Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Breakfast by a Madwoman

Got turned down a few times to study playwriting in a grad school. I had all these IDEAS but that’s all they were. I hadn’t written much of anything I liked. I had been trained and experienced as a performer, but I was itching to tell my own stories the way I wanted to tell them. 

Around this time, I was at a longterm temp gig and I overheard a colleague I admired use the phrase A MAD WOMAN’S BREAKFAST. I froze. Those words meant something to me and I needed to know why. I had her repeat them and explain her anecdotal etymology and that night I was ignited to start in on a very poor first draft of a play about a woman who ran away from home. I wanted to see if I could find the line between nature and nurture and which one made her run. 

The next day, during a break on the admin gig, I searched and printed and taped my way to this odd thing and, as a joke, gave it to my colleague, thanking her for her words. 

Barbara. She kept it on her desk. 

This…IDEA. It was a poor excuse for a sculpture but the IDEA was no longer just that. I’d handed it to someone else…and they took it. Applauded it. Shared it. 

When I got to a presentable-ish version of MADWOMAN, many people read and commented and acted like this IDEA was a reality. I was #grateful. I was also #busy. 

I moved. Bought a house. Had a baby. A permanent full time job. THEN I got into grad school. Learned to write using more than my impulses. 

More #lifehappened and I moved again. To Atlanta. And in 2020, a bunch of theatremakers found each other and we took a mad woman’s play and ran with it. We crammed rehearsals with experiments and DIYed our way to a show we loved and gave to our fellow colleagues. A lot like handing over an awkward sculpture made out of extra office supplies. 

As I am watching all of my peers and partners and friends and family create and inspire and tell their stories—with a passion for nothing but fulfilling that first impulse they’re called to give—I just want to thank those who take us in and applaud us and share our work. 

Here’s to making ideas into stuff. Here’s to making that stuff matter. 

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Hurt People Hurt. Hurt People Blurt.

Artist: Jennifer Skura Boutell

Whistleblowing. Speaking your truth. Advocacy can be traumatizing. To the advocate as well as their audiences. How can we be more careful when speaking up (and listening) so we don't create more toxic shame and perpetuate the problem?

When I was 15, I was in such an abusive situation that I had no choice but to speak up. IT spoke up for me. My voice. IT protected me. In the moment I blurted the truth out loud because it was my only weapon. My only defense. I couldn't help it. I blurted the truth so loud and fast in order to survive what was happening to me and my mother that when she heard what I said, she just...stopped...and stood dumbstruck and...well...then she fell apart. 

My mother had her own deep traumas and incredibly difficult challenges preventing her to thrive within her own life. My blurt was her last straw. To this day, if you took a traditional convention of modern American story telling, eliminated a lot of context, and diagrammed her life after that moment, you can trace her journey, her obstacles, and her climax to this exact inciting incident. My blurt threw that blade of wheat right between her eyes, landed in the straw cart, and the thing smashed to the ground with the wheels bouncing down the mountain. It wasn't the first (nor the last time) she snapped, but after it happened, she went back to the hospital for mental health treatments and when she came out, she was never the same again. She took A LOT, I mean A LOT of pills, and died an early death from non alcohol related psoriasis almost twenty years after that. Like many, she'd done the best she could with what she had and medicated herself to death.

Right after my Blurt, my mother IMMEDIATELY called her therapist and put me in the car to see them. (She was doing what she thought was right and also letting her toxic shame and fear lead the way. The next move should have been calling the police and someone should have been put in prison.) This therapist called an urgent family meeting (we went back that same night) and scheduled several other family meetings where I was forced to sit for weeks on end with some of the people who had been abusing me my entire life in order to "work things out" so our family could "get through" this major situation. Only there was no canceling of the abusive behavior. My reaction to the abuse was canceled. This Blurt that I had made that had disrupted everything, family therapy was about how to deal with the emotions that came up from it so we could all go back to exactly the way we'd been before. And the way we'd been before was against the law.

I instinctively rebelled after a few sessions and even refused to get in the car regardless of threats and punishments. I stayed home and acted out my own self harms. It became them against me and I was shamed for not playing along and not forgiving them and eventually called a liar and a drama queen. 

After the The Blurt to my mother, and still not knowing what to do to stop the abuse, I had told some close high school friends. One of them was my high school sweetheart, who OF COURSE was also a child, and OF COURSE needed to do what they needed to do to survive their own challenges, much less my...disruption... But after two years of being together and two weeks shy of graduation, they broke up with me and continued to hang out with our friends. It was high school, so OF COURSE, that meant I didn't have my tribe anymore to spend time with. With the exception of my life-long bestie, they refused to let me in their cars. I stayed home with my self harms until the day we graduated. The person I spent the most time with was a new friend who'd confided in me in tears one day after school. They'd been socially ostracized because they'd had an abortion. No one asked who had abused them either. We became close and talked each other through our loneliness. Sometimes trauma bonds are good things.

At graduation, my old tribe and I took pictures together on the steps leading up to our alma mater. It was the right thing to do and I don't remember and still don't feel slighted by any of them from what happened. We're all posing together, looking like we are right out of a frozen moment in a John Hughes film. We were all pretty popular. Earlier that year I had been crowned Homecoming Queen. Those photos were in the local newspaper. I look back at those and remember that my mother was in the hospital and my step-father, pictured while escorting me to be crowned, is looped with me arm in arm. He'd been molesting me for years.

One day in the aftermath of my blurt, Children's Protective Services showed up at our door. I answered it. The person asked if there was a little girl in the house who was unsafe. "You don't look like a little girl, how old are you?" I told them. I also mentioned I had a three year-old half-brother who I helped take care of. Rifling through papers in an overstuffed bag, they said, "Oh. It says here there's a little girl that might be in trouble. I must have bad information...let me check something..." My heart was pounding. My voice was NOT able to speak up for me in that moment. I stood numb and didn't know what to do. (People weren't allowed at our house without major home renovations. We had secrets we kept and needed careful and clever ways to hide them in plain site.) While they searched their paper trail, I secretly prayed this person had arrived because of a neighbor on a white stallion and scanned the neighborhood for a knight. I hadn't noticed my mother had come out of her room. I hadn't felt her behind me. She blew past me and got in the CPS worker's face and started yelling for them to get off her porch. They literally ran away to their car. I wasn't invited along for the ride and we never heard from them again.

After that moment you can bet that not only immediately, but for the rest of my days at home, the abuse did not stop. The Blurt seemed to have made everything worse. To this day, I walk into a room and those who know some of my stories about my traumas either cringe to a palpable effect because of my mere existence or they are drawn to me for them. It's a part of me. Some days it seems unbearable because sometimes the people who I want to love me do the cringing and sometimes people who are drawn to me make me cringe. Manipulation comes in all shapes and sizes and intensions. 

I can't ever get away from these things that happened to me. And I can't ever get away from the things I did about them or because of them or just because I've lived my life. You can't ever get away from yourself. You can't leave the room you're in. I mean, meditation, dreaming, drugs, sure...but in most of society, you have to be conscious on the regular and all while in the body you arrived here with. I'm me. I am a sum of the show starring me. All of this is a part of me. And I am so very lucky that there are so many more days now where I'm actually grateful that it is the case. It wasn't always. 

But now, even more so than that, I'm grateful for my voice. The one that blurts and also the one that slows down and learned to speak more clearly and without traumatizing myself or others in the name of advocacy. I owe a special thanks to the people and the tools and the situations that have allowed me to speak up and remain vulnerable and safe. We all do.

After leaving my childhood home, for many many MANY years, I acted out all the stereotypical (and not so typical) ways to move in the world while living with PTSD and other memory related mental issues along with some severe somatic effects. I hurt a lot of people because of it. Still do even though I'm much more aware and careful not to. But back then, I was blessed to get to continue a childhood passion and went on to a career in acting and as I got older, even though I did a lot of work on my emotional well being, I wasn't healed. Sometimes I was encouraged for not being healed. It's impossible to stop blurting altogether, but you can be an expert at putting them to use. There's even modes of acting skills that encourage it. Art is Us after all. 

So like everyone who's still here, I learned the skills to survive, to hide my shames that I only continued to perpetuate in secret, but really, I learned excellence in how to keep my voice in check. I learned how not to disrupt or speak up because when I did...sometimes things changed in pretty big ways.

I used acting out other people's stories to help me hide my toxic shame. I'm now using my own stories to share it. 

I believe toxic shame is killing us and I believe the only way to beat it, is by speaking up. Advocating for truth before judgement. Shame becomes toxic in dark and secret corners and with all the ways we are encouraged to be an avatar of our life, we're in the middle of a toxic shame pandemic. We hide reality every day in new and inventive ways. Shaping it for the sake of beauty and necessity. But like any force that has the ability to multiply and grow, it will take up the space and the shape of whatever container it is given. 

It's been a while since I've had to live with or felt I had to tolerate abusive behavior. And it's a joke to think there's ONE thing that abuses us or traumatizes. ONE moment that we survived. There is actually and factually no reason or fault as to the exact narrative of why we get hurt and suffer individual and universal toxic shames. You couldn't do a science experiment to reproduce their origins. There's no final source but all encompassing good 'ol organic, judgement-free consciousness. There's too many variables that, depending on your belief system, either destiny or chaos, control. We love and hate. We just do.

But the reason why we have to keep going and stay focused on speaking up and disrupting with our truths, even when it's hard, scary, and exhausting...the reason we can't get overwhelmed from the loneliness of making enemies and losing loved ones as we break generational and societal trauma and refuse to tolerate abusive behavior... (Canceling people isn't fair. Canceling behavior is. It's the only thing that works.) The reason we can't be tired of continuing to do the work to make necessary changes in order to thrive, not just survive...the reason we can't be numbed by the saturation of the hashtags and memes and headlines and storytellers...the reason we have to stay focused and continue to endure the simple act of listening and paying attention and staying engaged as if we are Olympic athletes...the reason is...because if we don't, we will not only perpetually traumatize ourselves in the same ways, but we will continue to add new ones. Toxic shame has to go. Keep speaking up AND keep listening. 

Some of the most traumatic parts of all we've survived and lived through is simply what happens because of The Blurt. That blurt tends to come out in the first moment you realize you're going to die. Either it feels that way or it IS that way. The Blurt is what protected you. Like a seatbelt. But it has to be used in safe ways. The Blurt can also become the thing that won't release you from drowning in a car that goes over a bridge. Everyone knows you unbuckle before the headlights hit the water.

The Blurt, like a seatbelt, can be the thing that changes the course of EVERYTHING. It's powerful. There's seatbelt laws for a reason. (And constitutional rights to say what we want to and NEED to.) Having the societal stamina to protect ourselves from the toxic shame that can happen before, during, and after advocacy and safe communication is something we need to deal with and now. (I personally think we need to add communication and relationship skills to our public school curriculum.)

Hurt people hurt. Hurt people blurt. And we are all hurting from something at any given moment. All of us. I'm advocating for safe advocacy. 

Don't shoot the messenger, and find designated drivers to and from the delivery. 

I'm so incredibly grateful to be able to get up every day and have the life I have. It isn't lost on me completely the who, why, how, and when all of these resources and people and situations have enabled me to continue to thrive. It is a passion of mine to share that. IT won't let me stop...