Iliana and I did create some fun memories during that time!
A sign found me during one of my shopping trips…
And so we made the most of it!
Easter was our first pandemic holiday, and nobody knew how to do it yet. So while we really tried, it was very bittersweet.
April brought moving day, still during the shutdown. Mother’s day was underwhelming, of course, but Iliana did surprise me with a very sweet present!
My school sent me a wonderful decal for my coffee mug, which I still use today.
Later that month, we received news that the lake we used to live on no longer existed, after two earth dams broke in our hometown in Michigan. Luckily, nobody died in the disaster.
Iliana’s birthday party took place in the early days of Zoom parties. She ate cake, decorated, and sent gift certificates for Dairy Queen to all of her friends. The kids played Pokemon over Zoom, which left all of them emotionally exhausted!
And so I became the mother of a teenager.
Things began reopening in June, which was more disconcerting than reassuring at first. But I felt safe at yoga, where we were taking a lot of precautions. And it felt good to be back into the routine.
However, late June and early July were difficult times. We were in the middle of a surge, there was talk of more shutdowns, and school was still completely up in the air.
Then, at the end of July, it was time for our reservation at Elijah’s. Things had come full circle, and I knew we had made it through the hardest part.
School was a roller coaster. At one point all schools were required to have in person classes without masks. Then, things became more sensible. Our school was one of the first in our area to open with an in-person option. We chose to send Ili back along with me. Our school took a lot of precautions, and we both were a lot happier going back!
We made it a week…
And then we got to dump the water out and not buy groceries for a few weeks…
A lot of teachers resigned this year, at various schools. This included the teacher I had been working under. And so I ended up teaching full time again, and being Iliana’s case manager!
Going back to teaching full time, was an exercise in self-belief and self-doubt. I alternated between wondering if I could do it, and knowing that it would happen if it were meant to be. Of course, I was offered the position as soon as I arrived at that last point.
With school back in session, holidays were much more enjoyable. Plus, we knew how to celebrate around other people, while still social distancing and staying safe.
Yes, in between the happy pictures, there were times when I heard rumors of another lockdown and completely froze. There were times when I received reports of a cases at work (not many) and became fearful.
There were times when articles shared on social media stopped me in my tracks. I detested the phrase “new normal.” I tried to be positive, but was often countered by friends who were “being realistic.”
But what is realistic? I have a long history as a worrywart, but I can’t think of a single time when my worst fears came to pass. Even the most difficult times in my life, have paved the way for changes that were better than I could have possibly imagined. While being in complete denial is not helpful, instantly assuming a negative outcome is also a form of denial.
Which brings me back to what my yoga teacher said. “Have faith.” I had always equated faith with religion, with believing that some bearded old man in the sky would come and carry us all over the rainbow on doomsday. If we were good enough, of course.
But the faith that she demonstrated was a different sort. It was a determination to move forward, to remain human, to take every challenge as it comes, and to trust that there will ultimately be a positive outcome. We all have challenges, but they are often not the ones we anticipate.
Faith is believing in the goodness that is in all of us, and in the love and kindness that we share for each other. It is believing that we will hold each other up in difficult times. It is believing that the love that is at the center of the universe–you can call it whatever you want, but I prefer the term “God”–will never exclude us.
I have learned many lessons from 2020, and while I would never want to repeat it, I am glad that it is something I experienced. And so I look forward to moving into 2021, in faith.
For my meditation today, I imagined a large fire, built slowly and lovingly. Into this fire, I threw everything that no longer served me.
Resolutions and goals often involve adding new habits and patterns to our lives. However, with this adding must come some subtracting.
These are the things that I will be throwing into the fire:
My perception of myself as needy or annoying.
My perception of myself as mentally ill or otherwise not whole.
My perception that something is wrong with me.
My perception of myself as socially awkward.
My eating disorder.
My need to use alcohol to numb emotions.
My perception of myself as not being accepted.
My fear of setting boundaries or confrontation.
My perception of myself as being weak (emotionally or physically).
My perception of myself as not being physically flexible.
My need for validation.
My perception of myself as incapable and irresponsible.
Everyday this month, I will envision burning these habits of the body and mind, and then I will visualize what my life will look like once I have gotten rid of these things.
There are so many things–addictions, habits, misperceptions–that stand in the way of our dreams. While it isn’t good to constantly think about what we don’t want, spending a little time imagining those obstacles burning away can be incredibly freeing. It can open up space for us to more clearly picture what we do want.
This exercise can also help keep us from addiction-hopping. I know so many people who gave up alcohol but began overeating. It is the same pattern, but with a different substance. Being committed to letting go of the pattern and being open to learning new ways of coping is what leads us to freedom from all addiction.
So today, think about what it is that you would like to release. What would you throw into the fire?
I imagine it is a little awkward for the former caterpillar, when it first emerges from its cocoon. Its whole body has changed, and it has abilities beyond its wildest imagination. And yet, it feels the same. It is the same caterpillar it has always been, at heart.
Walking feels different, and it wonders why it can no longer crawl. It can not figure out how to eat the leaves that it used to enjoy.
Bewildered, the caterpillar seeks out its friends–all of whom are caterpillars, spread throughout the green plants. They each give advice, based on their caterpillar experience. Keep your belly on the ground. Try taking little nibbles. Practice crawling more. Stop standing up like that–it will not help you get anywhere quickly. Just ignore those wing things–nobody knows what they are for.
The caterpillar heeds their advice and begins to wonder what it wrong with it. I was doing so well, the caterpillar thinks. Why have I suddenly lost every skill I had? Everything that ever got me through life, everything that helped me to get to where I am now…none of it is working for me anymore. And why can’t I relate to these other caterpillars? They are my friends. They have been my greatest support through everything that has gotten me here. Why is their advice not serving me now?
After spending the day trying to crawl on the ground, the caterpillar flaps its wings and feels its feet leaving the ground. Excitedly, the caterpillar runs to its friends and tells them it can fly.
Some friends do not understand. Some friends tell the caterpillar to stop trying to leave the ground–it isn’t safe or natural. Best to stick with what is known to work. Some are so caught up in their daily life crawling on the ground, that they do not notice that their friend is able to fly.
Looking up, the caterpillar–which is actually a butterfly, of course–sees other butterflies fluttering about, drinking the sweet nectar of the flowers. They eagerly encourage the new butterfly to join them, and the butterfly’s heart yearns to soar above, delighting in the new, beautiful world where it now belongs.
But then it looks to the caterpillars on the ground. Those are its friends. Yes, many of them will eventually be butterflies in the sky as well, but leaving them in that moment is unspeakably hard. But the butterfly can not force the caterpillars to journey to this next step. Nothing can force growth, and it will always happen in its own time.
There is work for the butterfly to do…as a butterfly. It has a purpose, and its purpose is not on the ground with the caterpillars any longer.
Looking up toward its beckoning new friends, the butterfly spreads its wings and soars toward all that is new.