Sunday, July 31, 2011

What I Learned from... Getting Someone Arrested

Author's Note: This entry is a continuation of my series, "What I Learned from..." It's a series on life lessons and experiences I've had. Some, like this installment, are more serious. Therefore, readers may want to use discretion before reading this entry. I will, however, do my best to keep graphic content to a minimum. With that, welcome to What I Learned from... Getting Someone Arrested.

Some people call high school the "best years of your life." I used to think, "If these are my best years, I'd hate to see what's ahead." For me, high school represented the hardest years of my life for a long time.

It started when I was 15 and my family moved to Michigan. Scratch that, when I moved to Michigan without my family. I lived with some friends from our church for several months so I could start 10th grade on time.

Before moving to Michigan, I had lived a sheltered life in Dallas, Texas, attending private schools and being home schooled. I had a core group of close friends, and the most exciting things we did were try to talk to the boys we liked on the phone or go to Mavericks games. I never got into trouble, mostly because I never had the chance.

When I moved to Michigan, I started public school. Talk about a culture shock, and the kind of learning experience you don't send your kids to school for. It was a completely different world than anything I had ever experienced, and I did my best to remain invisible. Better to vanish in the crowd than stand out as the girl who learned a few new words this week or didn't know that smell was marijuana.

Somehow I got through sophomore year, blending and going fairly unnoticed. It was hard though, who wouldn't want to be like the popular girls and actually have a guy ask you to a dance? That's why, when junior year rolled around, and the good looking guy in my economics class started talking to me, I was soaking it up.

But, not all attention is good attention, as I started to learn. And maybe I had a sign hung around my neck that said "vulnerable" or "easy target" because it didn't take long for things to go downhill.

I learned later that it's called "sexual harassment" when people touch you inappropriately or say things of that nature. But when it was happening, something in my subconscious wanted it to make sense, wanted to write it off, tried to reason it away. Maybe it was just an accident, it could've been a mistake... But something else in my subconscious knew it wasn't an accident, it was wrong.

It took a while for me to bring it up. Honestly, I don't know how I did, it was so embarrassing. But somehow, in the car at a stoplight, I managed to tell my mom. That was all it took to start the landslide. Not a bad landslide, a good one. One that I didn't have to work at to keep it going. It went on its own.

My parents scheduled a time for me to meet with the private detective who worked for my school. That's when it really sunk in that this was a bigger deal than I had first thought. I didn't want to talk about what happened, so my dad did the talking for me. I remember feeling sick to my stomach, but instinctively I knew I needed to do this. The detective started investigating the situation right away, and then I knew it was serious.

A day or two later he pulled me out of class to give me an update. He had talked to the guy, who admitted to doing everything I had said. I was sort of shocked that he wouldn't protest it or lie and say he hadn't touched me. But the detective had it scribbled on his yellow legal tablet. It was official. And he was filing a warrant.

After that things went kind of fast. He got arrested, his family posted the bond, we went to court. Court was probably the scariest moment of all because I knew that I would have to face him. All I wanted was to not have to testify. I remember getting to the courthouse and being taken into a room with a bunch of lawyers in suits. They kept me there for a while because he was out in the hall. Everyone was stone-faced, but somehow I knew they were on my side and would protect me.

In the hearing, the judge said, "How do you plead?" And when his lawyer said, "Guilty," I knew I had won. I didn't really pay attention to the sentencing or what was said after that. It really didn't matter to me. All that mattered was that I had done it. I had spoken up, someone had listened and I had won.

* * * * *

It's been a long time since that day. But I carry with me always the things I learned. The biggest is that I have a voice. In fact, everyone has one, but not everyone uses it.

I learned that a lot of women do what I first did, we try to reason away what happened. It's a gut reaction to try to mentally "fix" it, to try to make it make sense. But anyone will tell you, it never does quite make sense. And when you realize that, you have one of two options. You can bury it down deep, ignore it and pretend it never happened. Or you can speak up, tell someone, and do something about it.

I think a lot of women choose the former, and suffer in silence. It takes a special kind to do the latter. But I realized something else, in being one of the ones to speak out, I didn't do it just for myself. I did it for the other women who might have been harassed by this guy. I did it for the other women who didn't know who to tell, who were scared no one would believe them, who felt defenseless.

In speaking out and finding my voice just once, I have found it over and over again. I'm not afraid to be the one person who calls someone out, who reports a wrong, who faces injustice head-on. I am not afraid to listen to someone else share their story, and support them however I can. I learned that I not only had a voice for myself, but I had a voice for others.

I also learned that having a voice can be hard and scary. There were so many times I wanted to back down. I wanted to just be done with everything and not have to face it. It's hard to be strong when you're looking evil in the eye. But I also learned that if you can beat it, you can beat anything. And once it was all said and done, I was so glad I hadn't backed down. And so I learned that I'm a fighter, and that quitting is never an option.

Finally, I learned that I want to encourage as many people as I can through my experience. Whether they have gone through something similar, or are currently experiencing it. Or even if they never have and never will. Everyone can learn from my story and stories like mine. The biggest thing people need when going through situations of harassment and abuse is support. Someone to listen, to believe and to care. I learned that's what we all need, and that's the kind of person I intend to be.

Monday, July 25, 2011

What I Learned from... Getting Dumped

I did not want to write this. In fact, I would be fine never admitting that any of this happened. I would be fine pretending like this part of my life didn't exist.

But the truth is, it did happen. And not wanting to admit it is a pride issue. When you have something that needs to be said, you can't let pride get in the way. So that's why I'm sucking it up and writing this. And because I think I'll be better off having gotten it out, than I will be keeping it in.

Stories like this all begin the same way, a boy meets a girl, a girl meets a boy. How, when, where are all details, technicalities. The point is they met, connected, maybe fell for each other. I met such a boy (maybe man) fresh out of college, full of hope, with a brand new degree and diploma to back it up.

The first job I landed fit exactly with my major. And while anyone would be happy finding such a perfect fit, I was distracted. All I wanted was to be with this person that made me feel seen, thought of, wanted. I don't know if it was the $500 plane tickets to visit him, the way he worded his feelings for me perfectly, or the fact that he was different from any guy I ever dated. I don't know, because honestly, I don't really remember why I was so sure we were meant to be. I just remember feeling it.

I was banking on us so strongly, that when presented with an ultimatum: jump or go back, I jumped. I was so sure of us, I was willing to leave everything I had (job, family, friends, security) for an unknown I felt fearless to face.

Essentially what it came down to was that I had to move, or we would probably break up, according to him. He wouldn't move for me, so I had to do it, Denver was better than Clinton, after all. At first I was a little hesitant, who wouldn't be? But something in me was so sure, so set, I did it. I moved 881 miles with everything I could fit in my car and no job prospects waiting for me, just an apartment and someone I said I loved.

I'd like to say that at least in the beginning it was euphoria. And maybe a few times it was. But more than once, I asked myself what I was doing. What was I thinking moving so far and leaving everything I had behind? I just kept coming back to that certainty, which before long, would fail me.

I thought I had been through some hard things in my life before I moved to Denver. And I had. But nothing like this. Sure, I had been through the average break-up, but there is something different when you stake your future on someone enough to alter your life for them. When you sacrifice the things you care about, severing ties one by one, for someone else, that changes things. It's no longer a simple matter of boy meets girl. It's suddenly huge and terrifying, like shoving off in a row boat to set sail in a relationship you hope will stay afloat.

This one didn't.

It started slowly, but it took only two months of living there for him to leave me. It was a long, brutal leaving process. Not the clean kind where it takes one day, one conversation. This one lasted over two miserable weeks, where I watched everything unravel, knowing I could do nothing. It was just like sand slipping through my fingers.

I don't know what was worse in those two weeks, my dreams or my reality. I used to have the most vivid dreams where he said he still wanted to be with me, then I'd wake up and realize nothing had changed. Reality was torturous as I tried to put on a happy face and pretend like everything was okay for the benefit of everyone else. And while so much from that time has faded now, I still remember how horrific it felt, like falling into a black abyss or ripping out my insides. It felt like torture.

And then it happened. He broke up with me. So simple sounding, and yet so much more than that. Because that Friday, when he said good-bye for the last time, I was left with no one. A stranger in a city I barely knew, with no family and only two friends. My only reason for being there walked out with a simple, "Good-bye, Elise," and never looked back. I felt like I was standing in the middle of a desert wasteland and I had no idea where to go from there.

* * * * *

It's a good thing that when we think we're setting out on our own, God goes with us. Even after taking matters into my own hands, he was still there, not letting me wallow in feelings of failure alone. That fact is probably the only thing that really got me through.

In the weeks after the break-up, I started reading Job. I told myself that someone who went through misery, albeit thousands of years ago, must've known what I was feeling. And something stood out to me in that book, so I wrote it on a card and stuck it on my mirror. After Job's wife told him to curse God and die, Job replied, "Shall we accept good from God and not trouble?"

I asked myself that. Would I only accept the good and never the bad? Honestly, in that moment I couldn't totally understand it, but I began to as the days went by and the card sat as a silent reminder. And now when I look back, that's the first thing I learned: I couldn't just accept good; I had to accept the bad as well. Because the bad, while terrible in the moment, may not be so bad farther down the road.

In the months and year following the break-up, I slowly learned some important things that I didn't know I was learning.

First, I learned how to be self-sufficient. When you don't have anyone coddling you or taking care of you, you learn how to take care of yourself. I learned how to manage my life without help, and in so doing, I became stronger and more independent. I had my own apartment, worked up the ladder in my own job, paid my own bills and learned my way around a brand-new city. I learned how to be successful, in spite of my circumstances.

Second, I learned some things about myself, and because of that, I grew. I am not the same person I was in 2009 when he called it quits. In fact, I barely remember the person I was at that time. Those things I saw in myself that I didn't like, I learned how to change. I learned how to become my own person, and I learned who that person was. Now, I know myself more than I ever did then.

Third, I learned--surprisingly enough--how wrong he and I were for each other. Even though I felt like I failed in my efforts, I really didn't. I succeeded because the whole point of a relationship is to find out if it works. If it doesn't, you've succeeded in your goal just as much as you would if it had worked. Therefore, I learned that I was not a failure. I did what I set out to do, even if I didn't recognize that at the time.

Finally, I learned that you can't run away from God's plans for you, be it intentionally or unintentionally. Like Jonah, no matter where you try to go, God will get you back where he wants you. My story may not be as obvious as getting swallowed by a giant fish, but to me it was pretty close.

I left Clinton with the intention of never returning. My plan was to make Denver my home for a long, long time. And even after the break-up, I stayed because I've never been a quitter. When I put my hand to something, I see it through to completion. And that's what I did, because when God says something is complete, it's done. On the last Thursday in December 2010, God said that chapter of my life was done and shut the door on Denver. My giant fish was an airplane taking me back to where I started from, the place I never thought I'd live in again.

But now, here I am. I'm back in Clinton and while I don't know God's plan from here, I know I'm where I'm supposed to be. I feel so content and so happy, just knowing that this is where he wants me. I learned that no matter where I go, or what I do, his plans will always be accomplished. And that, despite the pain and trials and sadness, gives me hope.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

What I Learned from... Unknowingly Befriending a Sex Offender

Author's Note: I decided to start a series titled "What I Learned from..." This will be a series on life lessons and experiences I've had. Some, like this first installment, will be more serious. Others may be more lighthearted depending on the nature of the content. All are true, and therefore, I ask readers to use discretion when reading. If the subject matter may bother you, or you are a younger reader, you may want to skip the serious ones. I will always give forewarning when topics are weighty. With that, welcome to What I Learned from... Unknowingly Befriending a Sex Offender.

I met Steve* on Labor Day of 2009 while living in Denver. I was going through one of the most difficult periods in my life to date, and was struggling with feelings of loneliness and uncertainty of my future. At that point I was welcoming anyone who would be a friend.

My good friends, Dan* and Marie*, had decided to throw a little Labor Day party, and knowing that I was spending the day by myself, had invited me. They had also invited Dan's long-time friend Steve, who was older, a little awkward, but seemed nice. Later, some neighbors and family members of Dan and Marie joined us. We had a fun time playing games and grilling out.

After that day, Steve started hanging out with us more. He started going to church where I attended with Dan and Marie, started coming to events, and the four of us would plan activities together. He was always on time, and always showed up for everything. When Thanksgiving rolled around, Marie's parents invited Steve and I to spend the day with their family up in the mountains. Steve and I road tripped out together.

Steve was single and lived alone in a little apartment. He sometimes talked about his family, but I never met them. Steve worked full time, and spent his spare time, from what I could tell, playing PlayStation games and reading. He only had a few friends, so he was almost always available to hang out.

At first I was a little worried that people may try to set us up, or that there would be some sort of expectation. But he was older and didn't seem interested, so I soon let that worry go. We hung out pretty regularly, and though I always felt like something was a bit off, I decided he was just socially awkward and I focused on being a good friend.

I always saw Steve as this nice, old soul that had lost his one love in an airplane accident when they were in the Air Force Academy. I assumed he had never totally gotten over that, and that relationships were difficult for him. I decided I would be the best female friend I could be for someone who really needed it. I never shared my deepest, darkest secrets, but I tried to be as open as possible, knowing he needed someone to connect with. And in my lonely times, he was there to be a friend to me.

Then one day, just like people say, everything changed.

I had asked Steve to give me a ride to the airport one December afternoon in 2010. I was flying home for a friend's party and to spend the weekend with my parents. He was supposed to pick me up at my place at 2 and take me to catch my flight at 5. I texted him that day to confirm and didn't hear back. I thought it was a little odd, but I tried to brush it off as him being busy.

Then 2 p.m. came and went, and there was no sign of him. I started to panic a little because it wasn't like him to be late. I called a couple friends, including Marie, but no one had seen him or knew where he was. I ended up driving myself to the airport, letting Marie know that Steve was essentially missing. By that evening, he still hadn't shown up anywhere and his car was gone. Marie and I were both worried, thinking he might have been in an accident, but Dan didn't think anything was wrong. In my mind I pictured him in a hospital bed on life support, or maybe even dead someplace where no one could find him.

The next day I got a call from Marie. She said Steve didn't come to pick me up because he was in jail. He had gotten into trouble in the past, and now it was happening again. He had been caught having a sexual relationship with a teenage boy, and had been picked up by the cops the day before. Steve, my friend, was a registered sex offender.

* * * * *

Even now, I wonder what people do when they get information like that. How are you supposed to respond when that happens? Is there something you're supposed to say or do? Because seven months later, I still don't know.

At the time, the shock was so huge, I remember I didn't feel a thing. I wasn't sad or angry, I felt nothing. In the five minutes it took her to tell me, I didn't have time to process or to think really. The first thought I consciously remember thinking was that I wished he had been in a car accident. That would have been better than this.

Later, over the next few days and weeks, I had plenty of time to think, to feel emotion, and to decide what to do.

My first reaction was to think back over our friendship and look for clues that this was going on. I think most people would have the same reaction. You start questioning how in the world you missed something so huge, how it could have gone on without you at least suspecting something.

Little things I had noticed started making sense. The disconnect in our friendship was the biggest. What I wrote off as awkwardness was his inability to connect due to his hidden behavior. His subtle interest in young men that occasionally surfaced (like how his favorite singer in the group Celtic Thunder was the 17-year-old that he knew so much about), suddenly became so much more obvious.

It was really hard not to mentally give myself a hard time for not noticing such minute details for what they were. How could I not have picked up on that, I wanted to ask myself. But you can't berate yourself for not noticing something you didn't know existed. And that was the first thing I learned.

The next thing I had to come to terms with was the fact that our friendship essentially never existed. I like to think that even though he lied to me the entire time I knew him, there was a shred of truth in there somewhere. But honestly, if someone can lie that much and that well, how can you believe anything they ever said?

The truth is, our entire friendship was null and void, simply for the fact that it was built on a lie. The person that Steve said he was, the person he pretended to be for the year and a half that I knew him, was a figment of his imagination. That person did not exist. Therefore, my friendship with the imaginary Steve didn't exist.

This was perhaps the harshest reality, but it was the one thing I decided on very quickly and very firmly. That also led me to my second decision, which was, no matter what happened with his trial and sentencing and after, we would never be friends. It just was not possible.

Since he deceived me, and used me to help construct his "normal life" lie, I knew we were never really friends. How can you be true friends with someone who isn't honest about who they are as a person. Just like the line in Batman Begins, "It's what you do that defines you." What he did that defined him was not equal to who he pretended to be when I was around. I knew I couldn't even try to be his friend after that.

That was the second thing I learned, that sometimes you just have to let things go.

What probably hurt the most was the knowledge that other people who knew the truth about Steve helped keep it a secret. Dan, Marie, and other mutual friends never did anything to attempt to disclose the truth. They helped feed a lie that festered for over a year before it blew up in everyone's faces. That fact left me feeling uncertain as to who I could trust, and who my real friends were.

After the truth came out, we talked about what could've been done differently. My suggestion was that they give Steve a set amount of time to disclose the truth to me, otherwise they would do it. Part of keeping it a secret was out of respect for Steve's wishes. He didn't want Dan and Marie to tell me about his past, so they didn't. However, once someone becomes a registered sex offender, they don't have the luxury of privacy. Therefore, secrecy for Steve was just an illusion, not a right.

For all the time I had spent with him, something that monumental should've been disclosed. Whether by an ultimatum or not, something should have been done.

Finally, I learned that there are too many ways for predators, like Steve, to contact and prey upon innocent kids. And parents should be aware of the dangers because they are their child's first line of defense.

Steve had contact with kids not only via the internet and his home computer, but also via the PlayStation Network. I'm not exactly sure how he met the boy he was abusing, but allegations stated that they met on the internet. However, I remember him mentioning the types of kids he talked to while playing war games on PSN, so I realize that can be a medium for predators as well.

After everything came to light and I found out the truth about Steve, the first thing I did was inform my parents of the dangers of gaming networks. My teen-age brother plays on an Xbox, which offers a program similar to PSN. Features of these gaming networks include the ability to hear and speak with other gamers, random individuals who are playing the same game you are. And by that point, if your kids are communicating with strangers, it may already be too late.

I want to encourage parents to be proactive. Know what your child is doing on the internet and web-based programs where contact with strangers is possible. Social networking sites, chat rooms and messaging programs, and gaming networks are all ways for predators to contact children.

The good news is that parental controls and privacy settings do exist. Make sure to put these features to good use. And if you're not sure how to activate them, talk to a techy friend who can set them up with you.

Finally, keeping lines of communication open with your kids is key. Not only should you warn your kids about strangers, but also help them to feel comfortable discussing issues with you. I would say one of the biggest ways to do this is to be open yourself and to not treat anything as taboo.

And if you don't have kids, you can help keep parents informed of the risks and potential dangers of predators. If you see anything suspicious, please do what you can to fight it. You never know how many kids you may be helping by one tiny action.

*Name has been changed.

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Truth About Nomads

Some days, I miss Dallas more than anything.

I feel it especially on those days when I feel like I'll never fit in here. Or anywhere.

I'm sure there are others who know that feeling. The feeling that no matter how hard you try, or don't, there's no place that really feels like home. Whether it be the culture or the fact that people are nice, but really don't have room for you in their lives, there is that nagging knowledge. I just don't belong.

Sometimes I wonder what it's like to live in one place all your life. I picture myself still in Dallas, graduating from high school, going to college, finding my niche. All the while, surrounded by the people who have grown up with me, knowing my good moments and bad.

What is it like to be close friends with someone your entire life?

I'll never know that feeling because really, I'm the nomad. My friends when I was five don't exist in my life. I haven't spoken to my girlfriends from high school in ages. And as my college friends move on with their lives--marriages, ministries, children--I feel like I really don't have a place in their world. And none of us live in the same state, let alone the same city.

That's the downside to being the nomad. There is an upside too, I just have to remind myself of it.

The upside is that I've been given the opportunity to experience so many different lives. You learn a lot about people, about yourself, about how to be a true friend, about what America looks like, when you live in a handful of different places. There are so many different values, ways of life, circles of trust, stories being written. To be able to see and experience that is something you don't have when you stay in one place.

The nomad life is a fight. It's a battle each and every time you go someplace new. The hardest thing is showing people why they should let you in, why they should befriend you.

Most people, if they've lived one place, have their set group of friends. They have their inner circle, their "besties," the people they spend as much time with as possible. And really, most don't have room for the nomad. They may be polite, cordial, but they don't go out of their way to include or invite. They don't need the nomad, and so it may not even be intentional, but they don't try to make room.

So from one nomad to the not, you may not need me, but I need you.

The nomad battle gets harder with each move. It gets more and more tiring to start afresh, trying to make new friends, to subtly convince people that they do want to know you. That there is something to be gained by being your friend. That you can be fiercely loyal and someone that they'll want to have around.

So this is for all the people who aren't nomads. All the people who have their set circle, their friends from age five. This is for all the people who know someone who is new, new to the state, new to the country, new to a place you frequent, new to your town.

Please reach out. It's really not hard to be a friend to someone, to invite them in and make them feel welcome. It starts with a simple greeting, an invitation to lunch, a party for all your friends. It starts with making an effort to reach beyond yourself and your comfort zone and take the hand of someone you may not think you need.

In the end, you may be surprised. You will learn new things and get to know some amazing people, and possibly gain one of the best friends you've ever had. And even if it's only for a short time that you're together, honestly, you'll carry it with you always.
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