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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 home my family built. They moved to Denver to support me, my young kids and my grandparents. I will always want to be back here.

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.

Impostor Blessings

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.

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Lessons from Men: Sincerity is Sexy

Since I was a teenager I’ve gotten into the habit of not giving much weight to compliments. I don’t absorb them easily, don’t take them seriously and I try to avoid a lot of situations that would result in ever receiving them. As I age, now in my 40’s, I give them even less attention than I did when I was younger. I have fallen into a habit of dismissing them as useless noise in otherwise great conversations.

It’s no understatement to say that I don’t accept compliments very well. Whether it’s my intellect, my beauty or my impact, I’m very reluctant to accept positive feedback about myself no matter who it comes from. But when I receive romantic or sexual compliments, particularly from men, my reluctance turns to suspicion.

Here’s why:

The men who came before you ruined it.

My first job was at an ice arena in the 90’s. For a while I was the only female under the age of 50 who worked there, so most days, I was working with 3-5 men at any given time. When I wasn’t on the ice or behind skate rental doing my homework I was shooting the shit with the guys.

Leaving alone some of the more unsavory and illegal aspects of that job (the sexual harassment & uncompensated hours), every afternoon, when the rink was closed and we were between events, we sat in the box office or my boss’ office and talked about everything. I felt accepted in a way that I didn’t with others. The geeky boys at school rejected me, the jocks ignored me, the smart guys were weirdly protective over me and the beautiful boys didn’t know I existed. Not only were these guys paying attention to me, but they were giving me advice, insider information on how to attract guys.

 

My sexual education mostly had consisted of Catholic judgment tempered by access to a library with loads of books about puberty and sex. But even though I had resources I felt like a freak for my bisexual desires, the frequency of masturbation, the obsession over wanting to show off my body. I was able to contain the freak enough to date, to learn from the boys that I was with, but most of those messages revolved around seeking the approval of men.

Navigating Toxic Masculinity

So during those times at work I fancied myself a spy who had been given a glimpse into a deeper thread of masculinity. I gained access to the spaces where sexually dysfunctional assumptions are embedded in deep currents of shame. I knew even back then that these men were wearing masks to impress each other. Yet they were playing a game designed so that none of them would ever really win.  I knew that a lot of them felt pressure to brag and boast, to put up walls and hide their needs with a well-placed wink at their friends.

I also saw the men underneath. The ones who really wanted a happier relationship, the ones who were working through issues of self-worth and managing stunted independence. I eventually got to see the vulnerability, sometimes more acutely than their wives or girlfriends – because after a while, they forgot that I was a spy and they considered me one of them.

 

And while all of that would be ample reason to not trust their advice about boys, I was working from a skewed sense of self, insecurities run amok. Specifically, I paid attention to their strategies behind compliments. They taught me their code for how they talk about women and how to get what they wanted from women:

  • Tell a smart girl she’s pretty
  • Tell a pretty girl she’s smart
  • Beautiful – when you want her to fall for you.
  • Gorgeous – to keep her attention or get out of trouble.
  • Cute – girl next door that you want to fuck but might have to play the friend zone for a while before you can. 
  • Hot – to get her to act sluttier.
  • Sexy – the more breathless you say it, the more she’ll want to please you.
  • Nice/sweet – clingy woman who you’re trying to gently let down.

All of these strategies and definitions overlapped to a certain extent and varied from person to person.  But the lesson was clear – compliments were manipulations used to reinforce desired results.

From there I always had reason to doubt the sincerity of the compliments I received.  I developed a deliberate response system, using this code to uncover hidden intentions and build strategies of my own. I started seeing through the strategic use of eye contact when told I’m “gorgeous”. I could hear the impatient expectation hidden in their voice when told I’m “hot”. Poems and platitudes dismissed over and over. It’s all bullshit, packaged and sold as smooth seduction and I wasn’t going to get emotionally drawn into the value of the compliment.

I got to the point where I could anticipate each compliment through seeing the corresponding intention. I could easily weave through the different road signs and guideposts, avoiding pitfalls of falling for just any guy who called me beautiful. I modeled the frankness about sex that I wanted for myself. If I wanted to date someone, if I wanted to have sex with them, I just told them. No pretense, no seduction by compliment; I would just call it out. It didn’t always work in my favor – definitely got turned down a lot, but at least it was honest.

Expect and deflect.

 

Sincerity plants seeds of growth

 

Eventually and especially after going through sexual trauma, any compliment became seen as dangerous, a potential manipulation I had to guard against. And while I was only trying to keep myself from getting hurt, I know that this was also hurting those who really just wanted to connect with me by expressing their interest.  I’m honestly ashamed to think of all the really wonderful people who I’ve rejected because of the advice of these men.

I wish I could go back to the girl I was and tell her that the real lesson to take from the guys at the rink was how to discern insincerity from genuine interest. To notice that the way they treated women was more reflective of how they treated themselves. They manipulated because they were constantly wearing a mask that denied them the experience of connection. It was easier to define women and pussy as grotesque and mysterious than it was to admit that the 4 minute fucks they were hustling weren’t impressing anyone.

I would tell her that the people she would most value in her life, who would rock her world sexually and spiritually, would all have one quality in common:

Sincerity

An open heart, an open mind will always be the epitome of sexy for me. 

Whether it’s maturity or confidence, I know myself better than I did back then. I still have insecurities, but I no longer allow them to decide how I feel about myself or what boundaries matter to me. I simply don’t have time to waste on those who offer half-truths and generic innuendos. Nor do I care about the opinions of those who bring nothing but their desperate emptiness, no matter how much they try to hide it behind compliments.

I am most strongly attracted to those who are genuine within themselves. I care most about those who express empathy and even simple curiosity. Those who act consistently to express their own truth in a way that connects, rather than destroys. Sincerity always contributes more energy than it drains. And those who embrace their truth, no matter how ugly or damaged they feel it is, these are the people I want to know. These are the people I want to share myself with. And fuck, sincerity is just so damn sexy.

Manipulation doesn’t have the power to change someone. At best, it temporarily deprives them of the ability to make a conscious choice. Manipulations are the tools of the weak, those who can’t stand on their own with confidence.  Yet, compliments shared from a sincere heart are hard to ignore, kind of impossible to dodge. Once a sincere person shares their truth, it plants a seed of connection that give us new life, new energy, a change for the better.

Sincerity forces us to take off the mask and be seen for our honest selves. It is vulnerable and intimidating for certain, but it is entirely what our world needs more of right now.

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