Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Found a happy memory

I found a happy memory of my mom, sister and me. We were in kitchen doing dishes and mom taught us to sing "I've been working on the railroad." Then we started singing it in harmony.

It became a little thing that we did every now and then.

I was surprised to find a happy memory of being together. The moment of remembering it literally felt warm and fuzzy.  

Sunday, November 24, 2013

I remember all of them

People who tried to help? I remember all of them.

1.  My aunt is a nurse. She gave us vaccinations in the living room at my grandmother's house when she found out that we weren't getting them. She tried to reinforce basic health information for us like washing your hands after you use the bathroom. The way she did it, though, was to catch us and ask on the way out of the bathroom in front of everyone, not to tell us before we went in. Maybe she didn't realize until then that we didn't know. She would tell us very pointedly that she loved us every time we saw her, but then we wouldn't see or hear from her for 11 months out of the year. Probably because she was single mom with four kids and had her own shit to worry about. My mom hates her.

2.  There was some kind of counselor who attended our church and worked with prisoners. I was at an alternative Halloween party where Christians gave candy to Christian kids so they wouldn't go out trick-or-treating. He noticed that I was just kind of standing there, probably overwhelmed by all the bustle and not knowing anyone, and started gently checking in with me.''What's your favorite part of your day?" I didn't even understand the question at first, so he had to explain what he meant. "I dunno, lunch I guess." I was noncommittal in my answer because at the time there wasn't really any good part in my day. He followed up: "So does your family all have lunch together and take a break from school?" And I honestly explained that lunch was me scrounging food by myself, by myself just like the rest of my day. And that there wasn't anything cooked for us or any food that was designated for lunch like the ingredients for sandwiches. I didn't add that after lunch sometimes we would arbitrarily get chewed out by my mom for eating "dad's tuna" or "too many bagels."

I think this person may have later encouraged my parents to attend parenting classes at the church, but that's just a guess. Certainly they wouldn't have gone without some social pressure. The class was based on the Ezzo's "Reaching the Heart of Your Teen" and so it was problematic, but honestly it could have been a big improvement in my life because of the sheer lack of any attention before. The main thing I remember coming from that class was this conversation with my mom:

Mom: "So, what love language do you think is your main one?"
Me:  "Quality time." (I had realized that when she told me she loved me I didn't believe it, and that I didn't feel cared for when she hugged me, so I assumed the form of love I wasn't getting must be the one I liked best.)
Mom: "Ooooohhh, you picked the hardest one."

3.  Doctors. The tiny local Christian school let homeschoolers join their sports teams. This was one of the only ways I socialized in high school, in a structure sports practice girls-only Christian-only environment. The school required two sports physicals for me. My mom insisted in coming into the exam room with me and the doctor the first time. He was nice to me and told me I had good ankles for cross country. He also made sure we talked about my nascent sexual development and even birth control, though my mom tried to blow him off.  She changed doctors. The next lady, a nurse practitioner, didn't let my mom in the room. Points for her. She didn't believe that I wasn't sexually active so she used her hands to feel my abdomen and make sure I wasn't pregnant and made me give a urine sample, but she didn't try to talk to me to find out if I was safe. I never saw her again either.

4.  Mrs. Uber-mom. There was a very generous nurse mom in our church who also homeschooled. She was constantly adopting strays, including letting a women with cancer die in her home. She was one of the only people who was kind to me. She told my mom that she had to take my brother to the doctor after his foot was broken for three days. My mom fought with this friend and stopped seeing her, like she eventually does with all her friends. It wouldn't surprise me if some of this was related to her opinions about my parents choices. Now Mrs. Uber-mom is going through a hard time and I really wish I could be there to help.

There are some others - the babysitter who noticed I couldn't see without glasses, the friend who helped me stage a conversation in front of my parents about a health problem, so that they would be embarrassed and take me for needed treatment. (It worked.) The dentist who confronted my mom about our obvious neglect. By the way, all this medical neglect happened while we lived in the nicest house of anyone I knew at the time. It wasn't about poverty, it was about shitty priorities.

I am thankful that there were some people around who noticed that my siblings and I needed help. But I also wonder what stopped them from doing more. I want to ask them to explain to me what was more important to them than protecting children. We were a mess, clearly, visibly.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

I'm still leaving

It takes years to leave fundamentalism, and more years to recover from an abusive or neglectful family of origin.

I am still susceptible to narratives that offer to provide the "one right way to live." For instance, orthorexia. If you just eat these foods you will be perfectly healthy and your life will be great and it will solve all your problems! Which means you should eat only a few bites of the homemade strawberry ice cream your friend made, and give up bread. Following our rules will fix your pain or keep things from going wrong in the future. 

It will not. 

There are things that reasonable people do to avoid the likelihood of suffering, but in the end we all have to accept the lack of control we have over what happens to us.

And it seems so natural to me to stay in all types of relationships where I am doing all the work to make the thing go, and my needs are secondary. When you have been neglected as a kid, it feels normal for you not to matter. Old friends who never calls you back, a parent who never calls or answers the phone?

I always feel that this is my fault. Maybe this time they will respond with affection. The message I learned was that I wasn't worthy of love, I didn't deserve people's time. That's a hard one to get rid of.

It is not my fault. 

I have real friends who don't treat me like that, and I don't need to suffer through that again and again.

These poison messages have continued to cost me relationships and career progress and made me live with a devastated view of myself. I'm still trying to leave them behind.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Declaration of Interconnectedness

An assertion of independence. Whether it's careful planned or quick and dirty, I'm realizing that this is a very American way of dealing with cultural tensions. We value freedom of expression and chosen communities built around commonalities. But when you find yourself unintentionally on the fringe of the community that was your childhood home, you realize there are some downsides to this way of doing things. 

I've spent a lot of time thinking about leaving the community my parents chose. Why don't I just broadcast my disapproval? For years I've fantasized about this and also hesitated to pull the trigger. I've already moved away and stopped attending church and being homeschooled.  I'm already out of the environment to all appearances. So I guess I think more about publicly realigning my cultural allegiance.

No one I know would ever ask someone from another culture to completely reject their culture of origin out of hand because of its problems. But people don't know how to deal with the real value conflicts that arise between cultures. Especially not when the "other" culture is inhabited by people who don't look "other". That makes it so much easier to reject their religious practice and weird social structures. 

Fundamentalist communities are fully formed cultures, with traditions, mythologies, social structures, and varying degrees of synthesis with American culture. Until I was an adult I knew no other way of living or relating to the world. It was a painful environment for me to grow up, because I was constantly hearing that it was not ok to be me, and I would love to take that painful experience away from other kids. But I don't believe any culture is wholly good or bad, including the one I came from.

So many traditional cultures around the world are toxic to women or oppress people with differences, but also have strong values of responsibility to family and community that are protective. What do you do with that mix of bad and good? People are going to deal with it in different ways. That's fine. Staying connected might allow you to save important relationships. On a practical level, I think that entirely unplugging from the community puts you in a very difficult rhetorical position to change the community. 

At some point there might be a tipping point where it's hard to be in the community and ask for change, and then you go. 

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Carrying around a big story

My neighbors are super friendly. Most people would consider that a plus, but it's a little scary for me. Getting to know new people still seems dangerous, except in certain safe contexts. I'm always ready for the rejection, for my difference to be too great, so I preemptively stay in the polite acquaintance zone. 

Tonight I tried to hang out and engage in spite of my fears.

"How did your family celebrate Halloween?"

A totally natural question, but I didn't quite see it coming, didn't have the quickness to laugh and just deflect it.  

The too long pause, the awkward laugh. Feeling like I gave away my big story.

"We didn't really do Halloween."

And they are kind people and so they politely moved the conversation along and pretended to take no notice.

Sometime I would like to take a break from wearing that big story. It is heavy.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Things that help

I have been listening in to the stories at Homeschoolers Anonymous and other blogs of former students of homeschooling and children of fundamentalism. It seems like a lot of us have had to struggle through processing painful memories and experiences alone, at least for part of our stories.

The things that are helping me the most are safe relationships and therapy. But I know that those resources aren't always the most accessible thing for everyone. Just in case it helps, here are some other resources or tools that I found useful:

1.  Legacy of the Heart: The Spiritual Advantages of a Painful Childhood by Wayne Muller

I would translate the author's use of "spiritual" here to mean something like personal strength - there's some inspiration here from many religious traditions without dogma. This reads like a hug. It was the right thing for me when I was feeling overwhelmed by grief about my experiences. It also has some guided meditation practices that you can try or just skip over.

2.  Lovingkindness meditation

Fill up your days with more thoughts of kindness to yourself and people you love. I found this to be true:

 "Expressing gratitude to our benefactors is a natural form of love. In fact, some people find lovingkindness for themselves so hard, they begin their practice with a benefactor. This too is fine. The rule in lovingkindness practice is to follow the way that most easily opens your heart."

3. Exercise

Reaching fitness goals and feeling physically stronger for the first time had a surprising impact when I first started on my journey, and still makes a big difference. Partly because it can help lift my anxiety and depression, but also because I am focusing on what my body is able to do in the world instead of how well I appear to be filling a feminine role. Training for my first race was also probably the first time that I changed my fundamental idea of myself. I went from non-athlete to athletic like magic. (Ok, there were some very non-magical moments along the way, but you get my idea.) In a very concrete way it increased my sense of agency and opened the door for other efforts at attempting new things and trying on new identities.

Running is free, and there are also some free yoga resources - this site has a free full length weekly yoga video, or Tara Stiles yoga stuff is also good.

Your turn - what helps you?

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Progress is showing up to the page

Silence used to control me. It's hard to explain how much, but imagine that every word and action was monitored for years, until I didn't need to be monitored anymore - until I was the monitor.

You lose your voice and personality.  

I agreed with the community that rejected my experiences, from the smallest emotions to the largest questions. I remained silent, because I agreed that my story was not allowed. I was afraid of rejection. I was afraid of hurting vulnerable people.

I am still afraid. I feel weak for not being able to speak under my own name. But I am clearing my throat, I am beginning to speak. For now, progress is showing up to the page.

What feels true today:

The first ones to tell the story take a bigger risk, and deserve our gratitude.

The threat of rejection means that your story is powerful. 

There can be a strong bond between you and the few people that you trust with all of your story, and I am grateful for that.

There will always be uncertainty when you tell the story for the first time to a new audience, when you are waiting for a voice to answer back.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Homeschooling and Mental Illness

Isolation was the constant experience of my ten years of homeschooling. A lot of this had to do with the fact that the adult presence in my daily life, my mom, was unpredictably angry, sad, or completely unavailable, and as time went on she increasingly avoided social situations.

It didn’t help that no one was good enough to be our friends.

After being pulled out of the fourth grade for a job change and move, my dad decided that my mom should homeschool us against her will. We suddenly spent most of our time at home and basically left the house once a week to go to church. A little non-denominational church that confirmed my parents in their belief that people outside of their own flavor of church weren’t really christians, including anyone who used the public school.

Post Flammas Germino

Post Flammas Germino - After the flames, I come to life.

I was a child of fundamentalist parents who home-schooled me and my sibilings. This blog is a platform for me to interact anonymously with anyone who wants to understand my story.

I'm taking my theme from the fire pines that respond to forest fires by releasing their seeds. Serotinous pinecones have adapted to survive fires, and when the time is right they are ready for growth and life. They are sementifera - they are carrying seeds that will grow in spite of their destructive environment.

I'm still finding my voice, and I plan to discuss difficult relationships with people I care about. So, I'm using an alias to help me control the timing of my self-disclosure. I'm a real person and I'd love to chat with you.

Feel free to send me email at

Sara Tinous