Showing Up

I Am My Own

Sexual liberation
Source: @evyan.whitney (Instagram)

Over the past week, I have seen a lot of posts by sex educators on Instagram about the trauma of purity culture, fatphobia, and sorely lacking sex education. I also read Jamie Lee Finch’s “You Are Your Own” as my first book of 2020, which I am still unpacking emotionally as I related so much to her story.

I feel like I have written a post about my own personal trauma around purity culture and the fatphobia of my family members that I have embodied in my life, but as I scan through the posts on this blog, I can’t really find anything. I also feel like I have worked through and discovered more about my sexuality in the past year or so, so maybe an update is needed if I have written about this previously.

I thought I would mention a bit of my own trauma and how purity and fatphobic culture have affected me and my views on my own sexuality and body throughout my life because I have become increasingly angered by the lack of sex education I got growing up and the way purity culture derailed my natural curiosity about sex and pleasure and made me feel so deeply broken, ashamed, and split in two.

Let’s take it to the bullet points here:

  • Sex education: In Alabama, in the 1990s (and probably still today), boys and girls were separated and each were taught the very, very basics of their own reproductive organs, very little about the opposite sex’s reproductive organs, told to abstain until marriage, and taught nothing about the beauty and pleasure of sex. It was all about procreation (but only after marriage).
  • True Love Waits: Also in the 1990s, this was a purity culture movement in church that involved comparing sexually active women (but surprisingly not men) to chewed up bubble gum or wadded up paper and signing vows not to have sex until marriage. (I went one step further and bought a ring with the movement’s name on the band.) Joshua Harris took this one step further in the fucked up direction by writing a book while also a teenager himself about how couples shouldn’t be left alone and shouldn’t even kiss until marriage. (He has since apologized for writing this book and perpetuating these shaming beliefs and has come out as no longer a Christian.)
  • Masturbation: Something I sort of accidentally discovered when I was 9 years old while rocking my hips back and forth then squeezing my thighs together, often in class at school. Around the same time, I read in my mom’s Christian parenting books that masturbation was wrong, sinful, and should be stopped if discovered. I wound up writing a mom a letter when I was about 12, “confessing” my “sin” of masturbation, and the only response I remember from her as I sobbed in bed was that I needed to “save those feelings for marriage.” So many of my long-destroyed journal entries from my teens included beliefs that the reason I was a later bloomer and why my periods were never regular was God’s punishment for me masturbating instead of fucking PCOS. Even as I became an adult and decided God would probably rather I masturbate than have sex every time I wanted it, which was 24/7, I still felt a lot of shame for giving in to my body’s desire/need for sexual pleasure.
  • Being a Fat Teenage/Twenty-Something: I’ve mentioned before how my mom told me that the guy I liked in college never wanted to date me because I was fat, how I’d never attract a “normal” man while fat (even though she’d never attracted any winners while thin), how I’d never be happy while fat, how being fat made me smell bad, walk “like a man,” isolated me from others, and more. Purity culture and my biological, hormonal, sexual desires and curiosity as a teenager split me in two, and being fat seemed to be my protection from acting on those sexual desires by making me undesirable sexually, at least according to my family and the culture around me. I tried to lose weight many times, but every time I started getting more attention and compliments, I quickly sabotaged my efforts and regained the weight lost because the thought of suddenly having “sexual temptation” readily available to me in my increasingly acceptable body size fucking terrified me.
  • Being a 28-year-old Virgin: Despite all of the crushes I had in high school and college, none of them felt likewise as far as I know. I know I pushed down my natural desires to flirt and desire to do all the things high school kids did with each other, which I sometimes regret now as an adult. In my 20s, I was treated with kid gloves once people learned I was still a virgin and had never been kissed. I often heard things that made me roll my eyes like, “Aww, that’s so sweet, I wish I’d waited,” and “I don’t know how to act around you now,” like suddenly I was a little kid or something. Some “friends” were afraid to drink, cuss, or talk about their hook-ups around me. Others thought I wanted to live vicariously through them so they constantly reminded me how hot everyone thought they were and about their sexual conquests.
  • Mistrust in Men/Boundaries: I was taught that men could not be trusted and all they wanted was sex. I was also taught that I had to be careful how I acted, dressed, and talked so as not lead men astray. When men were inappropriate with me, I was asked about my behavior and told what I “should’ve” done differently. The men in my family and at my jobs seemed to feel like they had the right to talk about my body and sex in a vulgar way, which left me almost always feeling unsafe around them and unsafe as a woman in my own body. Being fat seemed like an easy way to protect myself from men, but it hasn’t always worked. I’ve also learned when you shut down your sexuality to protect yourself from creepy assholes, you also shut it down from enjoying and embracing your sexuality with the men you want to have sex with who feel likewise. It requires being able to establish and enforce boundaries, which I did not learn how to do growing up. Any attempts to keep the self-entitled creeps in my family out of my personal space often led to gaslighting and name-calling. Any boundaries I may have attempted to have growing up were completely disregarded and disrespected as well. I was a girl/woman, who did I think I was to have any say so over my body or personal space around men?
  • “That’s What She Said”: Talking about sex in an intimate way is still incredibly vulnerable for me, so I wind up talking about it in jokes or in a way that sounds like I am making fun of it or, in this case, John. I was not taught to call my genitalia by its anatomical names even with a mom who was a labor & delivery nurse and looked at vaginas 40+ hours a week as she helped deliver babies from them, and saying “penis” still makes me giggle. I don’t like the terms “dick,” “cock,” “pussy,” or “cunt” because they feel too much like porn to me (nothing against porn, but what I’ve seen of it feels too fake and cheesy for my personal taste), so I wind up not saying much during sex. I feel so uncomfortable being direct sexually even with the man who is now my husband, and I know it is because that voice is still lost inside of me, in that part cut off by the shame of both purity and fatphobic culture.
  • Premarital sex: The first few times John and I made out, we often went pretty far. I would always stop at the last second and tell him no. He was frustrated but respected my wishes. It was so fucking infuriating for me because I’d waited what seemed like forever for all of that and yet growing up in purity culture and still being a Christian and being taught sex outside of marriage was wrong and damaging and the “worst kind of sin” continued to essentially cock-block me. When we finally had penetrative sex two months into our relationship, about two weeks before our 29th birthdays, it was a sweet experience, but I felt so much shame that I wasn’t sure I could do it again, and it didn’t help that the person I considered my best friend, who’d regaled me with stories for years about how fuckable she was, shamed me for not waiting for marriage by saying I was the one who was “supposed to wait” because I’d already waited as long as I had. At church, we couldn’t be in the singles group because we were together but were told we couldn’t be in the married group because we weren’t legally wed. A Christian counselor and friend/coworker told me flat-out that the reason for any normal relational conflicts John and I had were because we didn’t wait for marriage. On the night of our 24-hour honeymoon, I was so exhausted, emotionally spent, and ashamed that we didn’t wait that I could not physically have sex with my now-husband and instead cried myself to sleep in his arms.
  • Orgasms: While I know many cis-women cannot physically have orgasms during PIV (penis in vagina) sex with their cis-male partners, I felt so broken throughout the first half or 75% of our relationship because I could not orgasm even with oral or manual stimulation. John tried so much at first, but I couldn’t get out of my head and could not communicate what I needed from him. Instead, we just rely on my very reliable Hitachi Magic Wand vibrator to get me off, which it has done for the past 12 years I’ve owned it. I know there is nothing wrong with this, but my expectations have definitely needed an adjustment through the years around this.
  • Marriage Outside of the Bedroom: Because I bought into the whole bullshit “your body is not your own” tale of religion and purity culture, I felt myself trying to be who I thought John wanted me to be for probably 6 or 7 years of our 8-year relationship. I lost so much sense of self, so much personal ownership. I was taught that my body belonged to my husband once we married, so I guess I thought that included any opinions or desires I may have as well. I tried to submit to him in this way even though every part of my strong-willed, independent mind screamed, What the fuck are you doing, Amy?! Even John wondered what the fuck I was doing because after me asking for his opinion one too many times when I already knew what I wanted to do, he said, “Amy, you are a smart, independent woman. Stop asking me to think for you.”
  • Trusting My Body and My Intuition: Growing up in church and the purity culture pounded into my brain constantly that my heart is deceitful and cannot be trusted, I’m worthless without God, to “lean not on [my] own understanding,” and that my body is supposed to be a temple for God to inhabit and not a place for me to inhabit just as I am, whoever that is. It was not mine before birth, not mine throughout my life, and will not be mine in death. Despite the name I was given at birth being my own and all of my organs and blood and cells being in this body, I was taught that all of this is temporary, and just basically a placeholder for my soul. There was no point in getting to know this body, as that’s all it is. If I “sinned,” it was because the devil tempted me and I, a weak human, fell for it. If I accomplished anything worthwhile or treated others with love or compassion, this was from God, and in no way could I do any of this good on my own. I developed shame and guilt for my sexuality and also for thinking I could have any worth on my own, and believed that I could never be loved just as I was, and really, did I even really exist on my own in this body? I sure didn’t feel like it.

I have felt so much anger, resentment, shame, and loss in the trauma I’ve incurred through purity and fatphobic culture. I have felt so detached from my body. Often, I’ve felt huddled in a tiny, dark corner of my body while the rest is like your shoulder and arm when you’ve slept all night on them: totally there, but also totally numb. I’ve felt powerless, voiceless, hopeless, and lifeless. I’ve felt robbed because all of those years of trying so hard to be small, pure, quiet, submissive, and society and religion’s version of pretty did not gift me with the life and love they promised.

My expectations about my body and sex, promoted by both society’s and purity culture’s versions of sex, relationships, and beauty/desirability in media and church, were so greatly skewed and only led me to feeling so broken, ashamed, and like something is deeply wrong with me. They’ve caused unnecessary conflicts in my marriage as well as unnecessary and very damaging beliefs about my self-worth and worthiness of being loved by others. They’ve led me on a lifelong chase of seeking validation from everyone but myself and feeling like shit when I don’t get it. I often feel so immature among my peers and like I really missed out on some huge milestone by not getting the relationship and sexual experiences they did as a teenager and in their twenties. (At the same time though, I do still feel like I missed out on a lot of heartache, and a huge benefit of being single for so long was the self-awareness I gained and the enjoyment of being alone that I might not have otherwise gotten.)

A few weeks ago, in bed with John, I told him about my struggles to find my voice when it comes to sex. I had just recently told him how I was officially done with Christianity, so all of this that I’d kept pushed down with my back and forth about my faith had started bubbling to the surface. Also during this time, all that I’d been trying to figure out and do as far as trusting my body and learning to eat intuitively seemed to be clicking into place. That probably also had a lot to do with giving up my faith along with all of the rules I’d lived under my whole life, whether I still felt like I had to or not.

I told him how it feels like there is a wall inside of me, and on one side, there is so much of my sexuality I want to explore and communicate with him, and fear and shame have kept me from accessing all of that. I told him how I lose my voice when we have sex and find myself often going through the motions with him because I’m afraid if I tell him I’m not in the mood, we’ll never have sex again (this fear is not a reality and stems from a lot of conflict we’ve had over me being the higher libido partner). I am still so afraid of rejection that I can’t bring myself to touch him how I want to (how he’s told me he wants me to) or initiate sex with him even though he told me in marriage counseling that saying “no” to sex at the time I initiate is not him rejecting me but saying he’s just not in the mood.

He didn’t respond, but getting all of that out of me caused a shift inside of me. Like maybe I had finally given that other side of me a voice. A small one, but one nonetheless.

In December, after this talk, I decided to stop taking my birth control that I had been taking for eight years, basically all but the first 4 months of our relationship. Not so I could get pregnant, though we’ve discussed that we’ll go through with it if I do get pregnant, but because I did not like being on fake hormones for nearly a decade and wanted a break.

What’s funny is that since I’ve come off the pill, my libido has shifted. I knew it wasn’t the same anymore once I went on the pill, but I didn’t realize how much it had actually lowered. I am 37 now so I also realize that my body may also be going through a last call on the baby train sexual peak. Who knows? Either way, I seem to find John 1000x more attractive, and I was already very attracted to him before, and I want sex pretty much all the time and told him so. This admission has definitely benefited me – well, both of us, really – and brought us closer together.

As I come out of Christianity and see firsthand how damaging and traumatic it was/is for me, I am beginning to realize the freedom I now have, that I have had all along. In church, I often listened to these sermons about how grace sets us free, breaks our shackles, and opens the prison doors but yet we still sit there in the prison like we’re still imprisoned, and I thought, Why can’t I walk out? Why can’t I leave? I’ve been saved, I’m free because of Christ dying for me, why do I still feel like this?

And I realized it was because Christianity did not make me free. Instead, it made me small. It made me hide who I really am. It made me unable to trust my own body, voice, thoughts, and intuition. It kept me child-like and submissive. It left me on this seemingly eternal quest for validation of my worthiness from everyone else but myself. It told me that I was wrong from birth, would never be good enough on my own, and that no love or good could come from me alone, but that I had to constantly seek it from someone whom I could not actually access in any form. It told me that nothing about my body or my life belonged to me. That I could not receive credit for the good I did because that belonged to God. That my mistakes were permanently etched into me as marks of how broken I was, not just lessons learned and things that make me into a stronger, smarter, better, more empathetic person.

Christianity, purity culture, and fatphobia have all sought to keep me forever chasing the wrong things: the opinions of and love/acceptance from others about me. And it is all to keep me coming back to them for more. To spend my money, energy, body, and life in my dependence on them. They keep the charades going so I don’t see how fucking powerful I am on my own and how powerful I have been all along.

I’ve spent a lot of time lately envisioning and silently talking to younger versions of myself. Telling 9-year-old Amy it is okay to feel pleasure and be curious about sex. Adult me sitting in the place of my then 35-year-old mother – funny we are close in age now – and telling 12-year-old me that there is absolutely nothing to be ashamed about, exploring your body is normal, healthy, and loving, and that I love her so much for being so brave to tell me something she felt so ashamed of. Thinking back to 10-year-old me in her green tights and green leotard playing a sunflower in a school play and telling her how freaking adorable her little round belly is that she feels so shy about. Talking to college-aged Amy about her big crush back then, smiling at all those times it felt like he liked her back, and telling her I know it sucks he doesn’t actually feel the same but girl, you dodged a huge fucking bullet. Sitting with the late 20s version of me and telling her I understand why it is so hard to relocate her repressed sexuality and feel good about it, but we will get there, I am getting there for her.

I’m still in the very early stages of my healing and I don’t expect huge changes overnight. It has taken me two years to begin to be present in my body when I eat and exercise and actually understand what both hunger and satisfaction and love of movement feel like in my body. Learning to remain associated with my body during sex will take time just as it did with food.

There are so many rules when it comes to food, exercise, how I feel in my body, how I look, the space in my body I’m allowed to take up, sex, and just living my life and trusting myself that I no longer have to abide by, but old habits die hard. My first step in this is simply observing when I feel myself abiding by those rules and gently asking myself, Who told you that you have to live this way? What do you want to do?

My body, spirit, personality, mannerisms, thoughts, actions, voice, intuition, emotions, choices (and their consequences), growth, mistakes, sexuality, and spirituality never, ever, not even once, belonged to anyone else. I am accountable to me. My relationship with myself is first and foremost about me. The beliefs, thoughts, words, opinions, and behavior by others towards me has nothing to do with me.

I have always, always, always been my own. Purity culture, religion, and this fatphobic, patriarchal, misogynistic culture constantly try to rob me of this because they gain nothing when I do not need them, but…I do not need them. I will not allow them to dictate or direct my life anymore. I don’t quite know what this means yet, but I say to myself:

Get it, girl. Get it all. Take back your body and your life. They are yours to trust, love, accept, and do whatever the fuck you want in them. 

Letters to Myself

Letters to Myself, #3 – Happy Birthday

I originally meant to write this blog post around my 37th birthday in mid-October, but between moving from Marietta back to Smyrna, going to Destin, spending time with my brother Caleb, getting adjusted into our new apartment, and finding and starting my new job, this post never happened past me uploading the photos included in the post. Maybe this is a good thing though because being 3 months out from turning 37, I have more to say to these younger mes.

This will be a very, very, very long post, so if I am the only one who ever reads it all, that is totally fine with me.

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October 1989:

Dear 7-year-old Amy:

Oh, sweet girl, happy birthday. I wish I remembered what I got for my birthday this year, but I’m sure it was something along the line of more Barbies for our 5-year-old brother Adam to rip the heads off of, dresses from June like the one in the picture above (as she was the only one who seemed to remember you are a little girl who should have pretty dresses and not be dressed like her brother), maybe some books.

This will be the year you start writing your own short stories, stories about tornadoes that you dreamed about and had to write down as soon as you woke up. Tornadoes are the shared fascination between you and Daddy, the one thing you can talk to each other about, the topic you get his attention on as you squeeze in next to him on his Lazyboy and watch hours of the Weather Channel together. The only other time you get his attention is when you are being yelled at for misbehaving, which usually involves fights with Adam. 

You’re going to be a big sister again soon too, and you will love it. At least at first. Ben will be your twin born seven years later in so many ways. He will be your baby. You will fall in love with him at first sight and even now, 30 years later, he still holds such a tender space in your heart even as all the things you dislike about yourself drive you crazy in him. 

I know you’re already worrying about your weight. What was it this morning? 60-something pounds? Amy, I wish this number wasn’t already so significant for you, but our mom, who struggles with her own body insecurities, can’t seem but help to pass them along to you.

I want you to know right now, in the middle of everything happening now and what’s to come – like your first major crush whom you’ve possibly met by now but whom you will befriend in the coming school year – you are so perfect just the way you are. Your bangs and straight hair with the flipped up ends are so sweet. Your mouth full of transformation and emptying of baby teeth is so adorable. I love your imagination, energy, singing voice, smile, tenacity, and sense of humor. I still smile when I think of the Barbie soap operas we came up with inspired by the soap operas June and Lib loved to watch. 

I’m so sorry you’re being forced to behave as if everything is fine and no one understands that your acting out is your inability to live so inauthentically. I’m so sorry no one understands you are processing so much dysfunction between your parents and at Lib’s house and that your sensitive heart can’t help but absorb the anger, shame, and pain all around you. I’m so sorry you are characterized as the bad child because you cannot sit still and be quiet and passive like Adam. That you’re told that your stubbornness, needs for affection and attention you can’t get met, and your emotions are all “too much,” and Mama and Daddy don’t “know how to handle you.” 

This year, you have a schoolteacher named Ms. Taylor who will tell you and your parents how much she loves having you as a student in her second grade class. She will tell you how sweet and smart you are. Listen to her. Don’t listen to your dad asking you why can’t you be that well-behaved child she speaks of at home. You are that child; he just does not have the energy nor focus to see it. Ms. Taylor will plant and grow those seeds in you that develop your love for reading, writing, spelling, and grammar that you carry with you for the rest of your life. 

Please know that I see you even when Adam gets all of the attention at home, and I understand why you lash out at him even though he does not deserve to be bullied just as you didn’t. I want to spend time with you even as it seemed our parents did not want you around and always waited until you were away for the weekend with June to go out as a family with Adam. 

Mama doesn’t know how to “handle” you but that is not your fault. This is about her upbringing and insecurities. Daddy only demands perfection and quiet from you because it was beaten into him by his abusive father. You are not broken. You are not wrong. You deserve so much love that I know you don’t ever really feel, at least not from your parents. You belong even if you feel left out from your parents and Adam. You are a sweet, innocent, stubborn, fiery little second grader who is growing her own little world inside of her imagination and becoming the author of the story of her life. You are good enough. Your body is perfect the way it is, even your little pudgy belly and round cheeks. 

Thank you for plucking those story ideas out of your dreams and getting them on paper as fast as you can because you taught me that I am a writer. Your excitement for becoming a big sister again and your natural maternal instincts will help you not only raise your upcoming baby brother but the one who will follow him as well as help you nurture and care for friends and, mostly importantly, yourself. 

I love you so much just as you are, sweet girl. Happy 7th birthday. 

October 2000:

Dear 18-year-old Amy (because I couldn’t find a picture of 17-year-old Amy and had to skip ahead a year):

I still remember when this picture was taken in the student center at the University of South Alabama in Mobile. You’re a freshman in college now, living 182 miles away from home and about 45 miles from the beaches of Dauphin Island where you’re going to spend way too much time (but love the hell out of it). 

On this birthday, June drove by herself to take you out to TGI Friday’s both for your birthday and to comfort you because you didn’t make it as a Diamond Girl, basically a cheerleader for the USA Jaguars’ baseball team (because you weren’t a sorority girl or thin like the other girls who auditioned). Pretty sure June also took you to Sam’s Club and got you a pallet of Cherry Coke because she loves you and wants you to have whatever she can possibly buy you. Cherish this.

You’re physically free from all of the bullshit at home – your divorced parents who can’t seem to understand you are their daughter and not their mediator, your mom who chose her second husband over you and your brothers and who treats you like shit because you’re fat (and that’s the worst thing you can be to her) and likely because you’re now the mother she can’t be to Ben and your youngest brother Caleb, all of the fighting between Lib, Brophy, and Robert – but emotionally it’s like you never left. 

You’re numb, I know. After so many years of absorbing so much anger and shame, numb is your survival method. Well, that and your sense of humor and food. Your weight is less than it has been since it piled onto your body in high school, but it still isn’t enough for your parents to tell you that you’re worth loving and beautiful and that they are proud of you. Nothing is enough for that. Not your advanced diploma or good job after high school or getting into college or making the Dean’s List your first semester. The only person who calls and checks on you is June, who loves you but who gets annoyed because you don’t have enough going on to talk about daily. 

You have an awesome roommate named Kelly who is going to introduce you to a tall, broad-shouldered, blonde-haired junior with a nice smile and blue eyes whom she says is exactly your type. He will be. You will think “this is the guy I’m going to marry” as soon as you see him. You won’t talk to him until January 2001, but you’ll cross paths a few times. 

You will so badly want this tall former linebacker, blonde-haired, blue-eyed Christian man with a sense of humor like yours to like you back, but he won’t. Not the same way you like him. And it’s not because of anything about you, despite what your mom later tells you. Unlike what your mom says, you are not ugly or smelly, you don’t need to be thin to be loved or happy, and there is nothing wrong with your body. I know you want to dance and be more outgoing, but fear of being made fun like you have been your whole life plagues you. That’s okay. We will get there. I mean, we will actually get there, like, we will dance in front of 100+ people at a belly dance student show, and no, we won’t feel or look stupid. We will feel so proud and amazed. 

This year, you will start online journaling for the first time, mostly to write about that boy mentioned above and your struggles to lose weight, but soon it will progress to recording what is now the good, bad, and ugly of your family history. A record to back up their gaslighting that keeps you from buying their bullshit about you. The greatest gift of this blogging will be how much your self-awareness skyrockets. Yes, sometimes this makes us overanalytical, but overall, it makes us much more compassionate and empathetic. Over time, that numbness that plagues you will fade as you begin to validate your emotions and learn about your sensitive nature and what a gift it really is. 

You are so starved for attention and affection, but you will find friendships that give you some of both. You will give so much of both to Ben and Caleb that they will develop into men who are comfortable being both emotionally available and deeply affectionate. And that boy who breaks your heart so deeply is an unanswered prayer you will be grateful for in the future (though, eyeroll, I know you will think, I’m so sick of hearing this), trust me. 

You are doing so much better than you think. You are so beautiful, smart, funny, and kind. You can run circles around those skinny girls who think they’re in better shape than you because you’re heavier than them. You write like you think, and today, I’ve been told I write like I’m writing to a dear friend. This is all thanks to you. The fanfiction you’re in the middle of writing now is real writing and developing dialogue skills as well as your songwriting skills, an original in the type of fanfiction you’re writing. (Oh and guess what? You’re going to meet Nick Carter. Eeeeek, I know, right?! You won’t marry him though, sorry.) 

Keep writing those songs that come to you in the middle of the night like the stories did when we were seven years old. Keep singing in the shower and at your desk (even though you might want to keep it down at 2a). Enjoy your friendship with the boy who will love you but not the way you love him, but also don’t allow him to mistreat you because you are so much better than that (and he really, really, really doesn’t deserve you, I promise). 

Enough with this heavy shit though – happy 18th birthday, Amy! You’re legally an adult now though you’ve felt like one for the past four years! Go to the beach. Take in the quiet of the Gulf of Mexico at sunrise before you drive back to your dorm with the windows down to breathe in the salty air and pass out and miss your first of many classes over the next four years. Go dancing with your roommate and her friends. Enjoy dinner with June. Enjoy the first steps of your freedom. You are so ready for this.

And again, I love you dearly, sweet girl, just as you are. 

October 2009:

Happy 27th birthday, Amy. Wow, what a birthday. You are currently in Mobile with Mama, who invited you to come down with her for a nursing continuing education conference she signed up to attend. I know, things with her are so tumultuous right now, as they’ve been pretty much your whole life. Ugh, I also know that she is the middle of her affair with her married boyfriend and you’re trying so hard to convince to break up with him until he finally divorces his wife of 25+ years. (She won’t.)

Let’s not think about that right now. You are DAYS AWAY from quitting the state government job you’ve had since you graduated high school nine years ago, and in just about three weeks, you’re moving to Atlanta. Wow, so much going on. I really want to commend you for taking on a summer part-time job to make extra money as well as selling as much as you possibly could so that you have money saved up to help you in your first few weeks in Atlanta. I’m so grateful for Sia and Zach for taking you in and letting you live in their townhouse in your first few weeks as well because we really would not have done this without that. 

I know there are people in our family coming out of the woodworks at the news of you moving who are telling you how bad the economy is, how high unemployment is (because you obviously don’t know this working in the unemployment compensation division of the Department of Labor where these numbers originate), how you’re stupid for leaving a steady, stable government job, and blah blah blah, but their comments are about them, and these are people who haven’t seen or talked to you in over a decade so they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about or who the hell they’re telling all of this to. Disregard them.

Moving to Atlanta is going to change your whole life. Amy, you are on the cusp of finally, finally, finally being on your own and living a life that is yours and yours alone. I am so excited for you just thinking about it all. Yes, it will be so freaking hard, but you are going to start healing. All of your scars and wounds will become like the broken jars in the Chinese proverb that are put back together with gold which only makes them stronger. You are being filled in with gold, Amy, with strength, determination, courage, wisdom, and beauty. It hurts, it might always hurt, but it is what makes you real and makes me love you so much. And goddamn, you’re hilarious. That definitely won’t change. 

Happy 27th birthday, Amy. Happy first birthday to the rest of your beautiful life that is beginning now as you stare out at downtown Mobile and wonder if you’re doing the right thing. You are. You so are. This is the most right thing you have done your whole life, even now. Thank you for being so brave. I admire the hell out of you. 

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October 2009:

Happy 37th birthday, Amy. God, this has been a rough year. I know how tired you feel. Your lifelong faith in God has been severed completely, and now there’s a void along with a bit of anger at how Christianity has been used to belittle, demean, and shame you in every area of your life from your gender/femininity, sexuality, emotions, physical shape, marriage, finances, writing, speech, outgoing and strong-willed personality, and more.

There is also fear that you will be rejected and abandoned by those you love who aren’t on your deconversion journey, including John, or that their fear for your eternal soul will lead them to intentionally or not-intentionally gaslight and shame you in the hopes of “bringing you back to Jesus.” It is so hard to write these days because you don’t have it in you to deal with the feedback of others. Not about your lack of religious faith, four months now of unemployment, 50-pound weight gain, or really anything else. And really, does it even matter when Trump is going to get us all killed anyway? Oops, can’t talk about that either.

Everything feels so hard and dark right now, I know. You and John have had some horrible fights this year, and it feels like you will forever fight about the same things – sex, communication, how you’re in touch with your emotions and he’s not so yours seem overwhelming, and money. You both said “fuck you” to each other this year when you said years ago that would be a sign that something is deeply wrong and vowed to work through whatever led to that moment before things got that bad.

Nope, he said it, you said it back, he told you to leave, you did, and he didn’t come running after you or blow up your phone with texts or calls. He later apologized for not checking on you, for saying those words and telling you to leave, but that apology did nothing to change how deeply hurt and alone you felt and still often feel in this marriage. All it brought up and back was how much you felt like you and your feelings didn’t matter growing up and you heard your own mind gaslighting you and telling you that somehow this is all your fault and, oh, because you’re so much fatter now, he probably doesn’t love or want you or to be married to you anymore and now you’re screwed because you have no money of your own anymore. It feels so far away from the way your relationship started eight years ago, when he was so excited about you and couldn’t stop telling and showing you how happy he was to have you in his life, like maybe all of that never really happened or was all a ruse or maybe you just fucked it all up because you’re not that woman anymore, whoever he thought she was.

Take a deep breath, Amy. I will pause and breathe with you because that is some really hard, painful, heavy shit.

Let me remind you of what I wrote to 7-year-old Amy: you are not broken, there is nothing wrong with you, there is nothing about you that deems you unworthy of love, your words/feelings/everything about you matter even if no one else seems to acknowledge this, especially the ones you love most.

Right now, this year, has been a really shitty one. Let me validate something for you: You have experienced a shit-ton of trauma, you have PTSD, you have survived some really fucked up shit, and none of it was your fault. How others treat you is a reflection of them, not you. You are not responsible for their behavior or words towards you. You did not and do not deserve to be abused or mistreated.

You are so strong, Amy. Stronger than I think you will ever realize when you’re so lost in all of those critical thoughts from voices in your past who could, from their own pain, tell you they loved you but somehow also how wrong and inadequate you are in one breath and without apology. You are so brave to keep pushing through all of this trauma and pain, for picking each piece of your shattered heart, acknowledging its existence and searing pain, crying with and for it, and putting it all back together again. With so many broken pieces, this is a very lengthy, possibly lifelong process, but you are here for it, and that means so much for the future Amys, however many there will be.

I know that with the loss of faith in God, everything feels so meaningless right now. Nihilism feels comforting in a way. So this is it? I’m just a product of evolution, collection of atoms, pieces of the universe, and a speck on the plane of this universe and time? Great! So everything is temporary and nothing really matters and someday I will be oblivious to it all as I was before I was born. This has done wonders for my anxiety.

But seriously…that also seems so dark and hopeless too. 

Your life does have meaning even if there’s nothing else but this (and I’m not totally discounting spirituality here, just religion).

Amy, you’re a product of evolution, such a rare miracle! Do you know how many eggs and sperm that have ever existed in the bodies of all the humans who have ever walked this earth? Do you know how much had to come together (no pun intended) at just the right time and in the right way for you to be conceived, carried to term and delivered? How amazing it is that you’re alive today in your fragile body in a grueling, lethal environment? How many lives you’ve touched and made better just by being yourself? You are made of the same materials of this vast, infinite, magnificent, astounding, beautiful universe! You, and everyone else, are just as incredible to look at as the moon, stars, and planets in the sky. 

Yes, everything is temporary, but you matter. Your life matters. Your thoughts, feelings, voice, and words matter. Everything about you matters and is a miracle. Same with everyone else, even though their behavior doesn’t alway lend to feeling as such about them.

You are so smart and so well-read. You absorb knowledge like you absorb emotions, and you are thoughtful when discussing what you’ve learned. You’re still so funny, especially with all of the songs you make up about the dogs or to make fun of those dumb prescription drug commercials. John’s right, you’ve really missed your calling here. You’re introverted and need alone time to re-energize, but man, you come ALIVE when there are people to talk to. You are so good at encouraging others and making them smile and laugh, and this is going to come in handy in your new job. You really are charming, thick southern accent and all. It feels weird to say all of this about myself, but damn it, it is about time, and if no one else will, it is up to me to make you shine. 

Your body will change for the rest of your life in size, shape, height, width, wrinkles, lumps, bumps, colors, and more, but it is always working hard with and for you to keep you alive because it loves you unconditionally. I know the weight gain is hard for you and you miss your smaller belly, leaner arms and thighs, and seeing the dimples in your cheeks that have been covered over with your plumper face. I know everything and everyone around you screams that your body is wrong and you need to make it smaller ASAP. I know you’re hearing that inner critical voice tell you that there’s no way John could love or be attracted to you at this size, and this is putting you into survival and defense mode as you await his eventual criticism and rejection of you. (That voice is so wrong, I promise you.)

I know you feel so left behind now as another job failed to work out for you and you’re on what feels like year 50 of trying to pay off your debt and you can’t afford to travel or buy clothes and you feel so much guilt and shame because you’re not currently working and all of the financial burden is on John and you remember how that felt when it was on you and…. it all really fucking sucks, I know.

Some good news though: You’re about to move out of that almost literal sewage dump of an apartment in the middle of nowhere Marietta that you’ve hated for the past two years, you’re about to go to the beach (though that feels undeserved because John has to pay for it on top of all the moving stuff), and soon, you will have a new job, one that you really enjoy even though you will wish it paid more. And Amy!! You have stood up for yourself so hard in these past two “failed” jobs because after the office job before you moved to Chicago, you said no more to asshole bosses and jobs that don’t fulfill you, and you stood your ground and made the best decision for yourself: no more shitty, toxic office jobs with mean, narcissistic bosses. You saved enough money to help you pay your car payment and minimum credit card payments for these four months of unemployment too! And paid off half of your credit card debt before quitting!

I just had a thought: Do you remember your final summer semester at South Alabama when June promised you that if you put in the hard work, went to all of your classes, and made good grades, she’d take you to the beach? Do you remember how even though you put in more effort than the last several semesters combined, you still failed one class by merely not going to it enough and your grades, minus your nutrition class, were still shitty, but she took you anyway because she knew you needed the trip because she knew how fucking depressed you were and how you were hanging on by a tiny shred of a thread? 

That’s love and grace, Amy, and I am here to tell you that even though you feel like a loser, burden, and failure because you keep comparing yourself to everyone else and falling short, and you’re certain that you’re repeating all the mistakes you swore you never would growing up and that everything gone wrong is all your fault…you are loved, you’re not falling short, you’re tough as shit, you’re brave, and you deserve a fucking trip to the beach, no matter what else is going on right now.

What you don’t always see – and I totally understand why – is that no matter how much you feel like pain and sadness have filled your body, mind, and heart to the brim, and then some, you always have room for joy. Your smile always lights up any room you’re in. Your laughter is contagious and melodic, as cheesy as that sounds. You always find something to laugh at and something to admire. You rarely forget to look up at night, and you always notice something beautiful in your daily path, from the colors of the sky at sunset to your dogs’ sweet faces to how good and at home it feels when John puts his arms around you and holds you close whether it’s in bed as he’s falling asleep or you’re cooking dinner in the kitchen and how beautiful his eyes, smile, voice, and laughter are. (Remember how I said earlier that you dodged a bullet with that guy in college? John is everything that guy could never be and more even when there are struggles like you’re going through now. Also, he’s way better looking than that guy.)

Nothing is perfect, yet everything is. I know I am rambling on now, but I also know I tend to talk to you less in this way during these more introspective times; instead, echoing the vitriol, anger, and shame that still sits deeply within me though it has been over a decade since I unwillingly soaked it all up like a bone-dry sponge dropped in a basin of dirty water and filthy dishes. 

I’m only three months from this birthday, so I am still in the trenches with you, but I can feel things improving little by little. This is yet another mountain to climb and I am trudging along, knowing I can’t stop because continuing to move forward is the only way I will get home.

I love you so much for the girl you were and the woman you are now. We are one and the same. You matter, you are perfect just the way you are, and all that matters is how you think and feel about you. You are my most important relationship, and I will continue doing all I can to make it the best one. Here’s to many more birthdays and many more versions of us to come.

Love, 

Amy