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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Six months

I can still feel the steel chair under my legs in that filthy but over bleached room in the government center. It was one of those moments that imprint on your memory...like a branding iron on the hip of a calf. I was about to lose my house. My husband had moved out of state and we eventually separated and then by sweet mercy, divorced but before that, it was just me and my two girls scrapping to make it. Having been a part time work at home journalist to now a full time bread winner, I simply could not do it. The cost of two in childcare on my income would leave a pittance for a mortgage and to work full time from home was not an option. I did everything I knew how to do. I donated blood, I sold nearly everything I didn't need desperately and prayed every night for some kind of relief. I remember sitting outside on the deck of my about-to-be-foreclosed home and wondered how it got this way. How I became so dependent on someone who could so easily walk away. How was I going to save this house. And when it got very dark, how could I feed my girls. As hard as this time was, it was by far the most powerful. I was reduced to a frantic frugality I had never known. Walking over driving, bartering, reaching deep within myself to stay afloat and alive. And despite all my best work, the bottom came. My house was in foreclosure. I had no child support and only a meager income I could use to keep heat on. A broken faucet, repaired by a greedy plumber took two weeks of my income and I realized I had been taken down. My fight was futile. My friends and parents, not sure how to respond to my divorce opted out of getting involved. Except my beautiful grandmother who kept my girls warm that winter and kept my car payment current. And then my aunt...she came with me to the local government office to apply for food stamps. It was the single most excruciating day of my life because defeat found me and swallowed me alive. Frankly, it was the most defeated I have ever felt. The first day my EBT card arrived was not the relief I thought I would feel. As much as I knew I could now feed my girls on the "generous" $260 a month, I had to inhale the humiliation that I was now, "one of them"...the very ones I helped for years...the very people I advocated for...the very mothers I took pity on over the holidays and provided presents for their kids. These were now my sisters. I realized how far I considered myself away from them on a social ladder. I remember watching their stories on Dateline and feeling emotional about their plights and harrowing experiences of poverty and challenges and defeat and yet here I was. One. of. them. It only took three months then my part time job went full time and I was granted a commission by the state to work on a three year journalism project that would change my life - and yet it had already changed. Before my presentation I was hitting consignment stores to find a suit to show up at an event that was funded by the wealthiest donors in Tennessee. Sharing expensive catering over cut glass bowls and comparing shoes and art found around town I saw myself in a different way. Because I knew how to hold a wine glass and could speak freely about Matisse didn't surprise me...I am educated, cultured and well mannered...but they never knew I would retreat back home and pray the lights were still on and I could scramble enough dollars to pay a sitter. I am okay with the lie I was living...it was saving my life and making millionaires feel good about funding me as a writer but why? If they knew I was losing my house and could barely feed my kids, was I still the darling they thought they landed? It didn't matter because I never went back there again. That job took me to DC where my destiny landed in the lap of the man who would alter my path permanently. Now, years later, in my comfortable upper middle class suburban home, I am grateful every day for my life, for my husband and for my peace of mind...I don't worry about how I am going to buy coats anymore. I don't worry about stretching a box of pasta for three nights either but what I do know is I am only a few paychecks away from that girl. The memory is ingrained...it keeps me aware and alive and in many ways, humble. I do a lot of donating and am always on a cause because as much as I love helping people, children being among my favorite, fear of survival is deeply rooted in me. I am today that girl I had hoped would come rescue me all those years ago. I never want to lose sight of what matters and never want to change the emotion I feel for struggling mothers. I never want that imprint to fade. It is who I am today. Not comfortable, grateful. Once you have experienced that kind of depth and poverty, even if it's only six months, it writes on the slate of who you are and it never leaves you. Ever.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

There I was...so excited for my dad to come home. He's been traveling for several weeks with a rock band in Europe and I was so anxious to see him. I remember watching him come through the door like Moses parting the red sea. We scrambled for his hugs and for his smile. It was one of "those" moments that you never forget. He was so happy to see us and we were now complete in his arms. I remember curling up that night feeling like my home was now secured by the Captain. All was calm in Pleasantville. Waking up and racing to school to tell everyone that my dad was home and all the things we were going to do. He had bought me a new doll from every country he visited and I couldn't wait to have my United Nations doll party on my bed after school. I came home and ran down the hall but curiously noticed my mom was in her room talking...on the phone...those land lines never let anyone get far and that white curly cord kept her bound to the bed during all calls. Being the very advanced age of eight I listened...through the door - you never know what kind of information you can collect about upcoming holidays or ...well...me :) She talked about my dad being home and all the excitement in the house. I couldn't stop my heart beating - just hearing those words activated my body like an engine being jumped. And as I pressed myself up against the pale wood door, I heard her say it. "He was happy to see the kids but really surprised at how chubby Dawn got...we both are. It's like you can barely see her eyes when she smiles anymore"...and that was it. The shot heard around my world. That man who was my everything saw me in a way I hadn't seen myself before. I remember sliding down the door into a puddle on the hallway shag carpet floor. As my mother went on about my eating habits and how she has done everything, white noise/white noise/white noise. I kept blinking and wondering...was I fat? Did I somehow become some giant slob that after not seeing me for several weeks, that's what lingers in his mind? And now my mother agrees? And is telling friends? How could I stop this. I needed to stop this. I couldn't disappoint or gd forbid, embarrass them. I examined myself in the mirror. I didn't see the weight - maybe that was the problem. I couldn't see how fat I was. That was even worse. How could I get thin if I didn't know what it looked like? And so it began. The starvation diets. The hiding food. The bypassing snack at every baseball game I played to the joy and applause of my parents only to retrieve it later out of my mitt. The calorie counts on the fridge...the way my mom would glare when I would trick or treat and the way my dad would hug me in pride when I skipped the sugar contraband. I defined myself by my innate ability to eat nothing but grapefruit for three days and then eat like an inmate on release for the following five. I was crafty. I could binge, vomit and then binge again. I could "dress skinny" in the "slimming" blacks my mom always found me. I could suck in my stomach in every picture. I could take diet pills and drink only water for two days. I could do this. It became who I was. It never really ended for me...he remarried a woman who would tell me she was taking me to dinner and then 'surprise' me with an aerobics class. And a "free" weight watchers' membership. And my favorite...for my 19th birthday they filled my freezer with weight watcher meals and put a bright red bow on a new kitchen scale. A daily reminder of what my calling was...to lose weight and be pretty and skinny. I have dealt with a horrible body image my entire life. Fretting about every pound I went up or down and the day I saw my own seven year old daughter step on a scale two or three times "to get the lowest number", I resigned the battle. It's just not about what I was eating, it's about what I was programmed to think, to feel and to believe. It's a mantra that says I am nothing if I am not skinny. When I was skinny, I was a single, pregnant bartender hoping those college classes at night would materialize into a degree and a job one day. I was insecure, broke and without an ounce of morality but yet, I was skinny so all must be okay, right? I remember curling up with my pregnant self and promising that little baby would never worry about what size pants she would fit in. I wanted her to shine like a beacon on every bay. And yet I was all talk...each prenatal visit would beckon the question from my mother, "how much have you gained"...and I would always lie. Shame and self loathing, even in my 20s, as I was becoming a mother hoping to distance myself from the only one I knew. The media, the gossip, the attitude about women and our bodies will not change. I am not going to celebrate or recognize defeat with every pound. I will teach my girls about healthy choices, not low carbs, about strong attitudes, not calorie contents and about being kind and empathetic, not thin and empty. Out goes the scale, out goes the numbers, out goes the celebratory photos of my weight loss...it's. not. who. I. am. If I could go back to that day when I could hear my heart breaking in that childhood hallway, I would walk in to my mother's room. I don't really know what I would say but it would start with STOP. But I can't. And really, she learned it from her mother and my father just does what his wife does out of fear. So as far as I can see it, I have a choice. I can continue hating my body or fix it the way I want and shove the light to the front of the line. Find my spirit and let her wear the jeans. Teach my girls to love it, embrace it and run with it. Their bodies carry their souls not the other way around. And remember that despite not being that little girl, I am still that girl. I can't outrun her but I can raise her again. A little older, a little smarter but just as smiley. And guess what - in my bright shiny new adult body...you still can't see my eyes when I smile. So fucking what. ********** ed note: My father would like say this conversation with my mother about my weight never happened. While I appreciate the correction, my blog is about my feelings every day since and the multiple moments where I felt shamed. Since it was very important to my father that this notation be added, I am providing it.