What my skin has taught me.

TRIGGER WARNING: Body image, rape, abuse, ancestral trauma. Reader discretion is advised.

“My body is my vessel. An archive of experiences. A weapon that has fought battles that only I understand.”

Sophie Lewis

I’ve been thinking a lot about skin. The journey that mine has been on and the relationship I have with it. How I have treated it. What my skin means to me. I don’t think I have ever paid that much thought to my skin–it was always something that was there, functioning as it was meant to.

I have never had a skin care routine. I would try different things because it was the thing to do, and then I would get bored and stop caring. I would hide my skin behind layers of makeup. I rarely used moisturizer. I never saw skin care as something I was worthy of. When other women would invest in their skin care, I would just get out an old cloth and use whatever soap was there. It never occurred to me that I deserved to have anything more.

When I was younger, I would receive comments about how my skin “looks like porcelain”. That it would look like it is “glowing” and all sorts of other white centered praise. I was given compliments only on qualitues passed down to me by colonizers. Any compliments given to me about features passed to me by my Taíno, African or Middle Eastern ancestors came in the form of microaggressions. Microaggressions were not things i learned about. When I was a kid, my skin was a golden brown. It was so beautiful and as I grew older, I became lighter and lighter and somewhere along the line this changed. My skin would react to the sun and I would burn instantly. It would be a burn so bad that it would leave scar tissue. It was a violent reaction to the gifts the sun was trying to offer me. 

The first time I ever really noticed my skin was when my grandfather told me the moles by lips were sexy. I must have been about 10 or 11. I remember not knowing how to respond. I remember becoming self-conscious about my moles. Instances that followed this were my grandfather pointing out blemishes. My skin was always a topic of discussion with him. My sister, who is gorgeous with darker skin and perfect hair, would always get a reaction from him like so: “Here comes Miss America!”. I never felt that my skin made me beautiful. 

Cut forward and I begin to take notice of how light my skin is compared to my family members and I become more self-conscious. This outer shell becomes an additional source of discomfort, and now I feel like I do not belong or that I do not have a place. I am reminded frequently of how much of a shock my skin color was when I was born. This places me further out, and I continue still to find shame in my skin cells. I grew up in a neighborhood of mostly Irish Italians. I grew up when the ideal beauty was thin, with straight silky hair. I did not see girls like me represented in the media with curly hair, my cheekbones, my nose, my eye color, my large hips, my 5 foot frame, my muscular legs.

I recognize now that my early experiences with other people’s commentary on MY vessel really impacted me. When people would comment on my skin, I would actually take offense. Whether it was a pleasant comment or not, I was uncomfortable. I didn’t want this type of attention. I wanted to hide. But skin is not something you can control, and so I was stuck being confronted by some stranger about my skin–someone who felt they had a right to take some form of opinion and voice it about the layer of flesh that holds my vessel together. There was no escape. So I would rebel. I would opt out of taking care of it beyond soap and water. I would let it dry itself out. I would refuse to take the day’s makeup off. I always felt like my body was subject to the opinions of those around me. My grandparents commenting on my weight or how they hate my curly hair. Someone always had something to say, like they were entitled to it. I find myself now, wondering how often my ancestors experienced the harsh grip of entitled abusers. 

I recall the first time I was allowed to become strong and feel respected based on the fact that I am a human. I was 23. I had just gotten a personal trainer. James. He was a fifty something year old, Black man. Aside from my own father and maybe one professor from college, he was the first man who never expected anything out of me. He knew I could do more, and he helped me realize it. But he did not push me, he asked me to be honest with what I could do. He never commented on how I looked. He only ever asked me how I was feeling. He told me right away, that our journey together would not be one about appearance. It would be about becoming mentally strong and focusing on how I was feeling. I trusted him. He knew it and he never took that for granted.

Looking back on all of this, my relationship with James was so healing. I wasn’t trying to change my body in our work together. I was changing how I felt about my body. I was becoming stronger. I was able to respect the time and the patience that come with devotion to this vessel.

I say all of this because I made a connection not that long ago. I was talking to a friend and I realized that after I was raped I wanted to hide from unsafe people. So I stopped caring for my body, my skin. I gained weight. I hid in very large clothing. My skin wasn’t enough to protect me. I had to hide that too, so I wore makeup. I grew furious with my body for betraying me and abandoning me when I needed it most. I disconnected.

When I left my abusive relationship, I read somewhere that skin cells replace themselves fully all around the body every seven years. I found comfort in waiting for skin that would never have been touched by my abuser. Then I was raped. I felt a disconnect from my skin in a very visceral way. I wanted so badly to remove my skin and let it become something I could hang dry like laundry and wear again when I was ready. My skin became this entirely separate entity for me. I could not associate with it because it became too painful. It held too many devastating stories. It held no scars for me to be proud of. It felt dirty. It felt shameful. My showers would entail 25-30 minutes of intensive scrubbing. So much so that I would rub my skin raw to try to erase the stories it had to tell. And I just could not escape. 

In all of this, this hatred for my skin and resentment towards my body, I had never stopped to listen to it. To really hear how it works. What it was trying to say, and how my ancestors have communicated to me through it. In fact, I think there was a time where I actively tried to avoid hearing its message. I blamed my skin for so long. I blamed it for making feel like i was lacking– like i was not enough– “not Puerto Rican enough” or “not Italian enough” or not this or that enough. I blamed my body and my round frame for not allowing me to fit in and wear clothing that was never designed with me in mind. I blamed my skin for making me feel like I didn’t belong among family, or the people I share lineage with. I blamed my skin for something it was not responsible for. I blamed my skin for allowing pain in. But skin is a gentle barrier and it is porous and toxins will be allowed in from time to time.

The first time I listened to my skin, I can remember the love I felt. I was overwhelmed to the point of tears. That it replaces itself to ensure I am always refreshed. That regardless of how I feel about it, it will never stop loving me. The love my skin and my body have for me is unconditional. I can’t help but feel like I wasted so much time wishing it was different, all the while it always just wanted to make me feel like I am enough. This unconditional love is where my ancestors speak to me. 

When I really listen to it, I hear it ask for my patience. I hear it tell me how rewarding patience is. I hear it tell me that my hips are big because my body was designed for resilience. This resilience is not loud. It makes itself apparent in my womb as it has within all the women who have come before me. My skin holds stories of violence, and death and rape and sorrow. My skin holds stories of pain. It holds stories of hurt and helplessness. But it holds stories of love too. It holds gentleness, tenderness. It holds stories of hope. I am here now because my ancestors prayed for me. My ancestors prayed that I would be the one to heal this pain. They show up for me everyday in the way my skin does.

My skin heals slowly, showing the fruits of patience each time. When I nurture my skin, and my body I am nourishing and healing for my ancestors who were never allowed to nurture their skin; they were criticized for their skin; they were not fortunate enough to have restorative time. They were made to feel non-human. The sun left visible kisses on their skin and they were punished for it. When I rest, I am resting for my ancestors who were never allowed to rest. My body has blood from the oppressor and the oppressed. Its very existence means it is at war with itself. I have to work extra hard to find peace in that every day. Every individual cell in my body works hard every day so that I can continue to work at healing the pain of the wounds I have inherited and encountered along the way. My skin did not originate with me. It was passed down to me by the people who prayed for me to exist. This makes it so much easier to love. 

When I wear soft, clean clothes I am providing tenderness that they needed and never received. When I cleanse my body with water, I am washing away pain. When I nourish myself, I am giving nourishment to the vessel that carries me. I can cherish the shape of my eyes knowing that my soul speaks through them. When I rest, I tell the women who came before me that the struggles they encountered were not in vain.

My skin means more to me now, than ever before. I have been unkind to it. This was a learned behavior. I work everyday to unlearn it to honor the people who have come before me. This skin and this body do not exist for the commentary of others. It is strong. It is healing. My skin has taught me so much– 

It is not similar to the vessels of the many folks I encounter each day. It does not have to be.

It does not have to be perfect for me to love it. Each time the sun kisses it, wounds heal.

My skin greets each day with softness. It allows everything it meets in, and pushes what does not serve it right back out. It teaches me to learn everything and use what serves my healing best.

The skin on the bottoms of me feet is rough and calloused. It is deliberate and prepared for the steps which propel it forward. It teaches me to be fearless on the gravel path of lessons ahead. It is ready.

The skin on my legs is thin, and weathered and yet it is unwavering. It holds scars that tell stories. It teaches me to carry the stories of my past, and to move forward with intention.

The skin of my stomach is always warm and soft. It stretches as it needs to, teaching me flexibility. There is nothing rigid about this skin.

The skin on my chest hold lines and marks from where it has been confined. It remind me each day of how liberating it is to be let free of constraints. It graces cloth and the reward of freedom is sweet.

The skin on my shoulders is scarred from a sunburn. This scar will likely last a year before my skin fully heals. This teaches me patience and an admiration for what i cannot control.

The skin of my neck is covered in tags. I used to hate them but they are companions for one another. Teaching me that nothing in this life that makes itself known does it alone.

The skin of my hands is my favorite skin. They teach me every day to pay attention to detail. each cell so well defined and embracing whatever sweet relief they can find.

The skin on my face clings to a bone structure passed down to me by my ancestors. It teaches me the importance of knowing where I have come from. My skin is the gift and the language of my ancestors.

I leave you with this today:

I would only encourage you to consider the things that your skin is saying to you. What healing do you need to provide for your skin? What do you know about yourself because of your skin? What is your relationship with your skin? 

Be soft with yourself. Be gentle with yourself. Be tender with yourself. Be well.

Gigi

on taking back your power after sexual trauma.

TRIGGER WARNING: This post contains themes of sexual assault, sexual violence, depression, military veteran violence, and suicide.

“…and your very flesh shall be a great poem.”

Walt Whitman

Of all the fruit in the world, I find the fig to be one of the most fascinating. For those of you unfamiliar with this fruit, I will take a minute to describe. The fig, though it has many varieties, usually is a tear drop shaped fruit. It is not generally bigger than a child’s fist, and it can come in many shades varying from green all the way to a deep purple. The fig feels heavy in the palm of your hand. It grows best in warm weather, and is native to climates in Africa, the Middle East and Italy. It is one of the oldest fruits, and is depicted in art throughout history. It’s considered the fruit of the gods. The fig tastes like honey. Sometimes floral, sometime more fruity. It pairs well with goat cheese, and various other creamy based cheeses. It is an excellent accent to your bitter based salads or dishes. Add a little prosciutto and a couple of nuts and you can’t go wrong.

Figs are a tricky thing to perfect. They can be finicky when they do not grow native to an area. They are a sensual fruit. To bite into one feels indulgent upon your tongue. When they are ripe, they drip a sweet milky honey from the bottom. Some folx dry them in the sun and let their natural sugar emerge. They can be used for baking and incorporated into desserts.

Something that has always drawn to me to this fruit, is that it is not actually a fruit at all. It is a flower. And the flower grows within the confines of its sacred, round, form. This flower is pollinated by wasps specific to their species. The wasp pollinates the fig from within, and when it is done the wasp dies. The fig, then consumes the wasp. This silent process is symbiosis.

The first time I ever saw a fig, I was small. I remember being smitten with the taste and drawn in to look closer at all the beautiful fibers that made up its inner contents. I remember holding it and feeling its weight. It felt like more than the tiny thing it was. To grow a fig tree takes time. It takes nurturing and communication with the plant. It takes deliberate intention, and devotion.

October 2017. I had just moved into my apartment on Alexander street. It was fresh and new and small and adorned with furniture and textures that were incredibly me. I was close to everything, I was paying my own rent and my own utilities. It was mine. It was not perfect. It was hot. It had minimal counter space. But it was mine.

This was a busy time in my life. I was in grad school. I was doing my internship. I was beginning research for my thesis. I was trying to balance so much and I was doing it well. My routine was perfect. I would get up around 8:00 am and head into my internship. After that, I would go home, have dinner and go to class. I would come home and do my homework and do it all again the next day. It was busy but I was liberated.

One day, I got a message from an old friend from highschool. We didn’t know eachother super well back then, but we knew eachother enough where he was more than an acquaintance to me. My palms are getting sweaty as I type this. I don’t know that I feel safe saying his full name in this space. I may come back and edit this one day, but right now, I don’t know.

Anyway. I got this message from him. We hit it off really well. Like really well. It was the first time we had spoken since highschool and I was, frankly, surprised. He told me he went on to join the Navy and that life was very different for him now. I told him about my experiences with college and we decided to meet up for coffee. We found out we lived really close to one another, so we met halfway and walked the neighborhood with our coffees. I told him about what I was studying and he told me about his experiences, and we were able to relate in big ways. I felt comfortable, but cautious as one usually is. The date ended and we parted ways. But one thing that I remember him telling me, and I guess hindsight is 20/20, was that he believed “the military should provide sex workers for free so that men wouldn’t rape women”. I get angry at this now, because I feel like he was telling me something and also why the hell didn’t my red flag alarm go off here?

Cut forward to a few days later, we’re talking a bunch and it seems light and fun. I was having a really busy day with school. I went home and wanted to just relax, but he asked to come over so I let him. This time, he was a little pushy physically. I remember feeling uncomfortable and asking him to leave. He did.

Give it a week, and he was back to asking me to hang out. I really didn’t want to. I told him I wasn’t sure it was a good idea given what happened last time. I wasn’t sure I wanted to get involved anymore. I felt less safe. And yet, he convinced me he just wanted to come and talk. I gave him the benefit of the doubt. I let him in. It gets late. We’re talking. His apartment isn’t far but he says he really doesn’t want to walk home and “can I please just stay the night?”. I really didn’t want to let him stay. But I did let him. “Fine”. The wasp.

I mentioned the trigger warning above. I am going to mention it again here. These next few paragraphs are graphic.

I remember I was asleep when it started happening. I was wearing my usual pajama shorts and a t-shirt. Soft grey with draw strings. I was face down. I felt his hands on my wrists holding me down. I couldn’t turn my head. I felt his breathe on my neck. He was pressing past my shorts. It hurt so much. I remember whispering stop. I remember thinking “I do not want this”. I remember saying stop. I felt him get mad and more forceful as his body stopped cooperating. It might have been ten minutes? It might have been more or less. I can’t really remember. I stopped thinking and I stopped moving. He was in the Navy. He was much much stronger than I. I might have let out nervous laughter. I waited until it was safe to move and he was off of me. He put his clothes on and left. I don’t remember what I was doing in these moments. I know I texted my best friend because I really wasn’t sure what had just happened. I told her. She sent the word back. “Rape”. My whole body hurt.

I texted him. “I am not fine with anything that just happened and I need you to know that”. His response? “I understand, do you still want to be friends or nah?”. I was baffled. I don’t remember if I answered. I might have said something cynical like “nah”.

I was in my bed. It was quiet. There was dim light coming in from the window in my bedroom. In my soft gray shorts that would never mean comfort again. I loved these shorts. I remember being really mad about that. I couldn’t register what had just happened to me. So I got up. I took a shower and went to my internship and I tried to just forget.

The months following this, I remember feeling very confused and very angry. I told a few of my closest friends, but I still couldn’t say the word. Rape. I felt like my body betrayed me. I felt like I should have known this would happen. I felt like “I was the one who let him in. I opened the door”. I blamed myself for letting a snake into my sacred garden.

I would have trouble sleeping for months. I would go into a very deep and sad depression. I would start going on dates with random guys and hoping I would feel something again. I threw myself into it, because I was fearful that if I didn’t meet new people constantly, I would never want to meet anyone new ever again. So I met new guys and I tried to be present. But I wasn’t. There was only one new man after that that I would feel safe enough to come fully into my life after this. He is my life partner, and I am so grateful for him.

I don’t know what it is about power, and why humans need it. I don’t know why, when humans feel like they don’t have power, they feel entitled to take it. I can say, I have a strong bias against the military at this point. I know that isn’t fair. But neither is what happened.

I often find myself wondering, that at what point the switch goes of for someone that makes it okay in their mind to do this. I try to understand from their perspective, and there is never an answer. Because it’s not okay, and just because you wear a uniform, does not and should not give you a special pass. You do not have entitlement to the bodies and brains of others. You do not just get to take the things you want because you wear a certain color. I showed this person a small glimmer of who I was and like the wasp, he crept in and died. I felt dirty. I wanted to take my skin off and hang it up with the laundry. No amount of scrubbing helped me feel clean.

My therapist should be crowned a saint. She stuck with me through this in ways i will never understand, and that is even as a therapist. I was hopeless. I was calling suicide lines. I was trying to figure out what to do next. I was staying up until the early hours of the morning, calling my parents at 4:00 am because I was too afraid to be alone. I would sleep on the futon in my living room to avoid having to sleep on the bed.

I have mentioned EMDR on here, before but when I say it helped save my life there is no exaggeration here. My therapist and I completed at least eight EMDR sessions before I finally started to feel like I was clean again. I am learning about the pieces of me that have begun to bloom from within.

Why now? Why tell this story almost three years later? I was afraid. after this all happened, he called me again and I was home alone. I don’t know what his intention was because I didn’t answer, but I do know I slept with my doors and windows barricaded. My peaceful little home had become a dark place for me. I was not ready to tell this story in full. In my eyes, it was the past.

I never reported it. I think a part of me knew that my word would mean nothing against that of a man who wore a uniform. If this can happen outside of the service, it sends my head spiraling to think about what happens within. Vanessa Guillen’s story is the reason I am telling this story. There is a lesson here. People are people, no matter what they wear and who they serve and sometimes they are bad. We cannot trust that the people who belong to an organization or system are inherently good and that their intentions will always be to protect and do the right thing. We see it every day, more and more within our policing systems and now within our military. Accountability is the fruit that comes from deliberate intention. Like the fig, it takes time to rebuild an entire system. It takes devotion. It takes compassion and nurturing and communication with the plant and with the people. How can a nation stand on anything solid when the soil its planted in has rotted? What are we telling the world and the victims of violence and sexual assault about their worth? How are they ever supposed to “pull themselves back up” if the nation only cherishes those who pushed them down in the first place? Without taking a cold, hard look at where we plant seeds in this country, fruit will never fully ripen for everyone. And what is the point of planting seeds when the fruit will never fully nourish? There is no symbiosis here.

Here is what I know about reclaiming power in a system not made in your favor.
1. rest is rebellion. When you allow yourself compassion and rest, you are allowing the sun to kiss your leaves a little longer. You are filling yourself with nutrients.
2. You do not have to claim power alone. Pick your people. and if it doesn’t work out, pick them again.
3. Power is not anything but a feeling. It comes from real, authentic freedom. So rather than focus on power, ask yourself when you feel the most free. And do more of that.
4. If you do not want to do something, don’t fucking do it. “No” is a complete sentence.
5. If your gut is telling you you need something, listen.
6. Spend time alone with yourself. It will be hard to hear your thoughts. But your heart, and your head only ever want what is best for you. it will feel like a storm. It’s about what happens when the rain clears. Get to know yourself after this. Do not abandon you.
7. In healing, power is not definitive and loud. It comes in small, myriad ways every day. You can choose to turn left instead of right on the way home. You can choose to have an extra plate of something. You can claim power in the decisions you make every day.
8. If the very best you have for any given day is getting out of bed, then so be it. You do not have to honor anyone’s expectations of you.
9. You are not dirty. Your skin is clean because it is yours. You can bathe in mud and still be clean. recognize that your body did not betray you. Your body protected you. Your very flesh is a poem. Sing your praises from the mountain tops, even if the praises feel small today.
10. You can love people again. You can love you again.
11. Wear the textures that make you feel safe. Surround yourself with fabrics and pillows and make your environment yours.
12. When you start to leave your own head, call yourself back in kindness. You are not required to be mad at yourself for dissociating.
13. Feel. Own your feeling. You do not have to numb the pain to feel human again.
14. When you are fearful and act in ways you are unfamiliar with, it is a trauma response. You do not owe anyone an explanation for that.
15. Nourish yourself. With music, art, writing, meditation, dance, laughter. It is okay to do these things and in fact, they are necessary. If there was something you loved to do before your trauma, know that you do in fact deserve to do it again.

Try to find ways to refrain from punishing yourself for the things that were done to you.

I have claimed back my power in many ways, most of which are silent. It is what has worked for me. I feel stronger every day. I plant my seeds in soil that is rich, and full of nutrients. I spend time with my seeds before I plant them. My figs are sweet and full of honey. That honey belongs to me. It always has. That honey is mine. My flowers bloom more each day and I decide who gets to see them.

I will leave you with this:
What will you need to do for your soil to ensure your tree grows strong? What can you do right now to be gentle and tender in your process of healing? What does healing mean for you ? In what ways can you and the ones around you contribute to change? What do you choose everyday to re-claim your power? How will you refrain from self-blame? What does accountability look like for you ? How can we make sure that it happens? What allows you to feel safe?

Be will,
Gina

if you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual assault and trauma and are seeking help:

RAINN- 800.656.HOPE (4673)
Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK


Call you local government to inquire about accountability for people in positions of power.
Write letters to government officials.
Donate. Defund. Be Vocal.

On healing from shame and taking up space.

“I’m not afraid of my truth anymore, and I will not omit pieces of myself to make you more comfortable.”

Alex Elle

I apologize so much. For everything. For none of the right things. For “being in someone’s way” in the grocery store. For “intruding”. For taking up too much space. For being seen. At a different time in my life, I was willing to risk my own boundaries and sanity for the comfort of someone else. I never wanted to be an inconvenience to someone; so much so that I would likely rearrange my entire schedule to make sure others would have a smooth day. It was exhausting. I became resentful and burnt out and frustrated so quickly. What was that ? Why did I do it? Why was I so afraid of taking up space?

The answer, now, is simple. Shame. It was only ever because I felt shame. After my traumas, I felt a very intense sense of fear and shame. About everything. I walked around like I had eggshells on the bottoms of my shoes. I had no idea, none at all, that part of my trauma response, part of my survival method was allowing myself to become a vessel for shame. It happened slowly, and methodically until I truly believed I did not deserve to be seen, take up space, stand in my power. I didn’t believe I had power. I didn’t believe I was even a human.

Shame. Where does it come from? How do we start to feel it? Shame is what happens when someone else crawls into your brain and makes you feel poorly about not meeting their expectations. Shame is what happens when you feel powerless. Shame is what happens when you stop being able to recognize yourself in the mirror. Shame comes from so many different possible places, but mostly it comes from within. Shame tells us that our existence is too much for the world and that we don’t deserve to take up any room. Shame is a lens through which we view ourselves because of the thoughts and beliefs we have about who we are or who we might have been. It is a lens that tints all beliefs about what we are capable of.

Shame. When I say the word, I imagine a rigid, cold person saying it as they look down upon me in some condescending manner casting judgement on something I did not do. It is harsh and invisible. It acts as a blinder that is always adjusting itself so you might never be allowed to see light again. It’s a heavy weight that rests on the nape of our neck to make it uncomfortable to find a blue sky.

But if shame comes from within, so does healing. Remember that.

I want you to get a bit visual with me here.

Imagine you are walking along the intricate path in the woods, and you are equipped with a bag. It has some things you might need. As you pass along on this road, you are meeting new people. Some with good intentions and someone with less than ideal ones. But each individuals gives you a brick. Some bricks are newer, some are older. All the bricks vary in weight, color, shapes etc. You have no place to put these bricks once your hands start to get full so you start putting them in your bag. Smashing some of your original items that you had placed there for a time of need. Eventually this bag is really heavy. You start to wonder if it will break. Is this bag really equipped to carry all of these bricks? You’re not really sure how long this little path is, but you do keep meeting people and you’re getting nervous about what you might have to do to make room for bricks. Sometimes people make you feel awful for carrying such a heavy bag. They even point and laugh. When your bag is full, they get angry with you.

To feel shame is to take on an incredibly heavy weight. It’s like carrying around a bag full of bricks. Sometimes the bricks have been in the bag so long, they become withered and eroded. Maybe you’re not even sure where the bricks came from anymore but they are there and that must mean they were important at some point, right? Maybe some of the bricks are new, perfectly shaped. A bit heavier than the others. Maybe you remember exactly where you picked them up along the way.

One of the first times I was told it was okay for me to take up space was in the grocery store by a complete stranger. I could have hugged her. I was looking at some produce and she was waiting patiently behind me, and upon my realization of her being there, I immediately grabbed my basket, said “I’m sorry, I am in your way and I will move” and started to walk away. She said, “No no no. Please don’t. You are just fine, and I am not in a rush. We all need food. You take your time, and put that basket down.” I was floored. Usually, in the grocery store people want you to just get out of their way. It used to be a high stress situation for me because I felt rushed and like I was constantly in the way. But here this woman was, telling me it was fine to be where I was; that my needs were just as important as anyone’s. I wanted to hug her. I still rushed picking out my peppers but it was a powerful day. I felt lighter that day. I felt one brick come out of my backpack.

My takeaway here was that it is okay to slow down sometimes and acknowledge that you have needs, and that as a human, you are allowed to exist in the space you need to do so. This is life changing. Especially when it comes to healing from shame.

So what does it mean to heal from shame? I imagine that this is different for each individual. But I can say that healing from shame looks a little bit like a snail making a really big trek across the garden. It’s a little creature and the rest of the world has no idea he is on a mission. But he moves. Persistently, avoiding dangers, focused on his mission. He is a soft, a fragile creature, but his shell protects him in the ways he needs it to. He allows himself the time to get to his destination. He does not judge that he has no legs. He does not judge that he is small. He might be wishful that things were different, but he certainly doesn’t focus on that. He is ready to take a bite out of a juicy, delicious leaf.

Healing is seeing the mission ahead of you, knowing it will take a while, and still doing it anyway. Healing is providing yourself with those juicy leaves of nourishment. Healing is watching your face change when you see yourself in the mirror, from a scared frown to being able to admire the wrinkles forming on your face. Healing is love. Healing is recognizing the power within the vessel you possess. Whether it’s wiggling your toes and stretching in the quiet moments, or sipping tea, or dancing, or taking a peaceful moment on the porch. Healing is a conscious decision to admire the human condition–your human condition– as you stand in what you know to be as your truth. Healing is boundaries. Healing is reclaiming. Healing is loving yourself up in the ways you were afraid to when you were told you weren’t worthy. Healing is soft fabrics and arranging your space. Healing is cooking a meal for yourself and providing nourishment. Healing is finding freedom. Healing is deep, reflective self-care practices. Healing is reconnecting with others and reconnecting with you. It is lightening the load you’ve carried for too damn long. Healing is taking up your space, and learning to make a home fro yourself within that space. Healing is understanding that space can change. Healing is not only rejoicing in your comfort but embracing your discomfort. Healing is seeing a therapist, or having a friends night, or walking alone in the morning. Healing is not linear. It is not routed out on a map for you. So of course, it will be confusing and frustrating. There will be days that you feel like it is not happening. Be patient with yourself on those days. Trust your healing. This is not a race. Feel what you feel and let it come and go as it needs to. When healing becomes confusing, look inward. Your instincts are right. Healing is owning your story and choosing to recognize that that story, isn’t some made up shit, it is real, because you are real. Healing is not just existing in your body but living in it. Planting your feet in the ground and knowing your strength is what led you to this healing path.

You got yourself to this healing point. Wherever you stand in that journey, you did it. You are doing it. You are becoming. You are healing. And it it is okay, and good, and critical even, to take up the space to do that because every fiber of your existence works so hard just to be here. You deserve to take up the space you need. If anyone tells you otherwise, they are not for you.

I still become nervous at the thought of taking up space. When I first started this blog, I was nervous that showing myself to the world would only hurt me. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It has liberated me. I have some major projects to accomplish this year. I am terrified. Not of failure. Not even of success. I am so afraid of taking space in the world to do it. But I am going to do it anyway. Because it is part of my healing, and I need to own my story. Because that is truly what taking space is– owning the story that leads to now so much so that it becomes a badge of honor. I am certainly no master of this. But I can say the time I have taken to take up space and own my story have played major roles in my healing.

Taking up space is not selfish or wrong. It is natural and human and important. it looks different for every human. Sometimes it’s a blog, and other times it’s public speaking or social media, or simply chatting with a friend. All are valid.

You do not have to apologize for existing. This can be a hard one to take in. But you never asked to exist. You were forced into it. Now you’re just doing the best you can with what you have to create the most meaningful existence you can. But here is what is so lovely about that. You still get to decide what holds meaning. You still get to decide what your space gets to look and feel like. This is where owning your story comes in. You get to acknowledge all that has happened and decide which parts have been the most pivotal. You get to decide what each experience means for you. There is very little we have control over in the human experience, but one thing you always have control over is how you make meaning out of the experiences you have had up until this point and how they might impact your next steps. Shame does not have to be permanent. You get to decide how you heal and what that means for you.

Coming back to the brick visual, I want you to imagine you are walking along on this path. Exhausted. Fatigued. Resentful. Angry. Full of shame. Now pause. It is quiet. A little brisk. No one is on the trail right in this moment. You finally have a moment to yourself and you have a realization. “I need to unpack some of these bricks”. That is what healing feels like. Unpacking the bricks you have been carrying for far too long, in a backpack not equipped for carrying that amount of weight. You were not meant to carry everyone else’s bricks. You were not meant to carry bricks full of shame and hurt and pain for years. You do not have to feel badly about not being able to do so. Stop carrying around whatever is not meant for you to carry. Stop carrying what no longer serves you.

I will leave you with this today:

How do you know when your backpack is full of bricks? What do you need to do to empty it out a little each day? How will you know when you are healing? What stands in your way of taking up space? What do you feel in your body when you start to think of that ? What changes do you need to make to start claiming your space? What does your space look like? What does your healing require of you today? What are you carrying around that no longer serves you? How will you part ways with that?

Warm regards,

Gigi

On love.

“Love is speaking in code.
It’s an inside joke.
Love is coming home.”

“If Work Permits”, The Format.

*I want to thank you for being patient with me as I gather myself and come back into the routine of writing. Just a little bit of disclosure, the holidays hit me a bit hard and I am recovering. I love the holidays. But for some reason, this year took me by storm and I was in a sort of daze. I am grateful for your patience and compassion.*

As the first month of this year comes to a quick close, I have been re-evaluating how I do things. Not my actions, but my processes. First on the list, is love. How do I love? What is my definition of love? What does it mean to be loved by someone? What does it mean to be loved by me? What do I know about love?

Love. The word is beautiful. The way the letters come together to create a word that is beautiful, aesthetically and in meaning. When I think about love, I don’t know what to think. It’s not that I haven’t felt love. My truth is that love, for me, is something that I have almost come to stop trusting over the years. I can almost categorize love in sections. There is love, that is a foundation type of love. Friendly love. Romantic love. Inspired and grateful love. Required love. Laborious love. Forgiving. Courageous. Authentic love.

In short, love feels like it could get pretty complicated. Or perhaps, it has always been that I have made it far more complicated than it needs to be. It seems to be the latter these days.

I lucked out. I was born into a family whose foundation is one of love. Unconditional and eternal love.

My father has always been the sort of man whose love is quiet and gentle. He shows his love with humor, and in providing. He listens. He observes. He shows up. No matter what. When I was little, I was obsessed with animals. My dad had a computer with a screensaver that was just pictures of animals. He and I would watch that screensaver all the time. He never complained or said no. It was simple and really rather laughable now, but it mattered to me back then so it mattered to him.

My mother is vocal about her love. She shows it by acts of love, and through communication. She answers the phone with “is everything okay?”. She worries. She hugs. She has made sure I know I can go to her with anything and she won’t judge me for it. My mother and I fought a lot when I was growing up. We bumped heads about everything. If she said yes, I said no. We don’t do this anymore. The older I got, the more I recognized myself in her. If you and your mother are similar, you will only ever get along once you start to recognize the qualities you share as strengths. I promise you this. My mother is a protector. She will literally bring nations to the ground for her children. In fourth grade, my teacher made a remark about my ability to multiply. My mother marched in there and had a looong talk with this woman. Some might see this as a bit helicopter-ish. But at that time, my mom became a hero for me. She has done everything in her power to make sure that I know that she will always be on my side.

My sister is quiet about her love. But she loves so hard. If you are lucky enough to be loved by my sister, you will know loyalty, forgiveness, honesty, humor, consistency, reliability. Her love is intense and fierce. When my sister loves, it is an honor. She is the most loyal person I have ever known. She has a way of making every person in her life feel special for a specific reason. Her emotions are intense and acute and she is solid in mind and body. There is nothing about my sister that is not genuine.

How beautiful a world is the one that I have described above? To know love in those ways, is something I hold so close to my heart. It is love that I never had to question. Each of those people are my soulmates. Our love as a unit makes sense to us.

The thing about love, is that someone’s understanding of it can only ever be expressed or understood as it is in their earliest experiences. This can change. It does change. When new people, new love or different love comes into the mix, things get complicated and confusing. Maybe we aren’t able to understand how someone can possibly love in the way that they do. Love gets complicated when other people bring their own definitions and understandings of love to the table. It scares us. It becomes difficult to make sense of. The way we interpret their definitions and actions of love are the things that sometimes lead to hurt.

It takes courage to love. Each time I have misinterpreted someone else’s definition of love has left me less trusting, less willing and less and open to new love. It has always been painful. It has always been risky. There is no pain like the pain that comes from realizing you had it all wrong. I have found myself growing cynical over the years around that. Doubting anyone’s kind intentions. Not allowing space for anyone new.

But what happens when it begins to impact the love you have for yourself? Sometimes we love people who are not ready for us to love them. They are not willing to accept your love, or they don’t recognize the type of love you have to offer them. Other times, they see how willing we are to love them, and take advantage of that. Both of these can be toxic without proper communication around what love really means for you and your partner or partners.

I want to take a stand and completely discredit the notion of “If you can’t love yourself, how can you love someone else?”. It’s bullshit. It’s not real. It is possible to love other people regardless of how you feel about yourself. Loving yourself is just icing on the cake, and frankly, it is a lifelong process. It will take trial and error and deep reflective practice to understand yourself. We take time to get to know other people. That is what helps us love them. If you don’t take time to know yourself, you cannot love yourself. That is where deep healing comes in. And sometimes, you are just not ready. It takes courage. It will always take courage. Love is what allows you, or asks you to be willing to share what you learn with others. But let me set the record straight right here, right now. You deserve to be loved regardless of your ability to love and understand yourself right now. Please do not let what society deems as acceptable to be the truth. For those of us in this world who struggle with self-love, it is just added pressure to place doubt on their ability to love and be loved because of circumstances surrounding their feelings towards themselves that may not be within their full control.

There was a very. Very long long time where I did not love myself. I didn’t even like myself for a longer time than that. Self-love is not something that we are born with. It takes time and courage and honesty to be able to welcome yourself home into your own body every day. When I was in my most toxic relationships, I believed I was not human. That I did not deserve love. That I was un-loveable. This false belief made me hate myself in a way that I don’t have words for. I have to give credit to my therapist for her patience with me through this. I am a firm believer that humans have all they need within them to bring themselves back, but we do need anchors sometimes. My family was that anchor. Had I not had them, and the love they provide, I am not sure I’d have made it back. After what I put them through with my abuse, I did not believe I deserved their love. I believed it so much so that I actually struggled with trusting them when they told me they would love me regardless. This is how I learned the persistence of love. The patience of love.

Cut to present day. Almost ten years since I survived Calvin’s abuse, and just over two years since what Alec did to me (abusers have names and I believe we should use them. New stance. Not sorry about it.). It was after my EMDR treatment that I realized. I love myself. I was in the shower. I was nurturing my skin and cleaning this amazing and strong vessel I inhabit when I looked at my toes and watched the water accommodate them, that for the literal first time in my life I had a thought: “I love myself!!”. I almost jumped out of the shower and ran down the street screaming it. My body and I had finally reconciled. My brain and body were finally communicating. In this moment, I realized it wasn’t just cohabitation happening within, it was an absolute friendship.

I spent the next few days basking in this glow. And I needed to know how I got there.

So I started asking questions. What is different now? What do I know about myself now? What has healed now in order for me to do this? How do I know that this is trustworthy and real? These questions start sounding like a third date. But to summarize, I was learning myself. You see, I had spent so long after my traumas wishing I could be who I was before them. It was exhausting. I was never going to be that person again. I needed to start looking at facts and stop wishing. The facts led me to understand that I am kind. Empathic. Hilarious. Realistic. Understanding. passionate. Honest. Curious. Creative. Intelligent. Capable. I was never going to be the care-free flea market loving, Footloose dancing Gina from before. And this is a good thing. Because the Gina from now is so much better. And I don’t know how I came to really believe that other than by being compassionate, and using all of the gifts I listed above with myself. Checking in frequently. Doing everything my healing required of me on that day. Every day. You will never be who you were before you were wronged. You do not need to be.

I want to circle back a little bit to the anchor part. What I mean by that, is that every human requires something to keep them grounded. For me, right after my traumas it was my family. Real and true familial love and connection. But something else I have been so incredibly fortunate to find is authentic companionship love and friendship love. They have been my anchors throughout almost the entirety of this healing process. I share this with you because I feel our anchors, are our support systems. Whether it is family, romantic partners, pets, a plant, I don’t care. Your anchors are your anchors, and as long as they don’t force you into drowning, or hold you back they are helping you. We need something to bring us out of our own heads. Anchors do this. Anchors are the lenses that help us understand how to start loving ourselves again.

So how did I get to be at a point of loving myself? Hard work. I took it on because I was ready. You have to be ready. It is daunting and terrifying and some days you will not want to do it. But you will have to do it anyway. Boundaries. Learning to say no to things that force me out of my truth and out of my power has been incredibly gratifying and liberating. And let me tell you, that the people who don’t honor your boundaries are not your people. Gentleness. Honoring my fragility. Honoring my softness when I needed to be soft. Honoring my emotions. Exploring the layers of every emotion. Therapy. So much therapy. But the biggest lesson I have learned about self-love is that sometimes it is too difficult to hear self-loving statements in your own voice. Sometimes you will require help. That is when I say that you can learn how to love yourself from the people who love you. It can be risky. But I have learned to love myself from watching the people I love, love me. Some will say that people learn to love you by how you love you. They’re not wrong. But there are exceptions. And sometimes we need examples. Rely on your anchors.

A couple of years ago, right after my assault, I started serial dating. It was shallow and I never felt a real connection with any one of them. I was terrified to be alone and I also couldn’t handle the thought of being around people who knew me well because I didn’t want to explain why I seemed so different. One night I was writing a paper due the next day and my neighbor was being so loud. I was infuriated. So I was petty and sent an email to the property management company about it. They forwarded it to him. The next day I was doing laundry and we ran into eachother in the hall. He didn’t know it was me that complained but he apologized anyway for being so loud. I said it was fine. He asked for my number so I could tell him to be quiet if he was ever too loud again. We hung out once and hit it off instantly. We were friends first. For a while. And then one night we decided we weren’t going to be just friends anymore.

I wasn’t sure what to think. I thought i was always a trusting person. But to be honest, starting this relationship with him showed me how little I trust people. It had nothing to do with him and everything to do with my experiences. He brought perspective to my life that I didn’t know I needed. I had been shutting everyone out. I was hiding. But I didn’t need to hide with him. We are buying a house together. We have a dog. His voice soothes me, and his laugh is so contagious. We have the same humor. He is patient. He does not love me in spite of everything I have been through, he chooses to love me everyday because my experiences have made me the resilient and strong woman I am today. You do not have to fit into molds for people to love you. I was terrified to tell him about my traumas. He created an environment for me to feel safe enough to tell him everything. This is part of love. Making the conscious decision to make your partner or partners feel safe enough to create a life with you regardless of past experiences. It is teamwork. I have never learned more about romantic love, partner love, and self-love in my life than I have in these two years.

Here is what I know to be true about love:
To love is a choice. People we love will hurt us and we will hurt them. You will choose whether or not that hurt is worth losing someone over. Love does not come in the form of harsh words and physical pain (unless you have both consented and agreed to it). Love is instilling power in someone. Love is trusting another individual with parts of you that you don’t show to the rest of the world. Love is an agreement to continue to grow. Love is challenging the other person or persons to be and do more. When someone steps out of character, love investigates. Love is watching someone grow and not having feelings of jealousy or anger, but gratitude for being able to witness this change. Love is not relying on anyone for anything other than who they are as an individual. Love has no grudges and certainly doesn’t hold anything over your head. Love is teamwork. Love is vulnerability. Love is being seen and acknowledged. Love is authenticity and dignity. Love is sharing room at your hearth even if the hearth is small. Love is creating safety. It is not playing it safe. It is creating safe spaces. Love is checking in. Love is long conversations in bed when you notice the other person might be in a funk. Love is giving the other person a heads up when your depression is hitting so they know it is not them. Love is not mind reading. Love is communication. Love is taking a break when emotions get too hot. Love is making fun of eachother. Love is looking forward to coming home. Love is feeling like enough. Love is discussion. Love is learning patience. Love is apologizing. Love is understanding that you don’t deem when it’s okay for someone else’s feeling to be hurt or not hurt. Love is unexpected. Love is so funny and so sweet. It is also infuriating. Love is horrible morning or dairy breath. Love is doing laundry when the other person can’t get to it or cooking even though you might hate it. Love is long nights of crying, and long nights of laughing. It is staying up late on a weeknight and texting the next day about what a bad idea that was. Love is staying in touch. Love is bringing the other person water when you realize how dehydrated they are. Love is making them soup even though they won’t eat it because they are sick. Love is watching the same movies over and over because you know they love them. Love is not discouraging them when they get excited about something. love is supporting their passions, and mindless banter. Love is not any one action or verb but a collection of them. It grows expansive throughout the years and changes as its subjects change. It is gratitude and commitment. It is seeing the same person or people every day, knowing they are home.

Here is more of what I have learned of self-love:
Self-love is healing. It is allowing yourself space to heal when you need it. It is honesty and facing painful truths. Self-love is re-parenting parts of you that were hurt as a child. Self-love is encouraging your darker hurts to show themselves so you can nurture them. Self-love does not cast judgement but enforces enlightenment and curiosity. Self-love is not minimizing compliments or cringing when someone is nice to you. Self-love is knowing you deserve the kindness you are served. Self-love is not a destination but a journey and it is ever changing. Self-love is knowing you could be someone totally different tomorrow and knowing you will love this person regardless. Self-love is knowing when you need a minute and when you are just being lazy. Self-love is forgiving the past in hope of a better now. Self-love starts as an objective exploration of what is really going on. Self-love asks you to dive deeper. Self-love is discovery. Self-love is courage. It is a huge risk. It is a huge reward. It’s defying everything everybody says you should be in search of what you need to be. Self love is the equivalent of acknowledging that you will make mistakes and are ready to do better next time. Self love is welcoming yourself back into your body when you float too far. Self-love is recognizing home in yourself. Sing it from your shower. Scream it in the streets. When you discover it, you will know no greater feeling.

Today I want to leave you with this.

How will you know what self-love means to you? How do you show love to others? What do you need in order to feel loved? Do the people in your life know this? What can you do to make sure they do? When in your life have you felt most loved? How can you create more of this in your life this year?

Warmth on this snowy day,

Gigi.