Bessemer Girl: You have what it takes to survive
“I just want to go home”
The phrase was on constant repeat in my head in moments of desperation and self-defeat. Starting in my teens, I’d have this phrase pulse like a chant in my brain. A motto for when I was ready to give up all hope, all fight, all resolve. Sometimes I wanted to give up on school, Chicago, Denver, parenting, homeownership, polyamory, romance, the stresses of my first job out of law school, the bar exam. It was the easiest thing to cling to in those searing stressful moments – the thought of home. Especially when I was far from Colorado. When times got tough the most comforting thought in the world was to crawl up in my bed on the giant house near the Fountain River and withdraw from the harshness of the world.
[CW: mentions of suicide, PTSD, sexual assault, trauma but also resilience, healing, faith and sex]
The past five years have been professionally prosperous for me. I have gone from owning my own mediation business to providing direct service to people experiencing homelessness, culminating in a senior management position at a major nonprofit organization. I honestly couldn’t be more grateful for all of the opportunities I’ve had. I am so very blessed.
But despite this extraordinary level of success in the past five years I have been increasingly unhappy. The chanting in my head didn’t go away with success, it only got more persistent. The stress breaking me down so it was constant drumming in the back of my mind, the first thing I’d hear in the morning and the last I’d hear at night.
It isn’t easy for me to admit that, especially here. More than anything I want my life to stand for something meaningful, powerful and inspirational – and deep in my heart I really, truly don’t hate my life. But the stresses, the accumulated traumas, the internalized doubt and toxic messaging of my internal world were constantly crashing into each other. I had never been great at prioritizing self-care, so when I was met with crushing amounts of vicarious trauma, fear and insecurity over the past few years, I spiraled even further into self-hatred, infecting my job, my family and my soul with a loathing I didn’t even know was a part of me.
I left my job at the end of October and left the organization last week. And what I’ve learned since then will help me survive the rest of this life.
I’ve been open in the past with the ways I’ve struggled with things like imposter syndrome and people-pleasing. When you’ve had such significant challenges with deservingness, that sort of meteoric rise can produce more anxiety and pressure than it alleviates. Until I found myself deserving of that kind of rise, it was never going to feel right.
I had too much that was working against me. The accumulation of vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue made my soul ache for daily relief that never came. I was new to supervision and my lawyer’s brain was constantly overthinking everything I said and did. I had trouble with processing financial statements quickly enough to give my people answers about expenditures. (Nevermind that I was now using terms like “expenditures” and “write-ups” far more frequently than my little social-justice, romantic heart ever imagined). I wasn’t taking care of myself either – getting an average of 4 hours of sleep a night, working an average of 65 hours a week, eating only one meal by the end of the day. I was dehydrated, chronically cranky and progressively unwell.
And so, over the past five years, instead of my brain chanting “I just want to go home”, it began to shift to “I hate my life”. A phrase that rang relentlessly in my head, even with the smallest of mistakes. When my nerves really were at their breaking point, the chant would spill out of my mouth bursting unwelcome into the rest of the world. My employees have heard it, my kids, my supervisors, my husbands. And when I was alone, I would find myself screaming it out loud. Impulsive and destructive. Multiple times an hour, multiple times a day. After a time it was barely controllable and barely contained.
It became so destructive that I was actively contemplating suicide, for the fifth time in my life. July, August and September were a white-knuckle ride. Each day presented new challenges that I was increasingly losing the ability to address or control. These challenges weren’t just about work – they included retriggering events and encounters, strong shifts in my family including sick parents and grandparents and the normal Trump-associated threats to the world. The hits just kept coming and I felt I was letting everyone down no matter how I responded.
And while I won’t go into detail about the reasons or rationale, what is important is that I reached out to the people best situated to offer meaningful help, without imposed expectations or unsolicited advice. I called on my team, both mortal and ethereal, to assist me through this storm. I have worked too hard, overcome too much, and had too much ahead of me to go down without a fight.
And that voice urging me to fight was my Pueblo voice: The Priestess of Pride City.
Go Big Blue
There is something distinctive about being from Pueblo. We are home to more Congressional Medal of Honor winners than anywhere else in the US. Formerly part of Mexico, we’ve celebrated Cinco de Mayo with our sister city, Puebla, the site of that historic victory. We host the Colorado State Fair and welcome all of Colorado’s makers, farmers, ranchers, and revelers culminating with the crowning a Fiesta Day queen. We have the longest running high school football rivalry west of the Mississippi (Videos: Bell Game 2019 – Bell Rings Blue ). And recently, our Governor has stood up with pride to defend the honor of our mirasol green chiles, defining the taste of Pueblo.
Although I grew up on the southside of the city (my backyard opened onto the City Park golf course) and eventually moved to the east side, I identify most with Central High School, in the heart of Bessemer, where I first found my identity.
I was the only daughter of mental health professionals, half-Mexican, half-white. While I made friends easily, my parents were both introverts who valued the sanctity of their home space. They rarely socialized outside of our family, and when they did, it was with political, social justice-minded folk who also worked at the state hospital with them. I have socialized with adults my whole life. I spent most of my childhood impressing adults with my maturity but never learning how to actually just be a girl.
My Catholic parish with Father Schmidt was where I learned the noble notions of “turn the other cheek”, “blessed are the poor” and “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed”. A trip to Medjugorje turned me into a local Catholic celebrity where little old ladies with turquoise jewelry asked me to lay hands on them to heal their hearts, all before the age of 14. My life wasn’t my own, it was pledged to my calling, my higher purpose in life.
It wasn’t until high school that I really found my own identity: delving deeply into my Mexican roots, claiming the identity of Chicana. I found my voice as a leader, through National Hispanic Institute and beyond. I played harmoniously with jocks, geeks and goths alike. I dated, had sex for the first time, and admittedly cursed some of the boys who dared to disappoint me. “Self-righteous” was often whispered behind my back. I was inspired by passion and wooed by rarity. While I had an abundance of meaning in my life, those years in high school, working at the ice rink, dating the ever-evolving forms of machismo, fantasizing about my bisexuality – that’s what really made me who I am.
We always joke that the first question you ask someone from Pueblo is “what high school did you go to?” The answer could mean the difference between camaraderie or enmity. And like most things in those years, having a sense of belonging, of loyalty to something bigger made the dreams seem to finally be within reach. The rivalry between our school, the true Blue wildcats and the dreadfully red bulldogs running for longer than a century is a tradition that feels bigger than one person, one year, one game. Our traditions, our idiosyncrasies, even when we’re bitching about it, matter. And we are too interconnected not to feel some protective pride over each other.
You can always go back home
When things were at their most intense, after surviving another near brush with self-imposed death, I took a retreat back home. A trip in the works for several months, a surprise birthday party for one of my closest high school friends, Mr. C, the embodiment of all these Pueblo ideals. Not only did I want to celebrate him, but I needed a retreat to find my compass once again.
The last time I had felt this desperately disconnected with myself was in the months after I had been outed when my mind was slowly succumbing to shame. I was still reconnecting with my friends from my 10th reunion, which had happened two weeks before I was outed. among them, a former high school lover and football star. In those weeks afterward, where I was first contemplating suicide, his voice was loud and strong, reminding me of who I was. The voice of Pueblo that saved my life:
You’re from Bessemer and you have faced greater odds than this. You are worth more than the mud they’ve slung at you and it can’t weigh you down. Now pick yourself back up and show them that they can’t ever knock down a Bessemer girl.
Since 2012, regardless of what I’ve been struggling with in my personal and professional life, every year, I need to make a solo retreat to Pueblo. An overnight to meditate, connect and replenish. An intentional trip 100 south to remind me of who I really am. When I am feeling powerless in the rest of my life, a trip home will always strengthen my resolve, renewing my confidence in my own path.
Starting with that intentional retreat in September, where I brunched at Jorge’s, meditated in the middle of City Park, and drove out to Liberty Point to watch the storms come in over the mountains, I felt myself starting to come alive once again. The taste, the sounds, the feel of my hometown air started to reawaken the girl that had been far too lost to the pressures and pace of Denver.
Pueblo taught me to have Courage – if you didn’t stand up for yourself or your community no one else would.
Pueblo taught me to have Pride – even the smallest accomplishments are worth being proud of because you know what it took to make it that far.
Pueblo taught me to have Resilience – life will knock you down and you will continue to get back up.
Pueblo taught me to find Companions – true friends that will believe in you every step of the way but give you a kick in the ass when you need it most.
Pueblo taught me to live my Truth – my openness, my honesty, my integrity were cultivated in the collected experiences of growing up in this town.
That girl, that Bessemer Girl, has all the courage, pride, resilience, companions and truth she needs to survive the storms ahead. My truth is that Pueblo nurtured me into a public speaker, into a systems-level thinker, into a compassionate leader. I could continue pouring my energy into fixing the problems of one agency, in one city, on one issue or I could redirect myself to have the impact that would honor the home that made me into who I am, that could change things much more broadly to be able to shift the balance of power in the world to finally start bringing the abundance, empathy and healing that I have always wanted to bring back to my hometown.
And today, as I embark on a new chapter of my career, the words “I hate my life” are slowly fading away, like a distant siren meant for someone else. I am regaining more and more of Who I Really Am, recognizing the power of my voice, replenishing my once broken spirit.
But more than anything I can finally say that look forward to what this Bessemer Girl will do next.