Thursday, March 11, 2021

Women's Day

With podcasts being so popular these days, it's not surprising that my conversations often start out with, "I was listening to a podcast the other day," but good podcasts make great conversation starters. The usual suspects in my list of favorites include Crime in Sports, Small Town Murder, Sword and Scale, Crime Junkie, and The Last Podcast on the Left. I occasionally listen to Sam Harris or spend time getting lost in one of those deep-dive podcasts that covers a single true-crime or newsworthy incident.

This past Monday, March 8th was International Women's Day, and I listened to the Crime Junkie podcast with Britt Prawat and Ashley Flowers. The episode was about Elizabeth Smart's kidnapping. Hearing her story made me think about her willingness to be vulnerable and her commitment to being honest. It also made me think about the contrast between someone like Elizabeth and those who stretch the truth in order to make a story more compelling or relevant. I've seen journalists pull this stunt, lying to support a viewpoint, appear more relatable, or to sound more interesting. 

A woman did this last week, in fact. After posting on Twitter about running throughout the pandemic, she wrote an article suggesting she hadn't run at all. What's strange about this is that it wouldn't have taken much effort to put together similar content without even stretching the truth a little. I guess she thought otherwise. I've also seen people alter their telling of past events in an effort to come across as approachable or more experienced. It's all lying in one form or another. I'm not talking about little white lies here; I'm talking about obvious deceit by many people from influencers, journalists, and social media personalities to athletes, politicians, and tv personalities. So many quotes by Tolstoy come to mind as I write this. He really did not like liars, but a more appropriate quote here is by Twain: "A little lie can travel halfway 'round the world while Truth is still lacing up her boots." This is even more accurate with the Internet.  

When the truth is presented from the heart and with good intentions, there's no need to add excess fluff, and it's not necessary to pull a complete storyline out of the blue. If making shit up is your thing, go into fiction writing, not journalism. In order to be relevant or interesting, you don't necessarily have to have a history as tragic but ultimately inspiring as that of Elizabeth Smart. Even minor anecdotes told in the right way can touch another human being. Most of the best running bloggers and influencers aren't loud and obnoxious fibbers; they're everyday honest people who just happen to have a way with words or have something important to share. 

One thing that stood out to me in Elizabeth's story was her admission that, in order to stay alive, she had to become someone she knew she wasn't. She was forced to engage in acts that went against who she is as a person, and she was forced to go against her core beliefs and her religion. If she hadn't, she wouldn't have lived to see her family again or eventually have a family of her own. There's a difference between not being true to yourself in order to survive and lying to get attention or because your ego needs some stroking. Elizabeth wouldn't have survived to tell her story had she gone against what her captors demanded, and ultimately, she wouldn't have been able to tell other victims of abuse, rape, kidnapping, and emotional torture her very, very important message: It is not your fault

In my book, I share some traumatic encounters I experienced with men. Already, in my head, I'm thinking I should clarify that what I went through wasn't anything like what Elizabeth and others went through, that I should minimize my experience. It wasn't a real rape; it was merely coercion. It still makes me uncomfortable when I think or talk about it. I have to tell myself to stop when I try to diminish my experience because it wasn't as bad or as violent as what others have gone through. It could have been worse. The incidents that happened when I was 13 years old I remember clearly. I don't remember what happened to me at the hands of some older kids in the neighborhood when I was a child, but to this day, I still carry tremendous guilt for what occurred, all of it. 

No matter how many times I tell myself it wasn't my fault, I was a child, part of my brain kicks in and insists that "I could have" or "I should have," or worse "I deserved it," so it was good for me to hear from someone who has been on a healing path since her rescue that victims need not go there. Elizabeth said that she was often questioned about why she didn't try to run or escape, and her response was not what I expected. She didn't have to explain herself. Instead, she began going back to all the things that could have been different, this incredibly long list that included everything from her parents locking the window that night and the construction company building the house differently so that it would have been more secure to her screaming or trying to run. After all, these little changes all throughout the years could have eventually prevented her kidnapping, right? But, she went on, none of that happened. Her stance is that it's not helpful to think about the many, many steps that could have possibly been taken differently. That will not help heal the trauma, and getting caught up in "if only" thoughts doesn't allow forward movement. It's done. It's over. 

In 2006, the #MeToo movement started online, but in 2017, after allegations against Harvey Weinstein went public, a new wave of awareness around sexual abuse flooded social media websites like Twitter and Facebook. Media coverage was widespread, and, before long, some critics of the movement claimed it had gone too far. Actors like Matt Damon and Bill Mahar insisted that different degrees of sexual misconduct should be identified, some kind of rating for other people's trauma. Not all abuse is the same, right? While I know this to be true on an intellectual level -- a violent attack at knifepoint is not the same as an inappropriate touch or suggestive comment said by a boss at work -- the concept of any kind of ranking at a time when women were simply trying to be more comfortable coming forward didn't sit well. It became all too easy for people like me, somewhere in the middle of violent rape by a stranger and uncomfortable comments by an acquaintance, to slip back into that negative thinking that what we went through wasn't bad enough to warrant compassion or even acknowledgment. 

The truth is, any kind of unwanted sexual attention is bad. I think most healthy people agree. #MeToo was supposed to be a chance for everyone, especially women, to be heard, no matter how big or small the grievance. Sure, there are different degrees of harassment, but that shouldn't prevent a victim from speaking out. It most definitely shouldn't cause those coming forward to be harassed and teased. I'm leaving alone the second part of this topic regarding appropriate action taken against abusers. In that case, yes, it's important to recognize the difference between a bad joke or a date gone wrong and more damaging abuse, but I believe this can be done without discounting the victims. 

Before I get too far off on this tangent, I want to go back to the start and explore the idea of a core identity because after trauma, however an individual defines that for herself, it's essential to rediscover and possibly even redefine it. When Elizabeth was being held captive, despite being forced to act in ways that were contrary to who she is, she never lost sight of her true identity. It's hard to say whether her kidnappers were driven to commit terrible acts because that's who they are deep down, monsters, or if it was due to other circumstances, upbringing, drugs, alcohol, religion interpreted in a harmful way, or some combination of some or all of the above. Fortunately, that's not for me to decide. Monster or not, the court deemed Brian David Mitchell competent to stand trial, meaning, from a legal standpoint, the guy chose to do this and wasn't driven by any kind of delusion, mental illness, or outside influence at the time. Who he seems to be, as Elizabeth herself stated, is an evil person.

When the topic of identity is brought up, people often think of self-identity. This is how an individual perceives him or herself, a perspective of the personal identity. Personal identity is broader and includes an individual's personality, beliefs, physical characteristics, gender, talents, aspirations, values, and other traits that make each of us different. What's interesting is how this can change in various settings. In other words, self-identity is fluid and can be affected by our surroundings. Who a person is as a youngster need not be who she is as an adult. I've mentioned before that clinging to part of an identity that's no longer useful can be a detriment to one's health. But there is a core identity, our true being that's separate from all of that. We can't help but be shaped by our experiences, yet there is something in all of us that is unchanging, unique, the foundation of who we are. 

More individuals are bringing up the difficulties that athletes face as they approach retirement or as their bodies change. It's not surprising that elite athletes who have faced severe injury struggle with their identity as well. This is why it is so important to be able to separate who you are from what you do. A new category of therapists has emerged to help athletes transition into retirement because this issue can be so problematic. In fact, I know of at least two runners who struggled badly as they aged and eventually killed themselves. While suicide isn't usually the result of one event, the depression that can occur when an individual is no longer able to perform combined with a loss of self can contribute to feeling worthless and suicidal ideation. 

I'm glad to see that both coaches and therapists are becoming more aware of the difficulties athletes face when they can no longer participate at a high level in their sport of choice. I think when athletes are injured and when they begin to contemplate retirement is the time when they need the most care and guidance. Anyone with talent can run and even run well, sometimes even under coaching that's not optimal, but it takes tremendous strength, courage, and patience to adapt and get through injury and major transitions in life. The more we can find coping strategies and keep track of some kind of core identity within each of us, the easier these major transitions could be. 

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