Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Young, Black, and Gifted--The Struggle

When I was in elementary school, there was a girl named Elizabeth who was blind. In fact, she was the only person there who was blind. It was the sort of place where almost everyone fit the same mold--economically privileged, white, and without any of those disabilities that might be considered unpleasant to look at.

Needless to say, Elizabeth stood out like a sore thumb and so did I. I really hated seeing the way that other children openly teased her, so I decided to try and befriend her. We became fast friends. She introduced me to R.E.O. Speedwagon and I taught her how to play a modified form of tag. We'd get out on the grass where there were no trees and run around to our heart's content during recess time.

One day, we were sitting next to the jungle gym talking about heaven knows what and I said something in response to her. What I said, I don't even remember but her response was "Quit talking like a black person!" I asked her what she meant and she went on to elaborate about how she didn't like black people. When she finished, I just walked away. I never spoke to her again.

I don't know why that moment in time has stayed with me all these years later. I remember feeling so let down that even this blind girl couldn't see me for who I was on the inside. I never did make a single friend at that school. How could I have? Even the blind girl understood that she was further up in the hierarchy that mattered to the people there.

When I think about my experiences at that school, I feel really used. They didn't let me into that school because I was gifted. They let me in so that those children of privilege would get the opportunity to see a "real live" black person that could walk and talk and even multiply and divide in kindergarten. I was the school science exhibit.

My parents didn't realize what that school would do to me. My dad was a college student from an underprivileged background who truly believed that the only thing that separated the rich from the poor was education and hard work. He wanted me to have all of the opportunities that he'd missed out on as a child, so he got us into the best schools possible. We wouldn't even have been there if he hadn't worked like a slave for the Parent/Teacher Association free of charge for a few years.

He designed educational programs for the computer/math lab at the school. He oversaw the book sales and silent auctions. He did it all so that we could go to that school and get a good education and I will be eternally grateful that I had parents who were willing to do anything to give us a good life. Still, I wish that he would have been able to see what putting us in a place like that did to us.

My oldest brother and I were both academically gifted. He chose to get out of the gifted program when he got to junior high school because he really didn't have the strength to be the token black kid any more. I stayed in the program but became suicidal during my teen years. I think part of that was because of how depressed school and my home life made me.

One of my younger brothers had a learning disability. Attending that elementary school where I went was really hard on him. My mother was constantly called to the school because of his "disciplinary problems", so she eventually got him into another school where his needs were well met. My youngest brother only had to deal with one year at my old school because my mom pulled him out when she had my other brother transferred. That turned out to be a good decision for him too. As soon as he was transferred, his teachers at the new school realized that he was gifted in the arts. He's now a very successful Jazz musician who will be going to North Korea in two months as a part of a cultural diversity/goodwill program.

TheGerman also had experiences much like mine except he had to deal with being the only bi-racial kid in a predominantly black school on top of being in the gifted program. Now, he and I face the same issues that my parents face. VanGoghGirl was tested and found to be academically gifted, talented in the Visual Arts, and talented in Theatre. She was also diagnosed as having Attention Deficit Disorder. When she becomes an adult, I wonder how she'll view the decisions we made for her.

Side Effects?

Okay, it's official. I'm definitely suffering from insomnia again. My psychiatrist prescribed some medication for me to help me sleep but I am absolutely terrified of taking them. On some level I know it's irrational but I really feel like I might just stop breathing in my sleep and die if I take these pills on top of all the other stuff that I have to take everyday. I felt the same way about the Percocet right after my first surgery but the pain was so bad that I got over that fear really quick.

I just can't get to sleep or stay asleep for long periods of time. I think it's the nightmares. And what's causing them, you ask? Why, I suspect it's from the anti-depressant that I take. In the drug information that came with the bottle, it says that this medication can cause "vivid dreams". They aren't the kind of loup-garoux-chasing-you-up-the-stairs sort of dreams. For instance, two days ago I had finally gotten to sleep around 9 a.m. Awhile later I woke up and decided to lie in bed and watch some t.v. and I started feeling like my teeth were crumbling in my mouth. I grabbed my mouth and started trying to catch them. All of a sudden, I jumped up gasping and trying not to choke on my broken teeth. I looked around on my bed for about ten second trying to find the broken pieces before I realized that all of my teeth were still in my mouth unbroken. That might not seem that bad to some people but those who know me are aware of the fact that I have this little compulsive tooth-brushing habit because I'm absolutely terrified of getting cavities. That dream left me shaking.

I still dream of being completely off of all medication one day. Before the Lupus, I was the sort of person who hated taking pills and only did so if absolutely forced to do so. Even then I had to ground them into a powder with a mortar and pestle first. Nevertheless, you do what you have to survive, so I've always done my best not to complain to others about it. I think that's what makes writing this really therapeutic. I can express my gripes without seeming really ungrateful to the folks who have helped me through all of my struggles.

I went to see my local oncologist last week and told him that my Neurontin dose was keeping me from being able to function because it made me too drugged to do anything during the day. He adjusted it so that I'm only taking 300 milligrams in the morning and in the afternoon and then 600 milligrams at night before bedtime. I don't know if it's helping or not because of the insomnia right now.

I used to take the Lexapro (antidepressant) and Mobic (anti-inflammatory) at bedtime but they were killing my stomach even though I take Nexium every evening. I've learned to switch it around and take them right after dinner. That's the only way that I can avoid the really horrible burning sensations that make me eat a lot of bread in order to try and calm my belly. I didn't know it but the Nexium shouldn't be taken on a full stomach so taking it at bedtime has really been working out well.

At least I haven't been needing to drink any Maalox lately. That is a blessing in and of itself. God, I hate that stuff! I mean, if you make a product that is supposed to help someone's stomach, why would you give it the most gag-inducing taste known to mankind?!! I think I'm done whining for tonight. Maybe I'll go and take another crack at getting some sleep.

Monday, January 30, 2006

What Happened Afterwards/Remembering My Life

I'd never been an especially cheerful person growing up. My parents' divorce had really shaken up my world when I was ten years old. I had a very difficult time in elementary school being the only black girl in the gifted program in a predominantly white school. The other kids and I couldn't relate to one another, I think. I was always kinda sickly. If my brothers caught any sort of virus or childhood illness, I was sure to get it the worst.

My teenaged years weren't great but they were certainly better than a lot of people had, I'm sure. Hey, throughout it all, I still had food to eat, a roof over my head, and clothes to wear. Those facts alone make most of my problems seem like the grumbling of an American with no idea how people live in some parts of the world. So, overall I consider myself fairly lucky and definitely blessed beyond what I deserve. It hasn't always been easy to see it that way though, like three years ago when I was diagnosed with chondrosarcoma.

Even though it was months between when the doctors spotted the thing and when they were able to give me a firm diagnosis, my life turned into a whirlwind with absolutely no prior notice. I've always suffered from depression and I'd even been hospitalized for it twice but that was before the cancer. What do you think happens when someone basically tells you "Uh, you have this really big tumor in your chest and we're going to perform a bunch of life-threatening surgeries but we have no reason to believe that we'll ever be able to cure you"?

I don't even remember how I managed to get through those days. I can only attribute it to God's holy spirit. I mean, isn't news like that just the excuse that a formerly-suicidal girl needs to send her over the edge? I think that God sent The German into my life because He knew what I was going to be facing. The German and I both witnessed a grandparent deal with and eventually succumb to cancer.

I was dating CaliGuy when I was diagnosed with Lupus. We'd been together for a little over a year and things were going fairly well. Even though the lupus diagnosis didn't change my life nearly as much as the cancer did, it turned out to be more than CaliGuy could handle. He'd never dealt with issues like that. To this day, I don't think he's a bad guy but he just wasn't the sort of person who was cut out to deal with someone who had those sorts of needs.

CaliGuy was a poet too. One year, for the anniversary of our relationship, he gave me this book that he had bound with all of the poetry that he'd ever written to and about me. It was a really amazing gift. Yet, he was never ready to commit. I think he wanted to believe that he would be ready if he found the right girl but that wasn't the problem. I probably wouldn't have ever left him if he hadn't broken up with me. That's not something I'm proud to admit anymore because I don't believe you get any merit badges in heaven for putting yourself through hell unnecessarily but I have to be honest about it to give you an idea of the level of loyalty I had to this guy.

CaliGuy and I still keep in touch. He always calls me on my birthday which I truly appreciate. He's in a really difficult relationship with an older woman now. We talk about it sometimes. Am I a horrible person for hoping that he sees how he made me feel when we were together? I wonder if he ever thinks about that.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Yep. It's a cult.

I'm dealing with a bit of insomnia tonight, so I decided to surf around a bit. I came across an article that really made me think twice about the Religious Results post I wrote a few days ago. You know, I realize that my mother probably could have stood to get a little counseling when she was raising us but never did I have to worry about her sending us to church to get the devil beat out of us. Anytime your church members think that it's okay for the preacher to hog-tie a six year old child--after throwing him out of the window and holding him under water, I might add--you shouldn't need a judge to tell you it's time to keep your kids away from these folks.

I just thank God for the small miracles though. Of all the poor little kids who don't even know where their fathers are, these Butts are really lucky to have a dad that not only claims them but actually wants custody. Even though what these children experienced is really tragic, I must say that it was really refreshing to see a black man appearing in a courtroom where he is the good guy and doesn't stand to go to jail at the end of the proceedings.

The Nostril Hoop

As you can see, I'm pleased as punch about it. No more nostril screws for me.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Body Branding and Piercing

A couple of months ago I decided to get my nose re-pierced. I originally got it done when I was out in California years ago; I got it done in one of the malls. It was pretty common practice for these folks to pierce your nose with the same sort of gun that they used to do your ears and I didn't know of any reasons why that might not be a good idea so I just went with it. I was young and on my own for the first time and just pining for an opportunity to express my individuality. Even though I had this big, bulky stud in my nose, it was absolutely beautiful to me. I think it was because of what it stood for, not that I understood exactly what that was then.

Growing up I remember being called a heifer, a slut, and a b**** almost as often as I was referred to by my name. I am simply not in the mood for speculating why this was the case. It just was. Now I can see how the feelings that environment evoked led me to feel motivated to repeatedly behave in ways that seemed unrelated back then.

Heifers and sluts are to be used. Is it any wonder that I went through much of my life letting others use me? Where was I supposed to get any message that contradicted the self-image that I acquired? My mother worked hard to keep a roof over our head after my parents divorced. All of my cousins were younger than me so none of my aunts had any experience with helping a girl through the rough years.

I didn't willingly accept the labels affixed to me by others. I kept my virginity all through school in the hopes that maybe it would make my mother see that she was wrong about me. It didn't work and when I realized that, I lost my virginity to the boyfriend who showed me the praise that I had sought to find at home. I'm still regretting that move but you can't un-ring a bell once it's been shaken, can you?

I attempted suicide several times over the years and very nearly succeeded a few times. I know that it may sound selfish for a mother to try and kill herself and perhaps it was selfish. All I can do is explain what I did; Even now others are free to stick more labels on me if it makes them feel better, I suppose. Having my daughter is the best thing that ever happened to me but being pregnant reinforced the feeling that I really didn't belong to me. I was carrying a baby so now I had to do everything for her. If I had been healthy emotionally, this wouldn't have been a problem because being pregnant is one of the few times in your life where putting someone else's needs over your own is justifiable even if you may never get anything in return for your efforts. Even though I was a mess inside, I did what I was supposed to do. I ate a healthy diet. I exercised. I never missed a doctor's appointment and along with all of that, I began to hate myself even more.

During all of this I was also suffering from Lupus but that wasn't diagnosed until I was an adult. The doctors say that depression is a symptom of Lupus, so it's no surprise that I exhibited it. Furthermore, the fact that it took so many years for them to get to the bottom of what was going on with my immune system also makes it pretty understandable for a person to experience depression. When you are told that you're just lazy/playing sick/attention-seeking, it's hard to refute without a real diagnosis.

Having a name for my illness was great but it also added to my other problems. Suddenly, I "belonged to" my disease but I became determined to fight it to the end. Shortly after that I went to California. Piercing my nose was my way of branding myself, except the owner wasn't a boy or a family member or a religion or even a baby. My body was mine even if only for a little while.

Random Family Photographs

The Munchkin Posse playing doctor with the baby (who didn't seem to mind one bit)

Isn't she a gorgeous baby?

VanGoghGirl steals a hug from her Grandma

VanGoghGirl's Self-Portrait

This is a sketched self-portrait of VanGoghGirl that she used last year to create one of her paintings. I'll upload it as soon as I can. I love the way she drew her little odango on top of her hair.

Evidence of Beauty

Here lies proof that
even in death
we are all so much more
than we ever dare imagine that we could

Remembering California

About ten years ago, I was staying with my best friend out in L.A. Okay, actually, I was out there trying to hold on to an ultimately-doomed relationship with my boyfriend of three years. It was a really great time in my life though. I was healthy. I was loved. VanGoghGirl was with me. I had finally started college. What more could I have asked for? I have some really great photos from back then too.

I remember the time we spent on Venice Beach. It reminded me of the French Quarter with all of the vendors and street musicians vying for the attention of passers-by. I was so awe-struck but doing my best to seem aloof like everyone else. After all, L.A. is the capital city of Cool, right? We walked along the beach front, my boyfriend and I taking turns holding VanGoghGirl who was only about three years old then.

Even though Venice was fun, Redondo Beach remains my favorite. Along the beach the sand is powdery and clean from the waves dashing everything to pieces when the tide comes crashing in. But the best part of Redondo Beach is the pier. There's the tourist shops where I bought all the souvenirs to send back home like shell anklets and clear containers filled with tiny sea shells that look as if they've been painted by fairies. I remember VanGoghGirl asking me if they were real shells. Watching the sun set while sitting on the pier simply blew my mind. It was if I was witnessing God re-create the beginning of time. Those twilights are still imprinted in my mind all these years later.

I'd love to go back to California and get married on that beach. Beaches are just perfect for marriages. The infiniteness of the sand...The pregnant oceans exposing its secrets with every unrelenting wave...It really was the time of my life. Now I just hope that all of my dreams weren't washed away with the tides.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Religious Results

I just finished visiting one of my favorite websites where there's a religious beliefs quiz that measures what percentage of your beliefs match with the doctrines of several different faiths. I've taken it several times and the results are never what I've expected. The first time I took it, I wasn't sure if Overbearing Dictatorial Denomination* (ODD) would even be among the list of faiths that the test compares, so even though that was the faith that I identified myself as, I was basically just curious about which Christian denomination's beliefs were most like mine. The results surprised me in several ways.

The fact that ODD was one of the twenty-seven different faiths covered by the quiz probably would have been more pleasant news if results hadn't showed that they were not at the top of my list. As a matter of fact, the religion that my beliefs were most like wasn't even Christian. It was Orthodox Judaism. That was definitely a surprise. Of course, The German thought that was hilarious. I took the quiz again to see if maybe I hadn't read some of the questions close enough and I got the same basic results. I tried to rationalize it by saying that the test was just inaccurate but The German took it and his results came out just as we expected--mainstream Christian. That made him laugh even harder at my results.

I took the test again tonight. Wanna know which religion was on top this time? Orthodox Judaism, again. In fact, every time I've ever taken it that has been the top religion on my results list. The test mentions that even a really high commonality score doesn't mean that all of your beliefs were the same as what the religion teaches. Well, thank goodness for that since my score was 100% for Orthodox Judaism.
My Top Ten Results
  • Orthodox Judaism (100%)
  • Sikhism (98%)
  • Reform Judaism (93%)
  • Islam (89%)
  • Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (85%)
  • Orthodox Quaker (83%)
  • Bahá'í Faith (76%)
  • Jehovah's Witnesses (76%)
  • Jainism (71%)
  • Seventh Day Adventists (69%)

I dunno. Maybe I was just too hopeful. This past year has not been easy. I was raised to be ODD and I truly believed that they were what they claimed to be--the one true faith. Most of the relatives that I grew up around were ODD and so were most of my friends outside of school. It wasn't until two years ago that I started to really question the some of their teachings.

It started with a procedure that my doctors thought might be necessary. ODD has rather unusual official policies about this procedure, so I became a bit worried about how I should handle this. After reviewing the official ODD theological view over several weeks, I found it to be quite illogical. I considered following the ODD restrictions anyway but I couldn't bring myself to do that either. The position wasn't justifiable from what I read in my Bible and if I lost my life trying to adhere to it, then VanGoghGirl would have no mother. That certainly didn't sound sensible nor did it sound like anything that the God I knew would want. I made the decision to do what the doctors decided was needed. Fortunately, the doctors were able to do another procedure instead and avoid having to carry out the one that had troubled me.

Looking at how I had always accepted that doctrine without having studied it in depth for myself, I started to wonder what else I'd disagree with if I researched more topics. So, I started reading. I've enjoyed learning about other religions since I was a little girl. I remember my elementary school had a book series where each one told the mythological stories found in different lands. I checked out each and every single book in that series over and over again. That first sparked my interest in understanding why people believed differently from me.

Despite the fact that the ODD frowns upon studying other faiths, my mother never discouraged me from reading what I wanted. To tell the truth, I think I got my love for learning about cultures from her. She taught herself Spanish while she was in her thirties and our house was full of all sorts of Asian, Latino, and African art when I was a child. I was really lucky because in this part of the south, people tend to be quite superstitious. ODD adherents also have a tendency to label anything religious that isn't Christian in origin as demonic so many of my ODD friends didn't enjoy the freedom that my mother gave me.

My first mentor in college was an English professor who had studied Middle Eastern culture for decades and eventually I became interested in it too. I signed up for a program at the university for students who want to learn a less-frequently taught language. As a result of being in that program, I met a lot of international students with a wide range of religions. It was an unforgettable and enlightening experience.

Even though I spent years studying other belief systems, I never did so with the intent to find a new one for myself. Besides, nothing I read about other religions struck me as superior to the one that I belonged to. I hadn't always lived according to the official ODD standards, but I'd always viewed it as God's rules that I was breaking. Needless to say I felt guilty and depressed much of the time because try as I might, I never measured up. I learned a lot during my years spent there but the hypocrisy that I saw there really bothered me and wasn't anything that I wanted to be a part of.

I tried visiting other ODD congregations in my area and I even went to some in other states. Admittedly, a few were better than others; The ones outside of the south were infinitely better than the ones down here because they tended to have more educated members in their congregations. However, the ODD governing body taught some things that just never sat well with me. When I moved out on my own I stopped going to ODD weekly services as much.

I still considered myself a member of the ODD though. I believed in the majority of the official views but felt like there wasn't any point in working towards getting baptized (something I'd never done) because The German and I couldn't get legally married yet. I taught VanGoghGirl all of the ODD teachings I'd learned from my years in that congregation. I wanted to give her the same basic values that I was raised with. The German respected my choice and even shared a lot of my ODD beliefs but he was never convinced that it was the right religion.

Once I got diagnosed with cancer, my outlook on religion changed rapidly. When I was faced with those two surgeries, I asked everyone I could think of to pray for me. I asked the Wal-Mart cashiers, my neighbors, people at school, my daughter's teachers, anyone I held a conversation with regardless of their religion. I figured that God listened to all sorts of prayers as long as they were sincere and well-meaning, so they'd all be helpful. I started doing something else that I had never done before. Every time I ended an interaction with others, I told them that I hope they have a blessed day. I know that might not seem like a big deal to some but it was enough to startle my mother. ODD members just don't do that sort of thing. I didn't see any harm in it and it made me feel happy to wish good on others, so I kept on. Most people reciprocated with similar wishes or gave me a hug or a smile. I have never once had anyone react negatively to me for saying that.

So, about a year or so ago, I started this researching of my ODD beliefs. The ODD governing body is pretty distrustful when it comes to the internet and once I started studying I can see why they would be. It turned out that the ODD had a rather complicated background. I'm not going to bash any religion right now but I've found myself in the position that I can no longer believe that the ODD governing body is really God's mouthpiece on earth. While the average ODD member is a part of it because they believe what is being taught, they generally don't know the uglier side of the ODD because they've been taught to only look at official ODD-published material when they want to learn about the organization's history.

Most of my family is unaware that I feel like this. While my mother might tolerate me having doubts, she'd be floored if I told her that I simply don't believe in the ODD any more. I think she'd view it as a personal insult to her. I don't know if we could even have a close relationship after that. It would be like I switched teams after memorizing her playbook.

Belonging to such a high-control group for the first twenty years of my life only to find out that it's not what it claimed to be has left me quite disenchanted. So, where do I go from here? I'm not sure. I've visited a few non-ODD congregations in the past year and I'm actually pretty fond of one of them but even that one teaches some things that I really disagree with. I don't think that I'll ever be able to just put faith in an organization or denomination again. I would really like to be a part of a congregation because I like the encouragement that one can get from there and because I feel that God wants us to meet with fellow believers. I guess I'll just keep looking and listening to see if I can hear God's voice and follow it to whatever congregation it leads me.

*In case you didn't realize it, ODD is a pseudonym.