When Positivity is the Problem

The mask I’m grieving is a forced smile.

This makes therapy difficult, because many of the solutions to depression include focusing on the positive. My counselors have said they’re working with a rare case – usually they work depressed people toward seeing the bright side of life, but I worked my way to depression through positivity.

I was the happy fairy. I smiled when I was alone, to brace myself for things I didn’t want to do. The reason this made me depressed is that I couldn’t handle the cognitive dissonance of denial. I thought everything was fine when it wasn’t. I blocked out memories of abuse, and I participated in a cycle of self-blame for everything that went wrong. I couldn’t explain why pain was so attractive to me; it would take years to realize I needed to physically express what I was emotionally suppressing.

People told me I was too optimistic. It was always condescending, though – I was naïve and inexperienced and hadn’t had my heart broken or been jaded enough to the depravity of humanity.

Now I take careful steps, hesitating at every emotional instinct. When I want to get angry or upset, I’m trained to minimize all the negative aspects of the situation, and to talk myself into deferring to the other party.

That’s what it means to be raised in a world without consent: you can’t say “no.” If you do say “no,” you’ll be made to feel like you did something wrong, and it doesn’t matter. You won’t get your way. Children must, after all, be trained to submit and obey; otherwise they’ll be unruly.

The solution, then, was to talk myself into it. It cannot be changed. When I learned the prayer, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,” it carried with it the implication, “…and nothing can be changed.”

Be positive, see the good side, be optimistic. Force yourself to see it for what it is not. Lie to yourself.

Except for the annoying side effects of depression brought on by dissonance and self-harm brought on by a need for an outlet, it worked. I believed things were okay, and this helped me to get by. What scares me is that I didn’t even leave – I was forced out. I wonder if I ever would have left if my dad didn’t snap that one time, making me realize what always took place behind the mask.

Positivity was the problem, but I’m still being told that I’m either too optimistic or too focused on the negative.

I’m learning not to force my emotions anymore. Sometimes happy moments surprise me, and I don’t seize the moment to take notes on it; I just let it happen. Sometimes I have rough days where I can’t stop crying and feeling the urge to relapse again. I don’t overanalyze or try to adjust my course; that’s what I did before.

Natural emotion is difficult to learn when it’s never been fostered. Apathy is not an option, and going into disconnected limbo between emotions doesn’t work, either. Though my own brain has betrayed me before, I still have to live with it, damaged by the bad habit of over-optimism.

So I stumble forward, working with what I know now. I haven’t lost my reasoning, and I certainly don’t aim to use my own emotional stability as an appeal to pity.

When positivity was the problem, all the well-meaning advice people offer makes me shudder. It’s more complicated than learning to smile. I’ve done that; it didn’t work.

Sometimes getting better means trying again.

Grieving the Mask

This post was originally uploaded on March 3, 2015. It is part of the restored archives.

I wait for the opportunity to get away, and I step out into the moonlight. The metal gate is covered in frost, and it stings my hands as I climb over it, firmly planting my feet so I don’t slip. I dodge snowdrifts and hay bales, and let overwhelm take me.

“I want it all back! Just for a moment!” I yell into the night sky, startling the horses and cows.

“I want the innocence! I want to see my children’s faces! Lie to me and tell me it’s not over.”

Tears come, and I hesitate. I remember my mother’s threats: stop crying or I’ll give you something real to cry about, holding a spoon or a stick or a cutting board. I knew how to catch my breath and stop crying. It was harder to cease while she was swatting me, adding another measure of pain to fight past and control myself.

I couldn’t cry for years. Now there’s relief in telling myself it’s okay. Nobody will threaten to hurt me for hurting.

I’m crying because I miss the family that did this to me. I miss the good times, building tree forts and playing in the creek, sledding on our makeshift jumps in winter, sleeping on the trampoline in the summer.

Don’t be angry, mom said, go make a list of all the things that make you happy until you feel better. Lie to yourself.

I wish someone would lie to me like she did, and tell me I don’t have to wonder where I’m going to live and how I’ll make enough money to live there. Explaining to strangers that no, moving back in with my parents is not an option.

I miss the misery hidden behind my fake smile.

I miss the mask.

It’s still there, it taunts me: you can have it back, my father whispers, holding out the picture that’s worth a thousand lies, all you have to do is force a smile and say you love us. Never question, never complain, never criticize.

Like some drug, my mask – my doll face – offers what I once was. I’m not just grieving that my father and my mother are dead to me. I’m not just grieving that my children will be grown before I’ll see them again.

“Lie to me!” I cry out again. “Tell me they’ll forgive me, that they’ll understand what I had to do. Tell me they’ll remember me.”

The barn cat likes to be scratched, but not to be held. The horses don’t want to be ridden. I am like them, which is why I outgrew the mask. I can’t have it back. It doesn’t fit anymore. Besides, the piece of art I fashioned for my face has no room for these tears.

I must be alive, because I still feel pain.

I’m not just grieving them. I’m grieving me. I’m grieving who I thought I was. I’m grieving the face I wore, the mask that took so much maintenance.

With expression, comes absolution.

With release, comes peace.

With grief, comes relief.

I don’t have to hold back or pretend anymore.

How I Got Burned Out On Current Events and Politics by Age 19

Trigger warnings: current events and politics

“By voting, you are complying. You are complying to a preexisting system. I think we need real significant change, and that real change won’t come if enough people are complying. While you see voting as expressing yourself, I see it as compliance with the system.” -Russell Brand, who explains not voting in this interview

I first appeared on television when I was four years old. It was the mad cow disease scare of 1996, and my dad took me to a Burger King for lunch. The local Fox channel filmed me, a cute blonde child, grinning and saying, “I love cheeseboogers!”

It was the first time that the media used me to promote corporate irresponsibility, passed off as news. It wasn’t the last. This is a brief timeline of things that led to my disenfranchisement with current events and politics.

Whenever I tell people who are generally older than me that I’m disenfranchised with politics, I mostly get a “you’ll understand when you’re older” response. It says I’m inexperienced, I couldn’t possibly have been involved or informed at such a young age.

But I was involved. At five, I knew what abortion was and I was vehemently pro-life. At nine, I listened to my dad reading graphic stories about Saddam Hussein’s torture chambers and oppressive regime. At twelve, I imagined myself getting arrested for attempting to bring water to Terri Schiavo, and when a 10-year-old did just that, I decided I wanted to get arrested for doing something right. I also campaigned for various senators and congressmen, and they admired me because I was young and focused.

I was twelve when I was riding in the car with my mom, and we were listening to Michael Savage on the radio. It was October 2004, and Savage listed fifty issues that neither Bush nor Kerry had bothered to talk about, among them homeschooling.

“Mom, I can’t tell if he’s a republican or a democrat, because he’s criticizing both sides. What is he?” I asked.

Mom replied, “He’s an Independent.”

I decided then that I wanted to be an Independent – someone who talked about what the main people ignored.

My business experience helped me learn about economics and competitive marketplaces. I could fill an order, package and ship it, and discuss details with a customer when I was ten. Discussing international currency and the simple logic behind supply and demand was a natural next step. My limited information was slanted, though. As a kid, I devoured World Magazine’s “News Current,” which was for kids.

Then there was high school debate competition, where our judging pool was made up almost entirely of homeschooling conservative parents like mine. I debated “both sides” of energy policy, but I didn’t learn about the dangers of frakking until I reached college. I debated “both sides” of illegal immigration, but nobody would dare run a case supporting amnesty and expect to be taken seriously. I debated “both sides” of U.S. foreign policy toward Russia, and I learned of the corrupt police state there, never considering that our own police might also commit serious felonies without going to trial. I debated “both sides” of environmental policy, and in every round, both teams made an economic-based case against saving the planet. Even the phrase “saving the planet” was one we laughed at.

At age 16, I read Friedrich Bastiat’s book The Law and Henry David Thoreau’s On Civil Disobedience. I started collecting quotations, and that’s one of my healthier addictions that lasts to this day. I realized I was a libertarian, not just an Independent. I wanted limited government, but Thoreau’s point about interdependence lingered with me: nobody can truly make a life in pure loneliness. Basically, even monks import some goods, and even lone island inhabitants once depended on the nurture of others.

When I did research on my own, I sometimes got confused. We had a competitive event called Extemporaneous (“Extemp”) speech, where you got 30 minutes to prepare a 7-minute speech answering a question about current events. You couldn’t use the Internet, so we carried file boxes into the Extemp prep room, filled with hundreds of neatly sorted news articles. Well, MINE were neatly sorted.

Questions included things like “Is Caterpillar going through metamorphosis?” and “Did Justin Bieber tarnish the Anne Frank guestbook?”

Those are some Extemp questions I wrote for a tournament after I graduated. They’ve stopped asking me to write Extemp questions.

What confused me was that I knew my judges supported Israel over Palestine, but when I looked at a map of the Gaza strip, I realized how tiny it was, and wasn’t sure why Israel was so threatened by a bunch of immigrants there. In my senior year, I was ranked the best Extemp speaker in the state, mostly because I chose topics that people weren’t informed about, and I could appeal to empathy instead of bias. I won a tournament with a vague connection between It’s a Wonderful Life and a minor election in Ireland.

As soon as I had access to a broader base on information, I applied what research, communication, logic, and debate had taught me. Opposing same-sex marriage stopped making sense. Opposing environmentalism stopped making sense. Criminalizing drugs and immigration stopped making sense. Each discovery made the ideal government of my libertarian imagination grow smaller and less necessary.

What finally pushed me to anarchy was working undercover for James O’Keefe in 2012. James and I don’t always agree, but I deeply respect him and I’d name him as one of the most effective people in the world today. I wanted to work for James because I’d picked him out during an undercover sting back in 2006, in which he and Lila Rose caught Planned Parenthood supporting race-selective abortions and failing to report rape. He got more national attention for exposing sex-slavery coverups by ACORN with Hannah Giles, and then lost much of his national rapport when he got arrested in New Orleans during an attempt to expose the lies of a politician there.

Other people gather signatures and make small changes within the existing system. James taught me to make corrupt authorities live up to their own book of rules. I followed his work closely, and noticed that he liked G. K. Chesterton, so I tweeted him my favorite Chesterton quotations. He replied and followed me, so I emailed him and asked to work for him. I wasn’t very good at the work – it’s hard to be taken seriously when your hidden camera is somewhere on a denim outfit – but it gave me a chance to observe the differences between democrats and republicans.

The differences were almost nonexistent. Members of both parties demonized each other. Both parties were aging, and it was rare to see someone my own age. The issues were marginally different, but the tactics, underlying motives, and rhetoric were the same. The corruption was the same. I talked to one of my fellow investigative journalists during a project, and we admitted that after working with democrats, we knew there weren’t any solid arguments against legalizing same-sex marriage. I also learned that there was far too much trust for government among democrats, but republicans weren’t as supportive of limited government as I’d thought.

The democrats were only winning during the 2012 election because they made everything feel like a grassroots effort, when it was just clever marketing. I once walked around a living room in Boulder, served homemade cookies, and then held up a phone on speaker so everyone could listen in on an interview with Michelle Obama. It was no different than an ordinary radio broadcast because it wasn’t interactive, but it felt personal and interactive because we were gathered around a phone in a living room.

When I shadowed a congresswoman in the Colorado capitol, and interviewed the Colorado secretary of state, I thought politics was a giant joke. These people looked powerful from the outside because we used powerful terms to describe their jobs. Once I was inside, I saw a bunch of people striding around importantly, carrying papers and having conversations that were as realistically influential as church ladies gossiping (and church ladies can do loads of damage – I use that comparison to give weight, not to dismiss).

The political system was not the answer. Even exposing corruption within it felt redundant. I voted that year with the realization that my vote meant nothing. My ballot existed to make me feel represented without taking the trouble to actually represent me. It was the second and last time I voted.

I couldn’t read the news anymore. I lost interest in politics. I could only read political philosophy that explored the notion of peaceful anarchy – where people lead themselves instead of turning to authorities to tell them what to do. I was burned out after doing more politically active research and work than most people do in their lives, especially those from older generations who defend voting.

Right now, I’m slowly coming back to current events and politics. I’m not interested in using the system for minor changes anymore. I want to overthrow it.

Drinking from the Final Straw

Trigger warnings: alcohol abuse, child abuse, graphic descriptions

“We were addicted to the blueprint
But we threw it in the flames and now we’re never gonna trace it
You, you lied
Ha ha ha ha I was right all along
Good job, good job
You fucked it up…
Now you’re walking on your own
Rain falls down, I’m not answering my phone
I got to phase you out my zone
Hope you realize now that I am never coming home
You were meant to be alone.” –Charli XCX

Many people who were, like me, abused in the Christian-homeschool-patriarchy movement, still maintain at least moderately rocky relationships with their parents. I gave up, in the end, because of the events surrounding how my parents started drinking.

One day near the end of 2013, I visited my parents’ house. Mom was in bed, recovering from her last miscarriage. She’d saved the fetus, named him Ezra Mark, dressed him and taken pictures, and buried him in the backyard. What shocked me the most, though, was that she had a bottle of Jack Daniels on her nightstand.

“Mom, why do you have hard liquor? I’ve never seen alcohol in our house.”

She said something about dealing with the pain. She was referring to both the emotional pain of losing a child, and the physical pain of blood loss. She insisted, though, that she was only taking small amounts of it as a medicinal solution.

I accepted this answer. After all, I drink alcohol sometimes. I wouldn’t want to be a hypocrite.

On the 6th of January last year, mom’s sister Debbi died suddenly. She was only 52, and she’d practically raised my mom and her brothers and sisters, because my maternal grandmother was, as previously mentioned, addicted to alcohol. I asked for time off work so that I could travel to Minnesota for my aunt’s funeral.

Mom was losing both a sister and a surrogate mother, and she turned to alcohol with the shock and grief. I’d always taken care of my mom, but she was making me worried. We ordered drinks on the plane. When we got to my paternal grandparents’ house, she asked me to sneak more liquor for her from their cupboard. It didn’t matter what it was – she had no taste preference, it was to numb herself.

Within weeks of our return to Colorado, dad was drinking, too. They had wine regularly, and there was a twelve-pack of beer in the fridge. When I asked about it, mom said that since she couldn’t have kids anymore (a statement I never got full clarification for), it was okay to have alcohol now.

Again, I accepted this. I didn’t accept alcohol for myself until I realized there was space between alcoholics and people who completely abstained. The problem was, mom and dad had never seen someone demonstrate moderate drinking. I assumed that they only drank when I was there, which was once or twice a week.

Once in the spring, we built a bonfire in the backyard and roasted marshmallows. Dad was acting strangely – less mature than the kids. He wanted to burn a whole door, and he threw it on the fire, scattering sparks and making the fire spread and smother. When I told him he was being dangerous, he laughed at me. My brothers and I nervously sat him down and contained the fire ourselves. It would take me months to look back on that night and realize dad had had at least three drinks, and was playing with fire around children.

By the time I started to get suspicious, I realized my parents were showing all the red flags of addiction: denial, minimization, and defensiveness.

Lydia was living with them again, but only kind of. She slept on the floor in the girls’ bedroom for a month, so technically she didn’t have to pay $500 rent. Mom sometimes lamented that Lydia didn’t have a bed to sleep in, but Lydia knew she didn’t mean it. She lived there to be around the kids. I couldn’t take the way I felt suffocated there.

Lydia started counting drinks when she wasn’t busy with work. Dad said to her, “I’m not an alcoholic, I just have a couple of beers in the evening.” Whenever Lydia voiced criticism about the alcohol, dad took her outside and yelled at her – for the first time in her life, he swore at her regularly. My parents weren’t being themselves, and it was getting dangerous.

Dangerous, because if you can’t admit that you’ve had a few drinks, you can’t admit that you need to wait before driving, or stay away from fire. Responsible drinkers keep count and stay accountable. The house felt less and less safe.

The last day went something like this…

I come in the house on a Thursday.
Mom offers me wine.
I turn her down, saying I try not to drink more than once every two weeks.
She looks hurt and suspicious, like I’m putting myself above her.
She adds what would have been my serving to her half-drank glass.
I start counting mentally: that’s two glasses of wine altogether for her, and it’s 5 p.m.
I offer to help with dinner, we talk about work and how my therapy is going.
I give vague, slow answers to her questions.
I watch as she drinks half the glass again, and refills it.
It’s a clever way to lose count.
Meanwhile, dad is outside at the grill.
He’s finished a beer when mom brings him his wine.
When we sit down to eat, mom’s wine glass is full again, and dad is drinking from a non-transparent covered cup.
I wait for him to get up, then I taste his drink. It’s kombucha mixed with wine.
He can’t possibly be drinking for the taste.
It’s 9 p.m. now. They’re both still unfinished with their wine glasses when we do family prayers, bless and kiss the children, and send them to bed.
Dad asks Lydia and me if we want to play a game.
We say no.
Yes, I think you do, he counters.
We really don’t.
But we don’t even know what the game is, he says.
We say it’s obvious that he wants to play a drinking game, and we’re not interested.
He looks dejected and rather disbelieves that we’ve just said no to him.
Before I leave that night, I ask mom: “Do you drink every night?”
She laughs loudly. It’s pretentious and insulted.
“Of course we don’t!”
I turn to my 12-year-old sister and murmur in a lower tone: “Do they drink every night?”
She nods slightly so mom doesn’t see.
The next time I visit, they don’t serve alcoholic beverages.
It’s like they’re trying to prove without words that they don’t drink every night.
It’s too late.

It was early September when Grandma – my dad’s mom, Judy – messaged me to ask how I was doing. I opted for honesty, and told her everything. She used to be an alcoholic, and she’d been a sober AA member for as long as I could remember. She saw what her and her husband’s alcoholism did to her kids. Surely she’d understand that something needed to be done so my parents didn’t hurt her grandkids.

She called me, and I told her what was happening. She said it sounded like alcohol abuse that had gone on for nearly a year, but she conservatively chose not to call it addiction.

She also questioned the validity of my story, because I was only going off hearsay from my siblings and extrapolation. I wasn’t living there and I couldn’t watch my parents all the time, so I couldn’t be sure.

Grandma said she was worried about my parents, since their alcohol use indicated stress.

“But Grandma,” I asked, upset now, “What about the kids? Aren’t you worried about them, too?”

“Well,” she said slowly, “I think you and your sisters have turned out okay. I’m amazed at the resilience I’ve seen in you and your siblings.”

“So you’re more concerned about my parents than about the kids.”

“I’m concerned about my son, and as a parent I want to know why he’s so stressed.”

“Well Grandma, that’s not good enough for me. I’m concerned about my brothers and sisters who are stuck there, and it’s not safe. What am I supposed to do?”

This part of the conversation was well-practiced for her. “I’ve worked with recovering addicts for decades, and we always learn the serenity prayer, do you know it?”

“Yes, I know it. I don’t think it applies here, Grandma.”

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…”

I burst into tears, and for the first time in my life, I vented my full anger at an elder in my family. Elders are to be respected, never contradicted. I broke protocol. “No, Grandma! I do not need you to tell me to answer this with prayer and acceptance! That is not what I need right now!”

She was quick to backpedal, rephrasing her words, trying to find some other practiced line that would please me. I realized that my dad had learned his habit of using all the right words from his mother.

Nobody was going to help me or listen. So I blogged about my parents being abusive. Grandma told me she felt like her heart was going to break, and I didn’t respond. If her heart could break and she could still treat my trapped siblings with indifference, I had no reason not to hurt her feelings.

The day before my dad released the podcast responding to my blog post “Melting Memory Masks,” I met with one of my brothers for lunch. He told me the alcohol was gone. Dad had thrown all of it out, saying that if it meant so much to Lydia and me, it wasn’t worth keeping. I asked why dad didn’t say that to me directly. My brother didn’t know.

Alcohol was the breaking point. It’s what made me realize that I had so few allies in my family, and that I needed to get away for myself. That’s what made 2014 different from all the years before it.

February 21 – A Letter to Anastasia Steele

“Emotions aren’t that hard to borrow
When love’s a word you never learned…” –Avril Lavigne, Give You What You Like, 50 Shades of Grey Soundtrack

Dear Ana,

I won’t say that I know how you feel. I won’t say that I’ve been where you’ve been. I haven’t. I just want someone to say some things to you, because I can’t find anyone else who’s said them.

You didn’t do anything to deserve this.

I have the dialogue running over in my head – he said something vague, and you took that as a challenge. You were curious, you wanted more information. Sure, you could look it up for yourself, but there was allure in the way he took interest in you, the way he kept you guessing.

It felt real. It felt good to be pursued. He was baiting you, and taking advantage of your naivety. It wasn’t your fault that you fell for it. It wasn’t your choice. You didn’t see the whole picture. I’m sorry he did that to you. You didn’t do anything wrong.

People are saying you were stupid, you were immature, that you made a mistake. The smartest of us make mistakes when treading unfamiliar waters, Ana. He was in the wrong. Not you.

You have a right to be curious. You have a right to your naivety and your curiosity. You had a right to decide to leave and to say no. You had a right to have him respect you when you did that. When he didn’t, it wasn’t your fault.

Now, in book time, you’re married to the man who stalked you, tortured you, ignored what you wanted, and trained your body to like pain – a body that didn’t like pain at first. We’re wired with our pain and pleasure receptors very close together in our brains, and it’s possible to rewire you into a masochist. That’s what he did to you, and you didn’t know that from the beginning.

Sadism and masochism is about understanding the terms and conditions. He didn’t give direct answers to your questions. He did things without asking you, without being concerned about your safety and comfort, without allowing you to process and heal and learn and grow – all the beautiful things that such relationships bring. You asked, you asserted, you were curious. He didn’t listen, he kept baiting. You didn’t do anything wrong.

They’re saying you asked for it, that you ignored the red flags. They’re not saying he was wrong to manipulate you. I think maybe that’s because you’re telling the story before you’ve realized it for yourself. They are, after all, reading the story from your perspective.

Ana, I want to hold you, be gentle to you, and tell you that getting special attention doesn’t have to mean suffering. Some of us like pain, but we’d never force it on someone who isn’t sure, especially not on someone who doesn’t like pain. You were forced – pushed, controlled, trapped, lured. This is not your fault.

When I say it’s not your fault, I’m also saying it’s not your doing. You didn’t choose this. Since you didn’t choose it, you don’t get to take credit for it. Your attempt to brag as you tell your story sounds disjointed. There’s pain and confusion, because you’re trying to take credit for what felt like a choice, when you were just surviving in a situation you didn’t control.

I’m not saying I get it, or that I’ve been there. I haven’t. See, I’ve heard many victims who didn’t realize they were coerced. Some carry shame – they tell their daughters, “don’t make the same mistake I did.” Others carry pride – they say, “I was the queen, the dirty-minded one, I had no limits.”

They don’t realize that the mistake wasn’t theirs. The limits they set were disregarded, so they decided it was their own choice. Sometimes we don’t know our own limits, because we’re never given a chance to reconsider, and for our conclusion to be respected.

You didn’t do anything wrong. He did.

I’m writing to you, Ana, because nobody is saying this about you – your naivety was a vulnerability, and it was not your fault that you were vulnerable. It was his fault that he exploited that vulnerability.

You deserved to learn and to grow at your own pace. Not with enduring what you didn’t want. Not with being harassed and manipulated, until you believed you loved him back, when you had no other choice. Not with drawing you into a mysterious world where you weren’t informed, and withholding information to control you. Not with confusing your emotions and memories and physical feelings until you mistook it for love.

Ana, you have a right to be curious and naïve. You have a right to live in a world where it’s safe to be vulnerable, a world where abusers know better than to take advantage of you.

I’m sorry that world doesn’t exist yet.

 

~ Links ~

National Sexual Assault Online Hotline: 1-800-656-4673

Why Domestic Violence Victims Don’t Leave

I Dated Christian Grey: How Women Are Groomed For Abuse

Planned Parenthood Resources on How to Identify Abusive Relationships

Alecia Pennington, Identity Abuse, and Me

When I first saw Alecia Pennington’s video about how she can’t prove her American citizenship, nothing about it took me by surprise.

I have friends who, like her, don’t exist according to the government. They have no birth certificates, no social security number, no passport. If their parents also distrusted modern medicine, like mine, there are no medical records.

When my dad started offering bribes to take down my blog posts about my parents’ abuse, my sister Lydia and I demanded our identification. On October 7th last year, my dad put up a podcast blaming my mental illness for the absurdity of my allegations (transcript here). He quickly took down that podcast, and that same evening, he emailed Lydia and me to offer bribes.

His email said, “What would you like from me? Seriously. Just name it. This is hurting the family, but I never asked what you actually want.”

I was a mess that day, so I let Lydia reply. She asked for our birth certificates and social security cards. In the rush to leave when our parents kicked us out, we brought our driver’s licenses, and I had my social security card, but our parents still had part of our crucial documentation. We’d also left a few boxes of what we didn’t have space to move that day – mostly trophies from piano, AWANA, and speech and debate competitions from elementary school through high school.

Thankfully, we had our social security cards and birth certificates in the first place. Mom would order three or four social security cards at once, because, she told me, it was too much hassle to do it right when the kids were born. She could wait and make a pattern for “every few kids.” Our various midwives handled the birth certificates (mom gave birth to 12 children at home), but both Lydia and I lost our original certificates in our family’s disorganized paperwork, and had to reapply for them before we could get our driver’s licenses.

In exchange for taking back what I said, dad offered us money, a chance to see the family, legal mediation, and a counselor of our choice. He never answered about getting our identification documents.

In late September, I went to the emergency room for a self-inflicted injury. My bills, along with a psychiatrist’s opinion that I was depressed, went to my parents’ house. I found out fourth-hand, three weeks later, that my parents knew about my condition and my financial need to pay hospital bills, and they’d made no attempts to contact me about it. The person who told me this said my dad was “concerned.”

I was more aggressive when I demanded our documentation again on October 21st:

It is illegal to open mail addressed to another person. It is also illegal to withhold the official identification documents of an adult. You will give Lydia and me our bills, any mail that you’ve opened, and our files and our social security cards and birth certificates, and copies of our medical records. We will also take what is ours of what’s in storage on your property. If you do not comply, we have the right to get the local police to escort us to your house to retrieve our things safely.

Dad replied quickly, saying he was willing to meet with me. I sent him a secure P.O. box address, so he wouldn’t know where I lived. Three days passed, and I hadn’t heard anything in response. I told my dad that our things had better arrive within ten days, or we’d arrive with police escorting us to retrieve our legal documents. He replied,

Cynthia, mailing isn’t an option for us. Sorry about that. I’d be glad to pass your goods onto you in one of the two ways:

1. You can come pick them up. Just call or txt the time.
2. I can drop them off at your work.

Let me know which is best. We love you and miss you. You are always welcome, just txt or call.

Dad

I asked why mailing wasn’t an option. I never got an answer to that question. Instead, that week my manager texted me to say some boxes with my name on them had been left on the front step of the office where I worked. I had to explain that I’d asked my dad not to bring my personal belongings to my workplace, and I apologized to my manager for the lack of professionalism.

The boxes didn’t contain all of our things – we still didn’t have our trophies, and the only hospital bill inside was unopened. There was a manila folder with our birth certificates inside, and my mom’s handwriting told us in big marker letters that they didn’t have our social security cards. My sister Lydia never got her social security card – she can only apply for jobs because she has her SSN memorized.

This is a mere hassle compared to what Alecia Pennington is going through. The people who compared her parents to mine, though, don’t know that story. The similarity lies in the public response.

Alecia’s mother, Lisa Pennington, posted a video in response to her daughter, and this video was taken down. Similarly, my dad posted a podcast response to me, and it, too, was quickly taken down. Soon afterward, Alecia’s father posted a more sanitized production, explaining that he was willing to help his daughter – all she has to do is contact him.

I can only speculate. My theories just come from being in a very similar situation. I wouldn’t be surprised if Alecia is afraid to contact her parents because then they can track her down. I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s tried to contact them before, and they took no interest in helping until they had the heat of public attention. I wouldn’t be surprised if they took down the first video because it was the woman speaking, and the patriarch should take initiative and show control. I wouldn’t be surprised if they uploaded a cool, calm, scripted video with the dad wearing a suit, because they want to look respectable.

I would be surprised if my mom hasn’t already contacted Lisa Pennington to express solidarity. She, too, had her third-eldest take to the Internet with “lies” about her parents.

When I saw Alecia’s story, though, I saw a bigger problem: every person in this country needs to be identified. You can’t drive, you can’t work, you can’t live as an adult, unless the government has your name in their files, cross-referenced from birth to international travel.

For Alecia Pennington, the outside world is hostile. Yes, the Internet community has raised awareness and we’ve gathered around to support her. I can almost guarantee that her parents, church leaders, and other authorities in her life warned her about the outside world, and told her she wouldn’t be able to make it out here. Better to stay with them, where it’s secure and she has a place to live and eat and survive. She’s out, but she can’t drive or work.

Conservative fundamentalists want this because it means the system is easy to exploit for abuse. Withholding documentation is an easy way to immobilize another person. You can’t make money, you can’t demand rights, you can’t move on.

It works on illegal immigrants. It works on the poor. It works on their kids. It’s about control.

Being a Perfect Victim

This is a repost from the archives. For an update, see my post “The Pity Accusation.”

Yesterday, my brother Micah posted on my Facebook timeline. He didn’t address me directly – he was telling people not to believe the stories I was “making up” about my family.

It took me by surprise a bit, but it didn’t bother me too much. I sent my brother, who is 17, a message to ask what was up.

Then came the sympathy. I got private messages, texts, and a re-post to a secret group. Comments supporting me. That’s when I realized that dozens of people were watching, and that’s what bothered me.

Nobody did anything wrong – the responses were all understandable. I just knew that everyone was waiting for my response. It would take me three hours to come up with something that clearly communicated what I felt.

I had to strategize. It wouldn’t look good to accuse him of trying to promote his social networking presence. I needed to show compassion toward my brother, which I did feel. I hated the fact that I needed to do damage control to preserve my reputation.

I fell asleep on the floor in a patch of sunlight, drifting away from the existential spinning thoughts. I shouldn’t have to carefully plan my moves, because this isn’t a game. Were I to respond in kind, however, I wouldn’t have gotten such positive feedback.

My response was all care, no anger. I asked that nobody say anything hateful to my brother, and to affirm his truth.

“I admire you,” they said. “You’re a class act.”

If I didn’t take the time to step back, think clearly, and come up with something that looked good, though, would I still receive the same support?

My angry, hurt, frustrated writings don’t get published. They’re not blog-worthy. I write what’s raw, and then I form it into something more constructive. I give it time, because I know how to play this game.

I hate that it’s a game. It shouldn’t be. It also scares me.

Being a survivor in the spotlight is just as dangerous as being in the spotlight for any other reason. The audience is fickle. I see the way people admire me, and I know it’s because I haven’t slipped up yet. I’m the perfect victim – calm, cool, collected, but still honest and believable in the stories I tell.

Some people don’t have what I do, and people don’t listen to them. They sound angry, or not very well-spoken.

I’m angry, too. I have to take care of myself before I can come up with what to say. I know I’ll slip and lash out eventually, because I’m human, and this whole situation sucks. It would be abnormal for me not to feel the bitterness and grief and depression that I experience every day.

The spectators see my family members throwing me a curveball, and they watch to see my response. I want to scream and run away from the playing field, because this isn’t a goddamn game.

So, why didn’t I do that?

It wouldn’t look as good. People are counting on me to be the perfect victim. My two choices are to perform well, or not to perform well. I do my best to be honest, compassionate, and kind, without whitewashing the truth of what happened.

We shouldn’t demand perfection from victims. I know we still do, because I feel the pressure and see the response.

You didn’t do anything wrong in supporting me. I just wonder: would you do the same if I’d said something more emotional?

‘Stop Saying We’re Keeping Your Siblings from You.’

This is a repost, as I am in the process of restoring my lost archives. It was originally published January 7, 2015. 

Last week, my dad sent me an email. Like every email and message he sends, it contained a demand: he wants me to stop saying that my parents are keeping my siblings from me.

Let me reiterate this very clearly: My parents are keeping my siblings from me.

It started in February of last year, when I posted my series about same-sex marriage. My parents and I strongly disagreed on the issue, as I described in Monday’s post.

My parents never talked about it again. I still visited my family often enough, but something was different. My 14-year-old sister avoided me, and insulted me whenever she had the chance. My brothers were standoffish.

We were standing around a campfire in the backyard, and I asked my brother what was wrong. “Did you post on your blog about gay people?” he asked.

I admitted I had. I asked if he’d read it, and he said he hadn’t. Did mom and dad say he couldn’t?

“We’re not supposed to read your blog anymore. Why would I want to read it?” He asked.

My parents didn’t just make a rule saying my blog was off-limits – kids break rules. No, my siblings needed to believe I had betrayed my parents’ trust and forsaken family values. My siblings thought my blog was full of liberal propaganda that I’d heard at my secular college. I eventually learned that my dad had called a meeting with the older kids to tell them just that.

Keeping up a relationship with my siblings became a tedious job of cleaning up messes. I’d come over, and the kids would avoid me. I’d ask what was wrong, and find out something else my parents had used to make me into a villain. My parents said they technically weren’t lying about me – after all, I chose to do what I did, so I brought this on myself. If I would just behave acceptably, there wouldn’t be all these family meetings to tell the kids what I was doing wrong.

As Lydia and I began to see our parents’ manipulative and abusive behavior, we wanted to warn and help our little siblings. For the first time in our lives, we formed a support system. If dad made my little sister angry and frustrated, I could take her for a drive and let her vent. Lydia slept on the floor at my parents’ house more often than she stayed with me, and took the girls for walks. I had long talks with my teenage brothers about questioning authority, both in Christian teachings and at home.

Lydia and I weren’t allowed to cry, get angry, or even feel and express a sense of unfairness with how our parents treated us every day. Happiness was the only acceptable emotion. For a while, we were an outlet. I encouraged my siblings to talk about their feelings. When my sisters were traumatized by a haphazard purity talk and description of sex, Lydia taught them what she and I didn’t discover until adulthood – consent.

At first, our parents told us we weren’t allowed to talk negatively about them to our siblings. We tried to oblige, and made time for the kids where we could. I took the younger ones out for cheesy fries and shakes one weekend, and took my 5-year-old brother to the park after work another day. I planned to give each of the kids time a special outing.

I never made it through even half of them before my dad said we couldn’t take them for drives anymore.

Lydia talked about bringing the girls to her new house for a sleepover, but dad said they’d never be allowed to do that. Then Lydia wasn’t allowed to go for walks with them, then one-on-one conversations with us were prohibited.

One day in August, the 13-year-old sent Lydia a voxer message. It said that my mom had thrown a cooking spoon at the 7-year-old, during one of her fits of rage. When the older one said that she couldn’t wait to move out, she was sent to her room. Mom came in later and said, “I’ll always control you, even when you’re an adult, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Shortly thereafter, Dad told the following story in an email to Lydia:

We listened to and read the Voxer messages you and [sister] shared, and we see how betrayed you feel. [Sister] loves you so much, and she is torn between you and us. Don’t read the other sibs’ appeals to you as betrayal; they’re not, they love you just as much as [sister]. Please realize that when she complains about us she is trying to salvage the relationship she has with you.

Proof: She lied about being sent to her room. That didn’t happen. She said that to paint a picture of us that she thought you would like to hear. When we talked on the porch about it, she broke down crying. She then said something much closer to the truth than what she has been telling you:

“I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to lose another sister. This hurts so much.”

I hope our counseling can help make sense of this. Are you receiving counseling? If you are, share this story with him/her. I’m curious what they would say.

By the way, I said “never” would the girls stay over night at your place. That’s not true. If we ever return to the happy, loving, forgiving, gracious, fun family we were a short time ago, I’d love to see you have a deep relationship with your sibs.

My dad’s words speak for themselves – even from his perspective, it’s easy to see what happened. He made my sister cry and denied her story, and when she said something satisfactory, her words were affirmed. His image of the family we needed to return to was “happy, loving, forgiving, gracious, and fun,” because nothing else was allowed. When Lydia and I were upset about being kicked out, our parents said we were unforgiving, and that we were making a big deal out of one out-of-character blowup.

A week later, this particular sister said mom and dad were what they said they were – kind, loving, and fair. She insisted that Lydia and I were wrong to say anything negative about our parents. We were relieved. Back in survival mode, it was easier for our young sister to succumb to the gaslighting than to see through what was going on.

Dad used this line to both Lydia and me, about why we couldn’t visit their home anymore: “Our love is unconditional, but our welcome is not.”

In mid-September, we were invited to the Birthday Bash. Lydia went. I didn’t, because I’d spent the previous day in the hospital for a self-inflicted injury. My friends banded together to supervise me (I’m the unnamed friend in this article about self-harm by my friend Eleanor), and helped me find a therapist to help me deal with my depression and relapse into self-harm.

My parents received my hospital bills and opened them, and said nothing about them to me. I found this out fourth-hand.

I had nothing left to lose – my parents didn’t even care about my mental health, and I couldn’t see my siblings anymore. So I started telling the story on my blog.

My dad really wants me to stop talking about how abusive he is. To get me to retract what I’ve said, he has offered me money, the chance to see my siblings, my choice of therapist to “reconcile” with my parents, and used countless other forms of manipulation. For her part, my mother hasn’t made any effort to contact me since September.

In October, we were invited to the twins’ 8th birthday party. Lydia and I knew it would be all fake smiles, and we wouldn’t be able to talk to anyone individually, and since we hadn’t seen any of the kids in over a month, they’d be confused. It was also an emotional risk to try and interact with our parents, and we were both suffering from anxiety after getting out. It was a double bind: show up, abide by the rules, do what our parents wanted. Or, if we didn’t, we looked like terrible sisters who didn’t care enough to celebrate our siblings’ birthday.

So last week, my dad asked that I stop saying my parents are keeping my siblings from me. He didn’t say we could come over anytime. He said we were welcome at the Birthday Bash, and at the twins’ birthday.

It’s not true, dad said, that we haven’t been welcome, because we got two invitations in four months. According to our dad, we’re choosing to stay away from our parents’ house because we haven’t sought to restore our relationship.

I was told our family was loving. Now I’m being told I was welcome. If this is welcome and love, I don’t know how to label anything. My parents use words they don’t mean.

Identifying Manipulative Abuse Tactics

Trigger warning: homophobia, manipulation, abuse

Manipulative abusers can be anyone, especially trusted people. This is a longer post than usual because I want to provide a comprehensive source for what a conversation with an abuser looks like. I have multiple examples of conversations like this one, but this argument is ideal because it took place over Facebook chat, and there’s a complete record of the full text and I didn’t have to work from memory to analyze my father’s words. 

——-

It was August 2012, and my family was gathered in the living room for evening prayers. Today was Chick-fil-a appreciation day, when hundreds of thousands of conservatives flooded the fast food restaurants all over the country. The message was “pro-family,” that is, Chick-fil-a supported organizations that campaigned against marriage equality.

I was lying on the floor, listening to my parents and siblings talking about the great turnout. They saw hundreds of people at Chick-fil-a that day, and talked about how great it was. I kept quiet until my dad said it was a chance to “show the love of Jesus” to the restaurant chain.

“Dad – guys, I don’t think today was a good day for the love of Jesus at all.” It was the first time I’d expressed an opinion on the matter, and my parents were shocked. I continued, “Today wasn’t a message of love. It was a message that told all gay people in this country, ‘we don’t support you.’”

Mom said I hadn’t read enough about the case, and I didn’t know what I was talking about. Then I was told to be quiet because it was an inappropriate conversation to have in front of the younger kids.

The topic was important to me, though. I’d just supported a friend who came out to me as bisexual, and felt conflicted about it. I wanted to research it more – was being gay a choice? Were gay relationships sinful? Should same-sex marriage be legal?

So I did my research, and the tension at home increased. See, I still believed that my parents were open-minded people who were open to opposing viewpoints. I mean, they said so all the time. I read a book that said Jonathan and David in the Bible were gay, and mentioned it to the teenagers in the house. I got called into my dad’s office, and when I said I didn’t believe everything in the book, dad told me to just throw the book away.

I was surprised. Throwing away other viewpoints wasn’t what debate taught me, and my dad always praised debate because it helped you entertain multiple perspectives. This conversation made me wonder if he really believed the phrase he fit into all of his speeches: “we don’t teach kids what to think, we teach them how to think.”

A year later, I was back in my dad’s office. I brought up a friend who was gay, and my dad insulted my friend’s “choice.” I got quiet and said I didn’t believe that anymore. Then I said I was so firmly convictedthat it was not Christian or Biblical to deny gay rights, that I wanted to write about it.

My dad gave me a futile offer. If I could convince him that being gay wasn’t wrong, then I would be allowed to write the series on my blog. This seemed reasonable to me.

A few months passed, and I sent my dad videos and books and blog posts defending gay relationships from a biblical perspective. He wasn’t convinced, but I spent dozens of hours working on my series. I contacted a few friends who were outspoken on the subject on both sides, and read the books they recommended. The more I read, even though I had long since lost interest the bible as an authority, the more I was convinced that even the most steadfast bible-thumping Christians shouldn’t oppose same-sex marriage.

———

That’s the backstory for a conversation that happened between my dad and me in January of last year. I want to provide a commentary here, to exemplify what it looks like for a manipulative person to use all the right words.

I broke the news. “I’m writing about homosexuality next week.”

Dad was instantly offended, taking my decision personally: “Great. Thanks a lot.”

My response: “Please don’t be mad at me. I didn’t think there was a good way to bring it up with you, but I really need to write about it.”

I reacted like a child that’s been hurt before, and who didn’t feel safe. To this day I have trouble with break-ups, quitting anything, and voicing frustration of any sort.

The gaslighting (where the abuser questions the victim’s memories) conflict happens here. We remembered our conversation differently. He said, “We talked about this issue, and you agreed to be sensitive to us about it.”

I replied, “I said I would take it into consideration, but you keep telling me what to do.”

Instantly, he switched tactics. Now it was time to threaten me. He carefully phrased the words so I felt like the results would be my fault, not theirs. “Your mom will be extremely upset, and I will be disappointed in you.”

The only thing that gave me the ability to stand up to him, was that I had to choose between my parents and my personal belief that God wanted me to write about this subject. I compromised: “Okay. I don’t have to avoid disappointing you in everything I write.”

Tactic switch again: “I wish you would be more patient with us.”

Today, this line makes me smirk. I was never allowed to express my own wishes, and to expect anything but getting, as one of my friends put it yesterday, steamrolled. My feelings, my wishes, didn’t matter. Mom and dad’s did, and I needed to think of their needs only.

I told him I’d waited months, and my silence was weighing on my conscience. I needed to write.

Then my dad used a phrase that sounded great: “We’re not asking too much from you.”

When an abuser uses all the right words, they efficiently confuse the victim. It’s a lie – my parents wereasking too much of me. I was 21, and I shouldn’t worry about my parents’ political views before writing on my personal blog at any age, much less as an independent adult.

I didn’t even notice the line at the time. It was added for effect, to neatly surround his demands so they wouldn’t feel unreasonable.

My words were diplomatic and hesitant: “I’ve sent you resources and you just keep saying that I just shouldn’t write about it. Mom won’t even talk to me about it.”

Dad shot back accusations: “That’s not fair. You’re growing impatient.”

These were easy enough for me to refute, because it was fair. I told my dad that I didn’t agree with everything he posts on his blog. I added, “I think I’m doing extra by having made my views clear to you guys and giving you a head’s up.”

Then we started going in circles. Manipulators need to look strong, so they often paint the people around them as vulnerable, and say the victim is hurting them. Many parents threaten older siblings by saying they’ll hurt their younger siblings, which, for us, is like threatening our children. In this case, dad used my mom: “This is a contentious issue with your mom, perhaps me, and you will do great damage if you parade this issue.”

It takes a mindset of blame to phrase things this way. I would do great damage. It was me doing it, not them.

I went back to my conviction to write my series. I was scared because until then, few people knew about my changing political views. I might lose a lot of my audience members, and I was afraid I might be wrong. I said, “Do you think I’m not scared about what it’s going to do to me? I have to do what God’s been telling me to do for months and months.”

Now it was down to a choice: God or my parents. Dad asked, “What has God been telling you?”

“I told you this,” I wrote, and I had. “He said I need to write about what I’ve learned, that gay marriage is acceptable in Christianity.”

Manipulators distance themselves from the situation. As I said earlier, sometimes this means making the victim feel guilty for hurting a weaker person, like children. Sometimes it’s about phrasing. Dad started referring to himself and my mom in the third person: “How about you try to convince your parents first? They have asked you to be sensitive to them about this. Is God telling you to ignore them?”

After distancing himself, he tried flattery. “Look, Cynthia, you’re doing great things, and you are pulling me in a direction that I suspect is very good.”

The whiplash was familiar to me when he switched from spiritual manipulation, to flattery, to accusation: “But you’re pretty much telling me to hell with your convictions. We’ve asked you to pause on this one issue and consider us, and you’re saying God is telling you to ignore us.”

What I pointed out next is hypocrisy – another thing abusers use as a tactic. Because I was trained to see more flaws in myself than in my parents, it was easy for them to accuse me of what they were doing. I said, “You’ve told me to hell with my convictions over and over again, and you can only see the way it is for you.”

“That’s not fair to us at all,” he said again. “We would give you consideration if there was something you valued so much.”

It was a lie mixed with a promise, flavored with insult. This was something I did value, but he clearly wasn’t considering me. Abusers are constantly moving the goalposts. He was promising to consider me if it mattered. If he wasn’t considering me now, then my feelings, my conviction, didn’t matter enough. Validation was just beyond my grasp, and I realized I might never get it from him.

I told him I was ready to move forward.

Manipulators make their feelings more important than their victim’s feelings. If all else fails, they’ll say something like what my dad said next, again bringing in my mom as a pawn to guilt trip me: “You’re really hurting me, Cynthia. And this will be incredibly painful for your mom.”

I said, “This isn’t at all because I have a grudge against you.”

My dad’s next monologue is full of things a non-manipulative person might say. He used positive things to hedge his threats, guilt trips, and blame. He claimed to understand and to validate my feelings.

“I know this isn’t about me. I’m asking you to consider me and your mom.” These contradictory sentences came as a pair. If it wasn’t about him, then why did he follow it up with a request that, well, made this about him? The phrase “I know this isn’t about me” is one I heard regularly growing up. It was always followed with something that reinforced what they’d just denied. Manipulators like to slip in phrases that make them look good.

“If you’re not going to do that, than [sic] I’m really betrayed. I would not do this to you.” Another guilt trip, along with another lie.

“I have considered you guys,” I said. “That’s why it’s been so long.”

This time, dad was desperate enough to give a legitimate concern: my audience, subscribers, and commenters. He phrased it in a way that shows little understanding of the political situation, though. Here are his words: “The homosexual lobby is ruthless. They make the anti-family trolls look like children…If you bring them into the conversation about grace and love and church and everything else, I suspect you will destroy your momentum.”

Then, a threat in disguise: “I very much suspect you will destroy our support for you.”

Not “We’ll stop supporting you.” No, that would make it look like he was doing it, and he needed to make this feel like it was my fault.

“I know.” I said.

He kept talking. “I say ‘very much’ because who knows, you may be right. But I don’t think you are.”

“I know.” I said.

“Then why are you doing this?” My dad asked.

I’d already told him why. My conscience, my political philosophy, my study of the Bible, my support for my friends told me that I’d regret not writing.

“We’re going in circles,” I said. “I have to go…I love you. Even though I have to do something you don’t understand right now. I hope the series will help you and mom understand the issue better.”

The next day, I started publishing my series about how I came to support same-sex marriage. A week later, I finally went to see a professional therapist because in the midst of family conflict, my depression was getting worse. It was something I’d given up on going to my parents for help about.

Betrayal and Conviction

This post was originally published on December 24th, 2014. It was one of the last things I wrote about my experiences with prayer before I lost my faith in God entirely. Re-uploaded in 2018 as part of the archive restoration project. For more on the God question, I wrote about my experiences with prayer on my friend Neil’s blog here

On Christmas Eve, two years ago, God told me to wash my family’s feet.

I hate saying that God told me to do things. There are days when I don’t believe myself. There are days when I think it’d be easier to just say it never happened, and to stop trying to believe in God at all. There are days when I think about how much choice I have, when I’m deeply sure about a clear command. There are also days when I’m glad I did what I felt like God was telling me to do, because it was powerful in hindsight.

Samantha Field blogged recently about how “conviction” is a triggering word for her. She called her post, “Christians understand your feelings better than you.” In Christian circles, “conviction” means God has convinced you about something. Countless Christians use it as an argument: “God is convicting you right now,” they say, and thereby silence opposition. When I tell friends that I’m convicted about something, they look at me warily – they’ve heard abusive Christian leaders use so-called “conviction” to justify their actions. They said God was on their side, and you can’t question God.

So I won’t tell anyone that they’ve been convicted. I won’t be a Christian that projects and pretends to know others’ feelings. I also won’t tell people what to do because God told me to tell them to do it. That’s just spiritual manipulation. It’s dangerous because it equates disagreeing with me and disagreeing with God, even if I think I’m right. Especially if I think I’m right.

Other people don’t know my feelings better than I do. I don’t know other peoples’ feelings better than they do. I know when I’m personally convicted, though. It just applies to me, my prayer life, and the Infinite One I encounter sometimes. That’s what this story is about.

My family has a series of rituals we go through every Christmas Eve. We have an ornament full of notes, holding all the things we’re thankful for that year. Since each person in the family has a chance to highlight the year’s best moments, and the tradition started before I was born, it takes us hours to read through them all. Mom takes the baby Jesus from the Nativity set, and the younger kids look for him. The child who finds him first receives a gift. We also do the “Birthday Gifts for Jesus,” which is not required. If we wanted to, each of us kids could give something to Jesus and announce it for the family.

Sometimes, we’d perform Christmas-themed plays. I once choreographed a dance to a Christmas song. The younger kids would draw pictures, often demonstrating pious dedication to behave in a more honest or prayerful way in the coming year. It was the most creative and unexpected part of our Christmas tradition.

About halfway through December, I was talking to my mom, and I remember feeling slightly annoyed with her. I don’t remember exactly why, but my next thought was a notion, an intense feeling about what I should do for my birthday gift for Jesus that year: I should wash the feet of my family.

I didn’t want to, really. Not that it sounded too gross – I’d done plenty of bathing children and rubbing my mom’s feet when she was tired – I didn’t like how nerve-wracking it would be for me. Earlier that year, I’d been to a beautiful wedding in which the bride and groom washed each other’s feet, as a sign of service to each other. As I thought about it in the days that followed, though, I thought it would be at least poetic. This would be my last Christmas while living at home, if all went as planned. I wanted to give them a meaningful going-away memory. The thing that was my main reason, though, was that God told me to do it. What I was prophesying, I didn’t know. I just felt very strongly that it would be prophetic.

I was nervous when I waited for everyone else to give their birthday gifts to Jesus. I got a tub, a pitcher, and a towel, and made my brothers and sisters and parents sit down around the table. I told them I planned to move out within a year, and that I wanted to show them how much I loved them. I didn’t say God had told me to do this – like I said, I avoid making such claims if I can.

They watched and listened, curious, and they didn’t realize what I was about to do until I got on my knees and removed my mother’s shoes and socks.

I improvised a little speech for each family member, talking about each of my siblings’ individual strengths, the things I noticed about them. I blessed them as I dried their feet, and the water was thick with dirt because even in winter, we all went barefoot so often.

The plan was for me to move out. My parents kicked me out instead, close to the same timeline.

I started by washing my mother’s feet, and she was the one who I felt most betrayed me. I trusted her, and she was the most subtle in hiding her abuse from me.

My sisters and brothers cried when they saw me breaking the rules of the large family. Older siblings are leaders, authorities, parents. I was giving them a sign of humility.

My father, however, fidgeted with his phone and seemed disconnected while I washed his feet. He didn’t understand what I was doing, and it was one moment that confirmed for me that I was a prophet, and he didn’t understand my conviction. That was okay, I decided while I cupped my hand and used it to run water over his toes, conviction was for me, not other people. I won’t claim to understand his feelings better than he does.

This Christmas, the first Christmas that I’m not spending with my family, I know I won’t be in the ornament of thankfulness. Like my sisters before me, I’ll have my name removed from the top of the list, and we won’t laugh every year about what I was thankful for in 2014, or any year after that. I chuckle to myself, because the things I’m thankful for this year aren’t things they’d write down anyway. My bravery to blog about my support for same-sex marriage, and to go public about the abuse in the family, for instance. The countless experiences I’ve had, things my parents would call sinful and rebellious, things my siblings would be shocked to hear.

I didn’t make any cookies this year, I didn’t let four of my kids gather around me while we rolled dough and made messes. I didn’t grin when I saw my brothers sneaking below the overhanging countertop to steal my baked goodies. I didn’t blast my favorite electronic versions of Christmas music through our living room surround system all month, and exhaust myself making a list of everything I wanted to cook for Christmas Day. I didn’t even think about Jesus very much.

I just went to a lot of therapy, cried more than I ever have as I become more emotionally connected, explored new relationships, and was hugely relieved that I didn’t have to talk to my parents anymore.

I’m so glad I followed that strange conviction to give my family something to remember. They believe that I betrayed them, but I was expressing servitude when I did what I did. Jesus washed the feet of those who would betray and deny him. I’m glad my siblings will remember what I did that Christmas Eve.