We March

by Amy on November 1, 2016

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She is in a dark room, there is music on the other side of the door, and voices. She is crying and afraid. She doesn’t like being in here in the dark, alone. But no one hears her crying. Then the door opens and a man looks in. She can see the outline of his body in the doorframe. He sees her there and closes the door again.

She is walking home from the movie theater with her little sister. No one came to pick them up. They went back in and watched another movie, but still no one came. So they walked. A police officer stopped them thinking they were truants. They tried to explain that the reason no one was answering was because he had ripped the phone out of the wall, again. The officer didn’t believe them. So they stayed overnight at the police department. They were twelve and eleven years old.

He turned to his dad and said, “Are we going to the liquor store daddy?”  He was barely verbal but he already knew the way.

She walked across the cemetery hand and hand with her Irish twin. It wasn’t that far from their house. They could see the Hollyhocks and Poppies as they approached. They knew she would be there waiting. Their parents were already down the hill at the bar. But they could always count on grandma, until the oldest one’s ninth birthday. She promised she wouldn’t go on her birthday. She passed away three days later.

She woke up, disoriented. She looked left then right. She could hear him crying. She had passed out and now it was the next morning. Her infant was sitting a few feet away. In a ditch.

She said she’d be alright. She didn’t want to call a cab and she didn’t want to explain to her husband that she needed a ride because she had had too much again. So she drove. Her three babies in the back seat. She felt uneasy as she drove over the bridge, one of many that crossed the Willamette. One swerve and all would be lost.

She sat in the hallway, peeking out from her bedroom. She knew they were finally home because she could hear the screaming. And then the crash. Glass, everywhere. The police. She could see all of them outside her bedroom window, red and blue flashes lighting up the night.

This is it.

Hear the drums.

See us marching.

We march. The generations ahead of us need not know what we did.

But still we march. In celebration.

Because we did it. We broke the cycle. We healed it.

I am in the kitchen. It is that frantic time of the day when I race the clock to make sure the three of them are ready in time for school. Plastic plates in colorful shades filled with scrambled eggs sit on the kitchen island. I am standing behind one awkwardly trying to maneuver her hair into ponytails. I call to another to look for his coat and shoes.

My husband walks in. He’s dressed and ready for the day.

“I’m off,” he says to us.

“Bye handsome,” I say.

“Bye beautiful,” he says back to me.

My six year old walks toward him as he stands in front of the door in all of her swagger, she looks up at him and says, “Goodbye snuggle bear.”

“I’m your snuggle bear?” he laughs.

“Yes,” she giggles as he swoops her into his arms.

I stand there in the kitchen watching him hold her in his arms, the two of them smiling.

The Sonos is playing a song from my playlist.

“Catch and Release,” it’s called.

“Everybody got their reason

Everybody got their way

We’re just catching and releasing

What builds up throughout the day

It gets into your body

And it flows right through your blood

We can tell each other secrets

And remember how to love”

And I remember…

The three little girls alone all night in the back of a car outside of the bar.

The phone ripped out of the wall, again.

A shattered glass table.

A little boy sitting asking “are we going to the liquor store daddy?”

My three babies, buckled up in the minivan as I drive over the bridge drunk.

Today I am three years sober.

I stand there in the hallway watching this scene feeling like am both a spectator and a participant. Then suddenly I am overwhelmed by the feeling that it isn’t just me watching them, I am sharing this moment with all the mothers. All of the mothers who came before me — Kathy, Marjorie, Ethel, Maud
— and the generations before that.

We did it. We broke it. It is what we were meant to do. It is what we are all meant to do. You are no different.

We remembered how to love. And now, we march together. For ourselves in celebration and for the generations to come.

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The Adult Brain of a Bullied Kid

by Amy on October 6, 2016

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We were on a bus, heading into Portland for a field trip. It was going to be a great day. We were going to try sushi for the first time and see China town.

I was in seventh grade.

Sitting on the bus, the girl next to me was leaning up against the window talking across the bus to some friends a few seats back. These were all girls I knew. Girls I sat with at lunch, the same ones who came to my birthday party.

“She thinks she’s so great because she lives in a pink house,” the girl sneered.

“A pink house? How dumb!” one of the girls in the back yelled as a group of other ones laughed.

“What a snob!”

“Total snob.” They all agreed.

I knew they were making fun of me, on purpose, right in front of my face. A wave of shock and then dread and then nausea washed over me and settled into the pit of my stomach as it hit me. I wanted to escape, but it was a long ride to Portland. So I curled up into myself trying to disappear inside the wall of the bus. I crouched there in terror, curled up like a ball, my gaze fixed out the window as I listened to the laughter of my so-called friends — me sitting among them, them acting like I wasn’t there.

Why Does it Hurt?

It wasn’t the first time I had been bullied. Once in third grade I was nearly knocked off my bike by a couple of big boys. They got in my face and wouldn’t let me pass. It was scary, but an isolated incident. Earlier in junior high, back when I was still wearing monogrammed sweaters, an eighth grade girl and her sidekick (how cliche) decided to make me their target. They’d push me around, make fun of me when they saw me and generally made my first few months of junior high school miserable. But somehow, even though it was awful, thinking back to these experiences doesn’t make me sick to my stomach. Probably because I never started out trusting the big boys or the eighth-grade girl. I had never celebrated my birthday with them.

The field trip to Portland was the beginning. It would be weeks before I could use the girls bathroom at Neil Armstrong Middle School. The girls bathroom —it was the center of our social life. Each day, we’d sit in the hall outside of the bathroom when we didn’t have class, to meet and chat and joke around.

The “Gift” of Ostracism

14484642_10100629669205081_3752152605518574148_nA few weeks in, I got tired of having to use an isolated bathroom on the other side of school. I decided it was my right to use whatever bathroom I wanted to use. And, truthfully, I didn’t give a fuck any more. So, snob or not, I held my head high and I marched into the girls bathroom, ignoring the dirty looks, guffaws and wide eyed, open mouthed “who does she think she is” stares.

I surprised myself that day. I learned that I could do hard things — that I could stand up for myself even when nobody else was on my side. I could march right into a crowd of haters and piss with smug indifference.   Up until that moment, I had no idea of my own strength, courage and dignity. From that day on I used the girls bathroom and grew more aware of my own power each time I took a piss. This was the hidden gift of being shunned.

Bullying without Physical Contact is Still Bullying

Ostracism is a kind of bullying, usually without physical contact. It happens with people you know, often trust. It’s exclusion — straight up rejection — as a form of punishment. Being frozen out, given the silent treatment or cold shoulder, being shunned, feeling like a pariah —it’s all ostracism. Even though there’s no physical contact, the pain is real — rejection lights up the same part of the brain that registers physical pain. But unlike being punched in the stomach, the pain of this kind of bullying doesn’t go away. You can’t actually feel physical pain when you remember it. But the memory of being shunned causes the same sickening pain to come rushing back, over and over again.

Ostracism is Everywhere

As an adult I didn’t get why the memory of my experience at Neil Armstrong Middle School caused me so much pain. I thought ostracism only happened to Mormans and criminals. I didn’t realize it can happen to children. Social exclusion as a form of punishment by people we trust happens on the playground, it happens in schools, it happens in families, it happens in the workplace, it happens at church, it happens in politics. It’s everywhere. It happens because it works. People will do almost anything to avoid rejection, they’ll say things they don’t mean, buy shit they don’t need, say yes to things they don’t want to do, they’ll obey authorities even when it means someone innocent might get hurt. This is because human beings rely on other people to survive, we need them to form a sense of self, to get our primal needs for safety and belonging met. When we are shunned by our community, the psychological consequences are devastating.

The 3 Stages of Ostracism

Ostracism changes the brain. Three things happen. First, it hurts really bad. Social pain from ostracism lights up the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, the same part of the brain that registers physical pain. Pain, any kind of pain —physical or social —tries to keep us from doing the thing that caused the pain in the first place. Which leads to “coping,” the second stage of ostracism. This is where an approval addict is born. The rejected person will do anything it takes, they’ll mimic, obey, comply, bend over backwards their way into the good graces of the people around them. And if it works, it will morph into a lifelong pattern of approval seeking that leaves the person unrecognizable to themselves years later. (I am writing an entire book about the things I did to get people to approve of me.)

Rejection Sensitivity

At the same time, people who have been ostracized develop “rejection sensitivity.” It’s a tendency to expect and obsessively seek to avoid rejection — a kind of rejection paranoia which ironically causes the person to act in ways that actually cause more rejection. Me, as case in point.

Probably one of the most embarrassing examples of this was when I was visiting my in-laws one summer over the Fourth of July. Me and my husband and kids were staying outside the house in an RV. I was in there looking at some pictures from the trip that I had posted to Facebook. As I clicked through all the pictures, I noticed that my mother-in-law had liked or commented on every photo except the one of just me. In my mind, I was certain I knew exactly why: She didn’t love me. She loved my kids and of course she loved my husband (her son) but she didn’t love me.

So what did I do? (This is the part where I show you how rejection sensitivity causes us to act in ways that actually cause more rejection.)  I confronted her, of course. Angry, I marched inside the house where she was talking to my husband. I interrupted their conversation to show her the photos I posted and to ask her why she hadn’t liked or commented on my photo. My husband watched in disbelief as my poor mother-in-law tried to respond. She didn’t quite know how to respond to this crazed daughter in law. “I did comment on your photo, honey.”

Skeptical, I went back to my Facebook page and noticed that I had made that photo of me into a profile picture, causing a duplicate to be made of the picture. I had been looking for comments underneath the duplicate photo. When I went to look at the original photo, there it was — a sweet comment from my mother in law. Luckily my mother in law is a forgiving person. But I have always had to battle a part of me that jumps to assume any social slight — a shake of the head, a strange look, a certain tone of voice — is a sign that I am being rejected.

The Final Stage

The final stage of ostracism is “resignation.” This happens when the rejected person loses hope of ever being accepted back into their social group. So they give up. They get depressed. They stop worrying about being liked and start behaving in ways to get noticed. Approval seeking didn’t work so they become the anti-people pleaser (a “hater” as I call it in The Approval Quiz). An ostracized individual who feels out of control and has given up all hope is dangerous, indeed. They are pissed off, hopeless, isolated, self-loathing and by now, they just need someone, anyone, to notice they exist. In an analysis of 15 school shooting cases between 1995 and 2001, the contributing factor 87 percent of the time was bullying, social isolation and “paranoia” ( I can only imagine the kind of paranoia that extreme cases of ostracism would bring about given the paranoia I’ve had all my life from my own reaction sensitivity.)

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It ended just as quickly as it started.  One day at PE, we were tossing a basketball around in a circle. Somebody threw it to me and hit me in the head. The class erupted in laughter. After class, I was changing out of my gym clothes from an isolated corner of the locker room when I overheard a disagreement taking place. Some of the girls didn’t like seeing me get hit in the head with a basketball. The other ones thought I deserved it. Apparently the anti “hit her with a basketball” faction prevailed because after gym class — just like that —I  was no longer an untouchable. Everything at school went back to normal, as if nothing ever happened. I was relieved not to see my “friends” sneering at me or avoiding me or glancing at me sideways. On the outside, I was Amy again. Laughing, dancing and using a lot of hairspray. But on the inside I would never be the same.

October is National Bullying Prevention month. Click here for more information about ways you can get involved.

Have you ever been ostracized? Telling your story can heal. Feel free to post a comment below.

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35 Excuses Keeping You From Being Happy

July 27, 2016

No excuses. Just happy. My mom used to call me a “malcontent.” I hated it when she called me that. But now I see that she was right. I always had a reason why I couldn’t be happy. Here are a few excuses I used to make that kept me from being happy. Chances are […]

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You are five.

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Who were you when you were five? When I was five… I loved flowers — I vividly remember the plants from my childhood – the sunflowers in my backyard, the rose bushes by the patio, the filbert orchards and the Oregon grapes with berries you couldn’t really eat. I loved to swim – that feeling […]

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Wabisabi

December 1, 2016

My mother passed away nine years ago on November 30th at 3:07 pm. I am in the kitchen this morning. We are getting ready for the day. My mother’s collection of snowmen are on display. The kids are near ecstatic because their “elf on a sheft” aka “Elfy” came last night even though it’s not officially […]

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A Case Against Living Up To Your Potential

October 18, 2016

One dark and rainy night, driving back into Seattle from a meeting with a client, I clutched the steering wheel and watched the windshield wipers going back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. I felt numb. “What if I just drive into the opposite lane,” I thought to myself. I was at the […]

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The card I never sent

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  “Oh my God! I think I’m turning into mom!” My sisters and I used to joke. My mom was a good sport about it 😉 Which is why I bought this card for her many Halloweens ago. And for many Halloweens I thought I would get around to sending it to her… Because it […]

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8 Life Lessons from the Game of Tennis

September 8, 2016

Yesterday I had my first ever city league tennis match. I won. Barely. By a 10-point tie-breaker (12-10). Warming up with my opponent, I was pretty sure I had her. I started strong. In fact, I was starting to feel preemptively sorry for her. Somehow managing to exhibit a ridiculous amount of arrogance while also […]

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What My Son Taught Me About Doing the Easy Thing Instead

August 24, 2016

My son just learned how to tie his shoes. He’s eight. Now, I know a lot of kids learn to tie their shoes sooner.  I personally know a few preschoolers who can. But, truthfully, it hasn’t been on my radar…what with all the Velcro these days. Plus, just like riding a bike, I figured he’d […]

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5 No-Fail Strategies to Stick With It (Even When You Feel Ridiculous)

August 10, 2016

When I was in college I wanted to be a communications major. My communications advisor, during our first meeting, asked me what I wanted to do in communications. “I’d like to report the news,” I told him. “Oh that’s not really journalism. It’s more for models.” In an instant, right then and there, I let […]

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[guest post] Why You Should Just Eat the Damn Cookie

June 29, 2016

[Note from Amy: Hope you enjoy this is a guest post by Barb Spanjers. I love her take on why bonafide grown-ups STILL don’t know how to feed themselves!] Are you as tired of these kinds of headlines as I am? Eat This! Not That! 5 Foods Never to Eat! If You Eat That Oreo, […]

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