Monthly Archives: May 2013

You, Me and PTSD

Three people exist in this relationship. Me, M, and PTSD. Sometimes M and I, we manage to make PTSD feel like a third wheel; it just lurks helplessly on the sidelines. But other times PTSD pushes me out of the way and I watch, paralyzed, as M tries unsuccessfully to wrestle herself free from its clutches.

I hate how angry it makes me. The way PTSD shows up and makes M scratch at her skin like worms are crawling underneath its surface. Or how, when I get home from work, I feel my heart sink when I walk into the bedroom and M is curled under the blankets again, exhausted and depressed. I hate how our home looks like children live here — clothing, underwear, dishes scattered willy-nilly throughout the house.

We have no children, and I didn’t sign up for this, dammit.

But then I look into her sparkling blue eyes and she tells me she loves me and I just want to hold her and hug her and give her everything I’ve got. I want her to be happy so bad, sometimes I want to cry.

And sometimes, sometimes it works. Some days we’ll ride our bicycles down to the dyke in Richmond and the sun will beam across the ocean and we’re grinning like two kids in a candy shop, chocolate dripping from our lips. Those are the moments I live for. A respite from the darkness, brief and sweet.

But it’s not just M’s PTSD that intrudes. Sometimes I catch myself finding fault with everything. And M is such an easy target; she already feels guilty before I open my mouth. But I know that the crap I’m spewing isn’t about her at all. It’s about me. And how shitty I feel because no matter how hard I try, life isn’t easy. The money is tight, the lost family still hurts, and I feel like my own life is just a waste of space.

When those moments happen I find myself looking at everything with a critical eye. Of course, finding things that bug me is easy when PTSD has M in its clutches. But what I don’t, can’t, seem to admit out loud is my own ineptitude, for not being more accomplished, not having reached higher heights in life, not being able to solve this problem. It’s the hurt of knowing that this, what I have right now, this might be as good as it ever gets. The thought tastes bitter. I hate bitter.

And if this really were as good as it got? Would that be so bad? Truth is, I have so much right now. M loves me with all her heart. How many people can say that about their partners, without a shred of doubt? And her dog E, well, E and I have bonded alright. She sleeps curled up next to me most nights, her snoring little body leaning into my chest. I have a job that challenges me, even as it exhausts me, I have friends who like me. Heck, I’m even thinking of going back to school come Spring.

Life has never been this good in fact.

So why? Why do I feel this urge to scream with frustration? Is this the grief that comes with knowing that some dreams, some paths will most likely forever remain unwalked? Is it sadness for the battles I’ve fought, losses I’ve felt? Is it sadness for the dark clouds that inevitably will come again?

When I look up, M is there, waiting for me, with her loving eyes. And I feel ashamed, for the darkness still in me, and the anger that clings to me like an unwelcome shadow. We hug and it feels so good, her skin against mine. And I try to pretend that I don’t see PTSD peering back at me from the corner of the room, patiently waiting.

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Love Present and Past

It’s funny how saying something out loud makes your mind draw connections it didn’t know existed. The way it did today, when I was telling a friend about how my love for M, my partner and now my fiancée, is complicated.

I love M but at the same time I struggle to accept that she may not work for the next ten years – as she tries to make peace with her PTSD and regain control of a life that was stolen from her when she was a child. In this context, what role do I play? Do I act the doting lover, put aside my own dreams and support her as she tries to finish high school and make her way into academia? Or do I pursue my own passions? I have a strong desire to return to school, to study sustainable community development either at the undergraduate or postgraduate level (I already have a degree so both options are available to me).

But surely we can’t both go to school? That would be irresponsible, wouldn’t it?

As I was recounting this tale of woe to my friend earlier, I had a flashback to my early twenties; my father was sick and I had just started to think about transitioning from female to male. It felt impossible to think that I could do this to my parents; destroy the daughter they thought they had for a son they would never truly accept. And what about that in-between stage? It would just be too painful for them to watch. My parents were conservative in their upbringing, culture and disposition and my transition would just be a big slap in the face. I really, really didn’t want to hurt them.

More specifically, I really didn’t want to upset my father. While my relationship with my mother had been complicated for as long as I could remember, I loved my father deeply and hungered for his approval. I happened to know what he thought of transsexuals: in his view they were delusional and mentally ill. I hoped that one day he might learn to accept me but I knew that it probably wouldn’t happen any time soon. I needed to be OK with that.

I debated whether to wait until after his death. But I couldn’t wait forever. For all I knew he would live another twenty years. I just wasn’t sure that I could hold out that long. Besides, I was really struggling to fit into the socially proscribed role of woman. My depression was deepening and it felt like my life was on hold. I needed to move forward or else I, well, didn’t see the point in living at all.

So I transitioned. And my father was deeply distraught about it. But I did it anyway. And then, a year after my first shot of testosterone, he died of non-hodgkin’s lymphoma. He never truly accepted me as the man I was, but he did say he loved me no matter what. At least I have that memory.

The fear I felt, the internal struggle I went through in deciding whether to sacrifice myself  to protect my father, it’s not so different from the internal struggle I face with Max. I don’t want to resent her for not pursuing my own dreams. I don’t want to wait for some nebulous moment in time when it will be OK for me to go to school; that time might never come. She will likely be studying for another ten years, if she decides that she really does want to get a post-graduate degree.

I want us both to flourish, to build lives for ourselves that provides sustenance for the raging hunger within us. So if that means that we both go to school, and live on less money, in a smaller apartment, then that’s the commitment I’m ready to make.

I’ve already committed my love to M. We are engaged. But love doesn’t have to mean martyring the self for the other; that only breeds resentment. Love means committing to your partner’s achievements as well as your own. I am committed.

The difference between me and you

Boat Capsized

Boat Capsized in the Fraser River, Richmond, BC

Maybe the only difference between me and you is that you kept trying. Because I can tell you I don’t give a crap anymore. But of course, we all know that’s not true. If I didn’t care I wouldn’t be so angry. And I’m angry alright. Pissed off is more like it.

This is where I write stream-of-consciousness whatever the hell I want, and see what comes spewing out of my diseased brain. Not diseased because I’m a pervert or something, diseased like in discomfort. As in depressed and anxious. As in mentally not well. So uncomfortable in my own skin that it’s hard not to want to scratch it open and just scratch away the flesh till you hit bone.

And then, when you can’t find anymore flesh, pick pick pick at the bone too.

All this angst gets tiresome after a while, doesn’t it? Kind of like you’ve seen it all before.  Because you have. And that’s when the numbness sets in and you feel like you’re talking under water, the way your words all sound like “glub glub blub”. And when other people talk, they too sound like they’ve had cotton wads stuck in their mouth.

So you sit in front of your computer and think, maybe if I just type something the feelings will dissipate. Eventually. Please let that be true. So you write, but the feelings are still there while you write and you want to tell your partner that you love her, but it’s like you don’t even control your mouth anymore. And there’s a wall of ice between you and her and you don’t have a kettle or a pickaxe to get through. You know, so you can pour hot water on the wall to melt it away, or hack at it to make a hole to crawl through.

But if you just keep on typing maybe eventually the words will make sense and then someone will hear what you have to say, but maybe that’s the problem. It’s that you want someone to hear you but nobody does because why should they? It’s not like you listen to them? You’re too busy feeling superior or at least alienated or different. You’re to proud or stubborn or a little bit of both.

So you think, well this is it I guess. This is probably as good as it gets and maybe that’s OK and then your Zen abbot, the one who offered you an introductory course in Zen Buddhism, like, six years ago, posts a comment on his Facebook page in which he says: Imagine you are complete just as you are. What then? What would you change?

And what you think to yourself is that you would change everything about you. The way you were born, the people you were born to, the country you were born in. You would change the brain chemicals that drag you back down into darkness at the slightest provocation and the anxiety that gnaws at you from the inside out, rendering you helpless and immobile.

And then you try and think about the good things; and there are many. Especially now. How you found your soulmate, your partner, your playmate. How you have a dog that adores you and you adore her. You think about the apartment you rented that has two balconies and the sun setting over the mountains in the distance. You think about how lucky you are that you never got into hard drugs or alcoholism. And how glad you are that you are relatively healthy physically.

And when you think about these things the anger dissipates somewhat. The dial turns down on the intens-o-meter. It’s going to be alright you start to whisper to yourself; and this time, you almost believe it. Even if tomorrow you have to face a job you’re not necessarily cut out for. Even if you still wake up traumatized by the way your father died seven years ago and by a childhood you barely survived.

You’re here now. Safe and healthy and grateful to be alive. And the pain you’ve been through throbs in every cell in your body, but so does all the joyful moments. Throbs til your heart feels like it will burst open. And you remind yourself that life really is beautiful. Unbearably, painfully, beautiful.

When introverts care about sustainability

You wouldn’t know it looking at me, but I believe in the value of community building. I believe we each belong in an inclusive society and that creating such a society is the best way to counteract such things as suicide and depression. Pills might prevent you from killing yourself in the short term, but it’s the people who don’t feel alienated that stick around for the long term. And it’s community-building that makes it worth sticking around.

I’m not your typical community advocate; for one, I’m not an extrovert. Hanging out with a bunch of people all the time is not my idea of fun. I like my solitude – in fact, I love it sitting here in front of my living room window staring out at the ocean with nary a person to interrupt me. But I know that solitude by itself doesn’t work. I work hard to interact with other people every day. It’s one of the reasons I choose to work outside of the home, for someone else. It’s my way of ensuring that whether I want it or not, I must interact with others.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about doing a certificate in Community Sustainability Development. Sustainability is one of those catch-all phrases that means everything and nothing. But in a nutshell, it represents an approach to life that is about conserving what we have rather than considering everything disposable. It’s about recognizing that our well-being depends on living in harmony with our environment. And it’s acknowledging that our present and future generations can only thrive if we commit to environmental, social and economic practices that support everyone rather than a greedy few.

Sustainability, in my view, is not the enemy of capitalism. But it demands that we re-think what we value. Because how we spend every dollar we earn is a much better indication of what’s important to us than the results of, say, a provincial election where only 52% came out to vote (I’m talking of course of the BC election in Canada. Every poll in town said the NDP would win, but the voters voted Liberal. Because the people who voted weren’t the ones answering the polls, clearly. Else they were lying).

What I would like to help build is a community that welcomes diversity because it sees the value in bringing together a rich tapestry of people of all walks of life (immigrant, settled, aboriginal, gay, bi, straight, male, female, intersex, transgender, able, disabled, upper class, middle class, working class, white, black, brown, red, yellow or pink). Cities thrive when different kinds of people come together. I think it’s one of the reasons people flock to cities as much as they do. People come mainly to find work but also because of a (maybe somewhat naive) belief that exciting things are *happening* in the city – and no one wants to miss out on the action. Ideas thrive in cities because of the diversity of voices we find there.

Cities are living laboratories where we each get to be an experiment or be the experimenter. We can become socially engaged, help change policy, or we can become part of the city landscape, shaped by other people’s policies, other people’s decisions on what matters and what doesn’t.

In Vancouver, this was brought home to me recently when the Parks Board finally decided to establish a task committee to make community spaces such as community centres, gyms, pools more transgender friendly. I can’t tell you how relieved I am at the possibility that future generations of trans people won’t have to deal with gender segregated change rooms and toilets, one of the reasons I and many other trans people avoid going to these types of spaces. I didn’t think it would ever change, and didn’t think I could make much of a difference one way or another. Thankfully other people saw it differently. And because of them, change is finally happening.

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Just call me blameless

Not sure how long I’ll be able to maintain this blogging in the morning thing. It’s hard for a non-morning person, it really is. But I’m doing it. Here I am. Typing away.

The topic du jour is dealing with conflict. You know, because not dealing with it doesn’t resolve anything. I got to thinking about this after having a run-in at work with a co-worker, K, who got upset with me for not following up with a task that she had passed onto me via email a few days before.

I had followed up with the other person she had addressed the email to, and he had said that the task was a waste of time. That’s where I left it. Because I had tasks of my own that weren’t a waste of time. Besides, it wasn’t something that I had been assigned – it was *her* task. Then she was absent for a day, and when she came back, nothing had happened and the deadline for getting the information to our colleague in head office had passed.

Now, turns out it wasn’t such a big deal, the whole missing the deadline thing, as we had more time to complete the task than initially told. But that’s not the point. K got upset and admonished me for not acting on her request. I indicated that I had, in fact, done what she had asked for – I had followed up with the person she’d asked me to follow up with, and that he had not given me enough information to proceed further.

What I didn’t say is that it was not my fault that she wasn’t there yesterday to address this task before the deadline. I really wanted to say that though; I really wanted it to be not my fault. But, in the end, it’s probably good I didn’t say that to her –  it would only have made matter worse. And maybe, just maybe, it isn’t quite true.

As I think critically about it, it occurs to me that my modus operandi, my way of doing things, is to make sure that I am blameless – at all costs. It hadn’t occurred to me before that that’s my approach to life. It wasn’t a conscious need – this need to be innocent at all costs – until yesterday.

It’s easy enough to understand why I might feel this way. As a child I was constantly berated, called bad, lazy, made to feel stupid. I know none of these words are actually applicable to me. I work hard, I’m considered highly intelligent by the friends I care about, and my partner M – who I trust more than I trusted my mother – says I am a good person. I have no reason to doubt her.

And yet the fear, that those early descriptors are true, persists like an incurable disease, just beneath the surface.

I’ve long known that at work I act more out of fear than inspiration. It’s probably both my strength and my weakness. I naturally try to eliminate all risk either by tackling the matter at hand early, all by myself (because the voice in my head says: “trust no one”), or by simply coming up with ways to avoid the task completely.

And now I get it: my underlying objective. The key is to make sure that I am not to blame! It’s the only way, in my subconscious mind, to prove to myself that what I fear is true (i.e. that I am damned) is not in fact the case. It’s a pretty good strategy if what you  care about is your own innocence.

But if what you want is to make a good impression at work, to grow into a leader that solves problems effectively and is trustworthy, well, then if falls flat.

So here’s the challenge I put to myself: stop avoiding. If you run into an obstacle, make sure you bring other people’s attention to it. Not so that you can run away and hide, but so that you can actually address the matter.

I do not think K is entirely blameless in all of this. She thrives on making other people feel a sense of urgency when it comes to her tasks. But that too is something that needs addressing head on. Not in an angry tone, but by simply pointing out what it is I am working on at the moment, so that together we can rejig my schedule to focus on what matters most.

My task for the rest of this week, the one I put to myself, is to stop trying to be blameless, and instead commit to acting as best I can to resolve issues.

And where I fail, if I fail, to remind myself, that this does not make me stupid. Or lazy. Or bad. That I do not need to be blameless to be a good person. I can just be human.

Morning shine

So up til now I’ve had the habit of writing on my blog in the evenings when I’m done work. Partly this is because I have, traditionally, been more awake at night than in the morning, partly it’s because I have a bad reputation of not waking up in the mornings when I set my alarm.

But I’d like to try to write in the morning rather than the evening, and use the evening to read. It’s supposed to be better anyhow – it gives your mind a chance to rest and unwind before bed time. Writing in the evening is sort of like going for a jog right before you clamber into bed. Sure, you feel good while you’re doing it but it’s pretty hard to feel sleepy once you’ve got the blood pumping.

I notice this morning that the incessant hum I noticed last night is still here. It’s freaking loud too. Our bedroom is right beside the boiler room so when we moved in I noticed it immediately, but it seems to be so much louder these days. Will I ever get used to it I wonder? Now the trains have started up too. Is it always this noisy in the mornings?

But that’s not what I wanted to talk about.

In August I will attend the Gender Odyssey conference in Seattle. Started in 2001, it’s the largest conference for transgender people in the world. Every year about 500 transpeople and their allies attend it, coming from all walks of life and from a range of countries (though mostly from the States of course). Usually the keynote speakers are themselves trans or people who specialize in working with our population. This year Jamison Green will be in attendance. He is a highly visible transman of an older generation who is pretty much in every documentary about trans issues out there. OK maybe not every single one. But a lot of them.

On the schedule this year is also the screening of a documentary about the world’s first transgender gospel choir (yeah, no kidding!). It’s called The Believers. Now that sounds pretty interesting.

The conference is jam-packed with workshops. Topics vary from deciding which chest surgery to have to workshops on how to approach coming out to your family to how the brain is different between trans people and regular people. The part I most look forward to is being in a room with so many others like me – people who have made the journey or are on the same path. For once we will be a majority rather than a small minority. I hear the energy is infectious. I can’t wait.

Well, so far this morning thing feel pretty disjointed. Hard for my brain to focus on anything this early. How do people do it? What I really should do is write fiction or poetry or something. This is the kind of mind space that would come up with something pretty creative I wager. My inner censor is impeded; I have a general feeling of laissez faire.

Morning

In my room

a hum so piercing

my ears flap closed

like those of elephants

my fingers tap in desperate

search of distraction

guiding my mind into a different

conversation. But

the hum persists. A constant

companion, more steady

than the moon. Only when

I put on my uniform – pin-striped pants,

blue business shirt and black tie with shiny

grey stripes – will I leave it

for another noise. This one loud and pressing too,

of ambition reaching its long arm to grab

a corner of a flat but unequal earth

and grow it like a plant, tall and strong.

Only recently has mine felt the right mix

of sunlight and water on its leaves, it soil.

Will it grow?

I am trying.

A Day to Remember

Yesterday, my partner M and I rode our bicycles to the beach near Vanier Park, Vancouver. It was a cloudy but sunshiny day and I suggested that we go to the Museum of Vancouver for old times’ sake. The place held special meaning for us – we went there two years ago, on our second date ever. We had lunch – cheese, wine and fancy olives – on the dock before heading up to the museum to explore a Banghra Me exhibit – about the Punjabi/Western fusion pop music style. We also got to dress up in 1950s tuxes/dresses as part of a Vancouver in the 1950s exhibit. And in the First Nations exhibit, we picked up cards with the names of fish and plants in a First Nations language and tried in vain to pronounce them correctly. It was a beautiful day.

This time we witnessed the photography of Joe Average, a gay West Coast artist known for his pop art and his commitment to art education for youth. His photos were landscape, mostly, digitally altered to draw out haunting, surreal colours, like the green paint on a shack in Finn’s Slough, or the primary colours of the façade of the Ovaltine Café on East Hastings Street. One particularly striking photo was a close-up of a seagull’s feet, where the skin popped out like fish scales. It was labeled Yogi’s Feet.

After that we wandered into one of the main exhibits, Sex Talk in the City. Here, the museum presented a fascinating history of sex education in Vancouver, including the struggles over including queer sex into the curriculum. Also shown was the turbulent history of sex workers from the early 1900s onward – and how race and class played into their oppression. Police records and mug shots of these women and the “vagrants” who used their services were posted on a wall, one next to the other.

Also included was a display of various and sundry vibrators through the years, and how they were first used exclusively by medical professionals as a treatment for hysteria – the paroxysm of patients were not considered orgasms. Later, vibrators were marketed as “body massage” devices, and often included parts that would make them useful for household chores, like polishing or dusting. Few vibrators from the 80s survive, as apparently they were made from plastics that have not stood the test of time. The style of vibrators mirrored the style of household appliances of the same era – the vibrators of the 50s made from sturdy metal and stylish too.

Other parts of the exhibit that I particularly enjoyed were the history of gay pride parade and the history of contraception and abortion rights. And then there was the Neon Vancouver exhibit next door, with signs from the 50s-70s, when Vancouver was a growing metropolis and its citizens argued over whether the neon signs constituted light pollution. Personally the lights bothered me less than the noise – the loud hum of electricity, constant and unrelenting.

After our visit to the museum, M and I made our way to a patch of grass, where we enjoyed a picnic, drank some Langue-Dog white wine and mused about how much our love has deepened as we have gotten to know each other. I played her Joe Cocker’s song “Your Are So Beautiful” on my iPhone as we watched the crimson bird-kite flittering overhead. Finally I pulled out the ring we had chosen together from an artisan jeweller on Granville Island and asked her to marry me. Her eyes lit up and she said yes, we kissed and hugged each other closely.

M had been talking about having steak for at least a week so I suggested we go to the Keg to celebrate but instead we decided on The Boathouse – it was closer. First we soaked in the last of the sun at Kitsilano Beach, before heading up the stairs to one of the more scenic restaurants in the city. The view, over the ocean, was spectacular. M ordered steak, with mashed potatoes and Chinese broccoli. And I ordered a seafood pasta dish. For dessert we ordered alcoholic beverages – coffee, grand marnier, and kahlua for me, and hot chocolate, kahlua and brandy(?) for M. It was a fitting end to a perfect meal.

We rode our bicycles home in the dark, along the water. I took E, our pug, out for a final walk and jumped into the shower to wash away the kernels of sand between my toes from the beach. We finally fell asleep next to each other, basking in the calmness that comes from knowing that we are committed to each other. Life partners. It truly was a magical day.

Seeking Refuge, Seeking Love

At 4 pm I zipped up my briefcase, grabbed my bag and headed for the door, down the elevator, and into the rainy street. I had said I would help set up at 6 pm, with the evening starting at 7 pm. I was worried that the door prizes I’d picked up wouldn’t be enough incentive for people to spend money but my partner reassured me that people weren’t there to win prizes, they were there to listen to the refugee’s stories. I reminded myself of that as I made my way through the door and sought out a familiar face.

By the mic stood T, practicing his singing. He was one of the speakers and would end his story with a song. I had heard him practice it two weeks earlier, and at that time he was unable to choke back the tears enough to get the notes out, still overwhelmed with the memories of what he’d been through. He had been practicing, clearly. His voice was clear and confident.

I introduced myself to the other volunteers and proceeded to unpack the brochures I’d had printed and the one-pager explaining to attendees the dire situation LGBT refugees face around the world. Another volunteer, S, brought colourful pieces of art, one for each speaker, for the audience to sign and leave messages of hope. The speakers would take these home with them as gifts.

By 6:50 the café was still pretty empty. The few people there were already members of the refugee organization that organized the event or were speakers and I had a sinking feeling that no one at all would show up and the night would be a disaster. But people slowly trickled in, one by one, two by two, donated, bought raffle tickets and made their way to a table. Two of my friends and my partner showed up as well. It was nice to see faces I knew, and I felt grateful for their presence.

Having heard two of the speakers during a practice session, I knew the night was well worth it. If nothing else, it would allow these refugees to verbalize in a public, safe space, what they felt, what they had been through. Through our supportive presence they would, I hoped, feel validated. And through them, we would have the opportunity to gain insight, in a direct way, on a different way of life, the different cultural realities LGBT people exist in around the world.

The night started late as one of the speakers, C, hadn’t arrived yet, and because, as my friend L quipped, we were running on queer time. Everyone knows queer time always runs slow, she said. I tried to put aside my impatience — not an easy task for me. Eventually the MC, a refugee from Jordan, approached the mic and the night begun.

First up was A, a refugee who fled Mexico, lived as an illegal alien in the USA for 15 years, and then had to flee once more, this time to Canada, where he would have to start over one more time with no possessions at all. During the practice run, we had encouraged him to speak about his own experiences, to make it personal, because that is how he would connect with the audience.

He had taken our advice to heart. His talk was beautiful. He likened his journey to a kind of suicide. A leaving behind of one life to start another again. And then one more time. He talked about how hard it was to write his tale, how he struggled to find the right words to describe his feelings. He talked about seeing beauty in the rain in Vancouver, because it was far away from the brutality he faced in sunny Mexico.

After A, it was L’s turn. Her talk was brief, moving, and described being rejected by her family, abused, thrown into an African prison. In her broken English, tinged with a French accent, she made an empassioned call for acceptance.

T was third to speak. He was perhaps the most eloquent. He spoke about being approached by international media in his native Pakistan, how they promised to conceal his identity and then posted images of him, unaltered, online. The resulting backlash from his community caused him to flee Pakistan for the relative safety of Afghanistan – where he was further abused and mistreated. When he finally made it to Canada, he knew no one. He had left his friends and family and probably would never see them again. He described how much more difficult it was for LGBT refugees than for other kinds of refugees, because of the rejection from close relatives that compounds their isolation.

After him, a representative from the refugee organization stepped forward to explain what we in the community could do to help.

The fourth speaker, C, finally arrived – very late, but ready to share his story. He started by describing his struggle to make it to the event this evening and how he faced homophobia on the Skytrain ride in. His sad eyes with the long eyelashes peered out at us as he told us about the woman on the Skytrain who defended him, told him not to mind the bigotry from the old man who kept calling him a “faggot”. He described how he had lived in constant fear in his country of origin and was raped (“I know, I’m sorry,” he said, apologizing, I presume, for the darkness of others’ behaviour).

The following day, some of the refugees sent thank you emails to the organizers, calling the evening “transformational”. One refugee claimant who struggled to speak English wrote a heartfelt email in French describing how she felt she could only be herself in the safety of our organization.

It occurs to me again how brave these people are. And how glad I am to have had a small part in organizing this event. I had hoped for a better turnout but the people there were engaged and touched, I think, by the stories they heard.

Stories. They do have power. They help us see our world more clearly. And when we do, we can start to do the important work of fixing the parts that are broken, making it a place that welcomes difference, instead of abhorring it.

The night before

Tomorrow night I am volunteering at an event to help raise awareness of the conditions under which refugees and refugee claimants flee their countries of origin. Four individuals will share their stories in the safety of coffee shop, with what is hopefully a sympathetic crowd. Having had the privilege of hearing some of the stories during a practice run, I was really moved at how eloquently these strong people were able to articulate their loss and pain.

Hearing them speak so clearly about the challenges they faced – and still face – made me realize how powerful a story can be. In the sharing of these stories, we the audience are able to participate in the healing process. We bear witness in order that they may see themselves as strong and capable.  And they offer us the gift of insight and the opportunity to engage with them. We mirror each other into existence.

So much of my own life has been spent in the shadows; shying away from drawing too much attention to myself because I didn’t feel confident in the stories I told or in the facts I collected. I wasn’t raised to believe in myself or in my ability to be strong, independent and generous. Those are skills that were only nurtured once I settled on the west coast of Canada, with the help of friends who for some reason saw something of value in me, and therapists who repeatedly told me I was gifted and intelligent and my story was important.

What is a story worth? I am still figuring that out.

In the meantime I will listen to what others have to say, I will learn from them how to communicate what sometimes feels so unbearably painful. A teacher once told me that pain is just undifferentiated energy. That our bodies are energy circulation devices. We were not built to store energy but to spread it. A story is a kind of energy that is packaged and passed on like a gift.

Learning how to tap into my own source of power, my well of energy is quite the challenge. I feel like my coping skills – avoidance, dissociation, solitude – have served me so well in the past as a tool of survival that put them aside is difficult. As the old adage goes: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But I know I must, in this case, “break” the silence in order to change, to grow. Because distancing myself from the things that scare me (that is, everything) prevents me from plugging myself into the life force that is the world. When I retreat, I can feel myself wilting like a flower.

I believe that some of us are destined to walk paths that wind and curl before they lead us to our destination. Mine has been a dangerous and particularly windy road. But I can see the light shine through the leaves in the distance, and I know that if I just keep going I will emerge from the dank and musty jungle I’ve been struggling through.

As for the refugees we’ll hear from tomorrow night, I’m sure they, too, have wondered at times how and why their paths have led to such scary places. But together maybe we can find a way out of the darkness, maybe through a sharing of the stories that make up our identities, we can build an understanding, a future, that we all can be proud of. Maybe storytelling truly is a form of medicine.

I am looking forward to a dose of medicine tomorrow night.