*This post contains oblique references to cancer, death, and adverse childhood experiences. In addition, I recognize my social position affords me access to certain kinds of physical and emotional safety not equitably afforded to people of color, disabled people, LGBTQA+ folks, and others harmed by white supremacy, patriarchy, heteronormativity, ableism, settler colonialism, and capitalism. I recognize my responsibility to speak truth to power and to give space, resources, and authority to those historically and currently excluded from dominant spaces.
Two days after my father died from cancer in September 2019, I was hiking at Griffy Lake. On my way back to the car, two people were at the side of the lake struggling with something. It was a snapping turtle with its tail snagged in weeds. With my sandals and sundress on, I and a stranger (whose name was both unusual AND the same as my revered music teacher) were wrapped around each other as I grabbed the turtle by the shell and used scissors to cut it from the weeds. As soon as it sensed its freedom, the turtle took off underwater. I have a scar between my right thumb and pointer finger, not from the snapping turtle, but from the really ferocious case of poison ivy I got from trying to help it.
For the past three years, I’ve been telling myself a story that the snapping turtle was a symbol and sign of my dad. I told myself I had a role in setting him free from his material, earthly existence. Maybe I did. Yesterday, however, a new story emerged. I am the snapping turtle in that story. That late-summer evening in 2019, in cutting a snapping turtle free from lake weeds, I started the process of setting myself free from codependency and internalized oppressive mindsets.
I have been a turtle entangled in weeds for over 45 years. I lived an enmeshed life riding power peoples’ emotional waves that were not my own nor my responsibility. I learned how to endure exposure to those turbulent elements of emotionally drowning tides and stormy seas. I learned to read subtle emotional cues in powerful others. A sudden shift in another’s emotions, emotional presence, or attunement was often a precursor to terror. Expressing a need that was inconvenient or uncomfortable for others was often dangerous for me. Powerful peoples’ comfort took priority over mine. Feeling afraid, helpless, and without choice in an unpredictable environment, I cowered, became invisible, and people-pleased. This is what my mind sounds like and body feels like living with complex PTSD. This is how I learned codependent behaviors.
Passive consent to austerity
My sources of information for decision-making on my own behalf became culture and powerful authority. With dominant others’ emotions and preferences dictating my decisions, I abandoned and neglected my own inner life and physical needs. I acted as if dominant people perceived me as a disgrace. Over and over, I acted as if there was something I could do that would bring me back into grace. I made decisions based on what I thought others wanted, what would avoid disapproval, and what I thought would keep me safe. These strategies seemed like the mostly likely way to survive from a young person’s point of view. I left myself so someone else wouldn’t leave me. At the same time, my true self was invisible both to them and to me.
In believing I didn’t deserve compassion, predictability, and safety, I passively consented to self-inflicted scarcity, asceticism, and suffering. I acted if I had to confine myself to a certain kind of externally-validated success to be taken care of and to belong as part of humanity. My mind and body got stuck in the rugged individualism-based grind groove. I’m either productive or I’m lazy. Go along to get along. Handle it. Figure it out. Push through it. Running on fumes. Black and white. There are winners and losers. Something good must be balanced with negative consequences. These are the oppressive, scarcity-based logics, mindsets, and belief systems of white supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy, and ableism. I was snagged in the weeds.
Affirmative consent to abundance
I want all of us to have abundance and liberation from oppressive dynamics in relation to powerful dominant others: marginalized and historically excluded folks, people in toxic abusive relationships, graduate students, my fellow educational developers. I don’t want us to be snarled in the vines of codependency. I don’t want us to suffocate in others’ emotional dysregulation or starve from emotional neglect. I am meant to be free. So are you.
What is my soul here to learn? In being cut loose from codependency, I am learning how to make space for and tend to my inner world. I am becoming aware of what an abundance of care feels like. In consciously choosing to be in communities of care, I am learning to accept care from others, to believe I deserve care, to communicate the kinds of care I need, and to give care sustainably to myself and others. In these communities of care, I learn how to be a truer version of myself, how to create a life that works for me, how to curate my own experiences, and how to live with the same presence and compassion for myself as I give to others.
Nearing the age of 50, I am just now learning an important (self)parenting hack: HALTS (“are you hungry, angry, lonely, tired, sick?”). Other things I am learning about myself within my communities of care:
- To have experiences in which I learn about my preferences
- To make conscious choices that prioritize my preferences
- To know what types of rest and comfort feel good to me
- To know what explorations and adventures I like to do (what’s in my fucking bucket list)
- To know what kinds of work and play feel meaningful and fulfilling to me
- To know I am supposed to communicate how I feel and what I need
- To do something because I’m choosing to, not because I think someone else wants me to.
The somber reality is that some baby sea turtles get stuck in the nest. And some get caught on the way from the nest to the water. But a few baby sea turtles scramble frantically from the nest across the beach to the water. A couple baby sea turtles become wise elders, unfettered and free to travel thousands of miles of open ocean. These loggerheads return year after year to the beach to create a new nest, their youth-like scramble back to the ocean becoming more of a lumber. Maybe this post will remind you of the internal permission and knowledge you already had to create new, better nests for you and those coming after you.