Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Just you

Little Sexpot (short fiction)

It’s not that she wasn’t grateful. When you don’t get to go anywhere on a Saturday night because everyone thinks you’re a loser and full of shit, you should be grateful for any kind of social contact at all.

Or so her siblings thought. Her sister Noreen was thirteen years older than she was, and obviously Mum and Dad were going to trust her with her little sister's wellbeing. Besides, it was good for her to “get out”, much better than hiding in her room crying like she always did.

Her older brother Don had lots of friends too, and their wives came along, but that didn’t stop the “goings-on” that were considered to be all part of the fun. She noticed the minute she stepped into the babble and funk of these parties that she was the mascot, younger than anyone else by ten years or more. Was she game? A target? Who knew, but what she did know was that she was supposed to be grateful.

There was an obnoxious creep called Shivas, but after a while she figured out that it wasn’t his real name, that it came from his habit of making a certain drink called a Shivas Special. Chivas Regal and one ice cube. Another was Tang crystals dissolved in vodka.

They were all quite interested in seeing how the mascot would react to having her glass filled and refilled. After all, she was allowed wine at home. Lots of it. Her parents didn’t frown on her drinking and even seemed to think it was “good for her”. Her brother and sister waved the banner of booze at every opportunity, insisting it was an unalloyed good, even when they woke the next day vomiting and ashen.

The party deteriorated over time, got louder, with people bumping together and the smell of pot wafting under door-cracks. Once she felt a hand, someone’s hand, didn’t know whose. Then her brother’s best friend started smiling at her. She looked the other way. Like the Ugly Duckling, she just didn’t believe it at first.

But then he sort of beckoned with his eyes. Come upstairs with me. Upstairs?? His wife was over in the corner flirting with her brother like they always did. Did she dare to do this, could she sneak up with him and –

This is how it always happened.

It happened because her brother’s friend was a really good kisser. He knew the spots to touch. Her body responded like flame, though she felt overpowering shame at her reaction. She knew she wasn’t supposed to feel this way, to feel anything at all. But she also knew she had caused this, somehow. He managed to convey without words that he had always found her attractive and not mousy or fat.

All she knew about sex she had learned from books, the books stashed in her father’s bureau drawer under his underwear and pajamas. When her parents were away at choir practice, she took them out. They were very clinical and  did not deal with passion or pleasure, as if those sensations did not belong in the field of sex.

But she knew about erections, because he was pressing his against her body with force. Her heart beginning to race, she wondered if she would be raped. She wondered if she should fight back, break away. But the truth is, she loved the attention.

“Hey, you two!” a voice came up the stairs. “Get down here, will you? Quit messing around.” It was a woman’s voice, and at first she wondered if it was the man’s wife.  When she came downstairs, stumbling a little, she saw it was her brother’s girl friend, her makeup badly askew. The woman grabbed her around the waist and squeezed: “Little Lolita,” she crooned. “Little sexpot.”

The booze continued to flow. Her sister held court in an astonishing display of vanity and narcissism, “looking after” her little sister by ignoring her and handing her over to the good graces of Shivas and his endless noxious drinks. People made less and less sense. She felt more hands on her and didn’t know who they were.

She remembered trying to tell her sister about what was happening to her at these parties, what was being done to her. Done to her by married men with their wives in the next room (or even the same room). Her older sister rolled her eyes a bit and said, “I don’t know why you’re so upset! You don’t seem to have any friends your own age. This way you can have a social outlet with the grownups.”

When she told her a little bit about the seductions, she shook her head.

“Are they having sex with you?” For one second, concern seemed to flicker in her eyes.


“I didn’t think so. You’re exaggerating. I really don’t think there’s anything wrong with a little smooch and a snuggle.  Look, we’re trying to include you and I really think you should be more grateful.”

Much later, she read about something called Walpurgis Night, a sort of witch’s Sabbath with hideous swarms of demonic figures that swept through communities leaving blackened wreckage in their wake. But this was supposed to be an advantage for her, a social outlet!
How many 14-year-olds wouldn’t give their right arm to be included in a group of adults with full-blown adult privileges?

She would go home after midnight, stagger into the bathroom and throw up all the Chivas Regal. The next morning, pale as a spook, she would throw up again, with her mother hearing her but saying nothing.

Her mother knew. She knew everything. Wanted to be rid of this social liability, to hand her over. Keep her happy. Later that day the family received a bouquet. She knew it was from her brother’s friend, the one who had pinned and groped her. It couldn’t be anyone else.

Had a great time last night," the sloppily-written tag read. "See you next week."

It was not signed. Incredibly, her parents did not ask who had sent it, but put the pink roses in a vase on the table. 

Twenty years later, the family was absolutely horrified to learn that Little Sister had joined AA. It was a total disgrace to the family, who had never had problems like that and never would. It was obviously an act of hostility on her part. They could never understand why she wasn't more grateful for all they had done for her. When she began to see a therapist, it was even worse, for that implied that the family was crazy. Then they decided that SHE was the one who was crazy, and the matter was closed.

Post-script. Some years later my brother's friend, the one who liked to send me roses, lost his job and all his money and (finally) his wife, and shot himself in the head. I suppose these things never end well. For me, they never end at all. 

  Visit Margaret's Amazon Author Page!

An almost normal life (short fiction)

A young woman sits in the waiting room of a psychiatrist’s office. She flips through old magazines full of celebrity diets and recipes for lavish desserts, uninterested.

“OK, Sandra, you can go in now.”

Into the throne room. The palace of no return. Or something like that. Since her bipolar diagnosis (and why is everyone suddenly bipolar? Wasn’t it multiple personality disorder a few years ago?), everything has been turned upside-down.

She is on five different medications, two of them to deal with side effects from the other three. These are (supposedly) working in tandem at relatively low levels which are (supposedly) easier on body and brain. Or at least that’s the theory, until the next one comes along.


“Dr. Turnstile.” (She has never quite gotten used to that name, which made her guffaw the first time she heard it.)

“So how are we doing these days.”

Not a question, but a statement, always in the plural.

“Oh, we’re. .  . just fine. But to tell you the truth, doctor, it could be better.”

“Feeling a touch of depression lately?” (He picks up his clipboard and begins to make notes.

“A touch. It’s been. . .I don’t know. Remember I told you about my brother?”

”The one who got married last year.”

“No, the other one. I mean. . .”

“Refresh my memory.”

“The one I’ve been talking about for the past five sessions.”

“I detect a note of irritability.” He makes another note.

“Yes, a note. He’s in jail now. Embezzlement. The guy is just too clever for his own good. He’s appealing, of course. I don’t mean that kind of appealing.”


“Never mind, it’s just a lame joke.”

“So apart from your brother going to jail. . . “

“Oh, everything’s just hunky-dory.”

“I detect a note of sarcasm.”

“That’s because I’m lying. Everything isn’t hunky-dory. You remember my boy friend, Robert –“

“The accountant."

“Lawyer. We broke up. It was. . . I don’t know, pretty bad.”

“Are you taking your medication?

She blinks. “I wouldn’t dream of going off it.”

“Would you like me to raise the doseage on the Seroquel?”


“The Lamotrigine?”


“The lithium?”


“Then let’s discuss non-medication-oriented strategies for managing the mild depression you seem to be experiencing right now.”


“Yes. You remember what I told you in our previous sessions. The principles of cognitive therapy indicate that feelings arise from thoughts. If thoughts are excessively negative, emotions will soon follow suit.”

“I always had a problem with that one.”

“Yes, I realize there has been some resistance to treatment. This must be overcome if you are to become truly well.”

Can I be truly well if I’m bipolar?”

“Not in the usual sense. But in a relative sense, as opposed to experiencing severe episodes, then it’s possible for someone with bipolar disorder to live an almost normal life."

“Almost normal. I see. So nut cases can only get so much better before they hit a wall.”

"Sandra, that is a completely irresponsible statement.”

“But I’m just sayin’. There’s only so far a bipolar can go. The chain is pretty short.”

“That’s why it is so imperative for you to adhere strictly to the principles of cognitive therapy.”

“You see, there’s where I can’t follow you. I find it hard to believe that every emotion is just an offshoot of a thought, and that every thought can be controlled.”

“Maybe not every thought. But people have more control than they think.”

“Do they now. Then I wonder why we even need medication.”

“Sandra, you know why. You have inherited a chemical imbalance of the brain which tends to trigger extreme mood swings, which in turn skews your thoughts toward the negative.”

“But the thoughts lead to the mood swings, don't they? I'm confused."

“There is no need to twist my words around."

“OK then, cognitive therapy. That means I’m supposed to reframe negative events – “

"Now you’re on the right track.”

“. . . Reframe negative events so that they become positive. Let’s see. So breaking up with Robert was really a good thing.”

“Yes, yes – continue – “

“No matter how much I loved him, I – I don’t know. I can’t think of anything.”

“How about this for an alternate hypothesis. There is a possibility that this breakup will free you to explore other possibilities. You’re young. There are other fish in the sea.”

“Other fish.”

“Maybe even better fish. Have you thought of that? And how about your brother? Can we shed a more positive light on his situation, which is, after all, self-created?"

“Oh, maybe he’ll turn his life around in jail. Have a religious conversion, write a book, marry some woman on the outside who’s willing to wait fifteen years until he gets out.”

“Again, the note of sarcasm.”

“Yeah, but I just can’t do this. This cognitive therapy, it implies we can control just about every thought, and thus every feeling that we have. We can just decide.”

“Yes, more than most people realize.”

“Isn’t this creating your own reality? Isn’t that what crazy people do?”

“Sandra, you are deliberately poking holes in the therapeutic process.”

“Poking holes. Doctor, I wish it were as simple as deciding how to feel.”

“But to a large extent, Sandra, it is. Cognitive therapy is, after all, the primary mode of treatment in modern therapeutic practice.”

"Then why have they stopped saying that about being gay?”

He looks disconcerted, puts down his clipboard.

“You know. They used to say being gay was something you could change if you just decided to. You know, made up your mind.”

“That was many years ago.” He shifts in his chair.

“In other words: yes, you might be attracted to men, but that’s a choice. You can choose something else, a girl in other words, any time you want to.”

“That’s very simplistic.” He is turning a shade of pink.

“But according to the principles of cognitive therapy, it should work. You should be able to change your feelings of attraction to men just by changing your thoughts. Am I right?”

”The DSM specifically states – “

“Forget the DSM. Say you’re gay. You want to be straight, or your mother wants you to be straight. Hell, let’s face it, even with the progress we’ve made, it’s still easier to be straight than gay. You don’t have to explain yourself all the time.  So, just change your thoughts about the subject and you won’t have those feelings any more! Think about girls instead. Finito. Problem solved.”

“We aren’t discussing sexual orientation now, Sandra.”

“Yes we are. Haven’t you been listening?”

Dr. Turnstile has the look of a fish sliding down a chute and landing helplessly in the ocean. It is imperative that they change the subject before he loses any more ground.

Sandra fixes him with her incandescent blue eyes.

“It just comes down to a decision. Am I right? But the thing is, doctor – you haven’t made that decision yet. Have you?”

A young woman sits in the waiting room of a psychiatrist’s office. She flips through an old magazine with screaming headlines about Lindsay Lohan’s latest arrest on the cover, bored.

“OK, Sandra, you can go in now.”

She tosses the magazine on the table, gets up from her chair and walks into Dr. Turnstile’s office.

  Visit Margaret's Amazon Author Page!

Does everything happen for a reason?

I did not write this, but I agree with every word of it. I only paste it here, along with a link to the original, because it's my experience that people don't click on links, or if they do they merely scan the piece. Pasted, it grabs more attention, or it might. The article is from a blog called The Adversity Within: Shining Light on Dark Places by Tim Lawrence. I plan to explore this blog to more depth because it speaks to me and my own personal load of pain and damage, and the ludicrous, hurtful things people continually say so that they can walk away saying, there, I did my bit. Again, I didn't write this, I merely reproduce it here because if you're like me, y'all have the attention span of a gnat and won't follow the link.


I emerge from this conversation dumbfounded. I've seen this a million times before, but it still gets me every time.

I’m listening to a man tell a story. A woman he knows was in a devastating car accident; her life shattered in an instant. She now lives in a state of near-permanent pain; a paraplegic; many of her hopes stolen.

He tells of how she had been a mess before the accident, but that the tragedy had engendered positive changes in her life. That she was, as a result of this devastation, living a wonderful life.

And then he utters the words. The words that are responsible for nothing less than emotional, spiritual and psychological violence:

Everything happens for a reason. That this was something that had to happen in order for her to grow.

That's the kind of bullshit that destroys lives. And it is categorically untrue.

It is amazing to me—after all these years working with people in pain—that so many of these myths persist. The myths that are nothing more than platitudes cloaked as sophistication. The myths that preclude us from doing the one and only thing we must do when our lives are turned upside down: grieve.

You know exactly what I'm talking about. You've heard these countless times. You've probably even uttered them a few times yourself. And every single one of them needs to be annihilated.

Let me be crystal clear: if you've faced a tragedy and someone tells you in any way, shape or form that your tragedy was meant to be, that it happened for a reason, that it will make you a better person, or that taking responsibility for it will fix it, you have every right to remove them from your life.

Grief is brutally painful. Grief does not only occur when someone dies. When relationships fall apart, you grieve. When opportunities are shattered, you grieve. When dreams die, you grieve. When illnesses wreck you, you grieve.

So I’m going to repeat a few words I’ve uttered countless times; words so powerful and honest they tear at the hubris of every jackass who participates in the debasing of the grieving:

Some things in life cannot be fixed. They can only be carried.

These words come from my dear friend Megan Devine, one of the only writers in the field of loss and trauma I endorse. These words are so poignant because they aim right at the pathetic platitudes our culture has come to embody on a increasingly hopeless level. Losing a child cannot be fixed. Being diagnosed with a debilitating illness cannot be fixed. Facing the betrayal of your closest confidante cannot be fixed.

They can only be carried.

I hate to break it to you, but although devastation can lead to growth, it often doesn't. The reality is that it often destroys lives. And the real calamity is that this happens precisely because we've replaced grieving with advice. With platitudes. With our absence.

I now live an extraordinary life. I've been deeply blessed by the opportunities I've had and the radically unconventional life I've built for myself. Yet even with that said, I'm hardly being facetious when I say that loss has not in and of itself made me a better person. In fact, in many ways it's hardened me.

While so much loss has made me acutely aware and empathetic of the pains of others, it has made me more insular and predisposed to hide. I have a more cynical view of human nature, and a greater impatience with those who are unfamiliar with what loss does to people.

Above all, I've been left with a pervasive survivor’s guilt that has haunted me all my life. This guilt is really the genesis of my hiding, self-sabotage and brokenness.

In short, my pain has never been eradicated, I've just learned to channel it into my work with others. I consider it a great privilege to work with others in pain, but to say that my losses somehow had to happen in order for my gifts to grow would be to trample on the memories of all those I lost too young; all those who suffered needlessly, and all those who faced the same trials I did early in life, but who did not make it.

I'm simply not going to do that. I'm not going to construct some delusional narrative fallacy for myself so that I can feel better about being alive. I'm not going to assume that God ordained me for life instead of all the others so that I could do what I do now. And I'm certainly not going to pretend that I've made it through simply because I was strong enough; that I became "successful" because I "took responsibility."

There’s a lot of “take responsibility” platitudes in the personal development space, and they are largely nonsense. People tell others to take responsibility when they don’t want to understand.

Because understanding is harder than posturing. Telling someone to “take responsibility” for their loss is a form of benevolent masturbation. It’s the inverse of inspirational porn: it’s sanctimonious porn.

Personal responsibility implies that there’s something to take responsibility for. You don’t take responsibility for being raped or losing your child. You take responsibility for how you choose to live in the wake of the horrors that confront you, but you don't choose whether you grieve. We're not that smart or powerful. When hell visits us, we don't get to escape grieving.

This is why all the platitudes and fixes and posturing are so dangerous: in unleashing them upon those we claim to love, we deny them the right to grieve.

In so doing, we deny them the right to be human. We steal a bit of their freedom precisely when they're standing at the intersection of their greatest fragility and despair.

No one—and I mean no one—has that authority. Though we claim it all the time.

The irony is that the only thing that even can be "responsible" amidst loss is grieving.

So if anyone tells you some form of get over it, move on, or rise above, you can let them go.

If anyone avoids you amidst loss, or pretends like it didn’t happen, or disappears from your life, you can let them go.

If anyone tells you that all is not lost, that it happened for a reason, that you’ll become better as a result of your grief, you can let them go.

Let me reiterate: all of those platitudes are bullshit.

You are not responsible to those who try to shove them down your throat. You can let them go.

I’m not saying you should. That is up to you, and only up to you. It isn't an easy decision to make and should be made carefully. But I want you to understand that you can.

I've grieved many times in my life. I've been overwhelmed with shame and self-hatred so strong it’s nearly killed me.

The ones who helped—the only ones who helped—were those who were there. And said nothing.

In that nothingness, they did everything.

I am here—I have lived—because they chose to love me. They loved me in their silence, in their willingness to suffer with me, alongside me, and through me. They loved me in their desire to be as uncomfortable, as destroyed, as I was, if only for a week, an hour, even just a few minutes.

Most people have no idea how utterly powerful this is.

Are there ways to find "healing" amidst devastation? Yes. Can one be "transformed" by the hell life thrusts upon them? Absolutely. But it does not happen if one is not permitted to grieve. Because grief itself is not an obstacle.

The obstacles come later. The choices as to how to live; how to carry what we have lost; how to weave a new mosaic for ourselves? Those come in the wake of grief. It cannot be any other way.

Grief is woven into the fabric of the human experience. If it is not permitted to occur, its absence pillages everything that remains: the fragile, vulnerable shell you might become in the face of catastrophe.

Yet our culture has treated grief as a problem to be solved, an illness to be healed, or both. In the process, we've done everything we can to avoid, ignore, or transform grief. As a result, when you're faced with tragedy you usually find that you're no longer surrounded by people, you're surrounded by platitudes.

What to Offer Instead

When a person is devastated by grief, the last thing they need is advice. Their world has been shattered. This means that the act of inviting someone—anyone—into their world is an act of great risk. To try and fix or rationalize or wash away their pain only deepens their terror.

Instead, the most powerful thing you can do is acknowledge. Literally say the words:

I acknowledge your pain. I am here with you.

Note that I said with you, not for you. For implies that you're going to do something. That is not for you to enact. But to stand with your loved one, to suffer with them, to listen to them, to do everything but something is incredibly powerful.

There is no greater act than acknowledgment. And acknowledgment requires no training, no special skills, no expertise. It only requires the willingness to be present with a wounded soul, and to stay present, as long as is necessary.

Be there. Only be there. Do not leave when you feel uncomfortable or when you feel like you're not doing anything. In fact, it is when you feel uncomfortable and like you're not doing anything that you must stay.

Because it is in those places—in the shadows of horror we rarely allow ourselves to enter—where the beginnings of healing are found. This healing is found when we have others who are willing to enter that space alongside us. Every grieving person on earth needs these people.

Thus I beg you, I plead with you, to be one of these people.

You are more needed than you will ever know.

And when you find yourself in need of those people, find them. I guarantee they are there.

Everyone else can go.