Climbing Lessons

I went rock climbing – on real rock – for the first time. I’ve had several opportunities, but I’ve always been too chicken to try – I hate being the noob. My brother and his family were here on vacation, so my sister, her boyfriend, and I took them rock climbing. Since I wasn’t going to be the only novice climber, I thought it was the perfect time to try.

After watching everyone’s first attempts, it was my turn. They weren’t going to let me weasel out of it, so I roped up, put my I’m-not-going-to-think-I’m-just-going-to-do-it blinders on, and started up the rock.

Sissy's first climb-2
Buddy check
Sissy's first climb-4
Trusting my belayer

Climbing isn’t about having strong arms or tremendous finger strength, although they do help. It’s mostly about trust. First of all, you have to trust your equipment. You have to trust that the hardware bolted to the rock is secure. You have to trust that your rope won’t break if you should fall. You have to trust that your shoes will grip the rock and you have to trust the harness to securely connect you to the rope and consequently, to your belayer.

Secondly, you have to trust your belayer. They literally have your life in their hands. Their job is to allow you enough slack to move up the rock, yet not too much so that if you fall, you won’t fall far. You have to trust that your belayer is going to pay attention and knows what they’re doing.

Finally, you have to trust yourself. You have to get past the fear that tells you that you can’t do it, that you’ll fall, and if you fall, you’ll die. You know that voice is just fear yammering in your ear. You know that you’re as safe as you can be. Your only job is to focus on the rock right in front of you, to look for those tiny places to put your fingers and toes, and take one step at a time. Oh yes. And don’t forget to breathe.

Sissy's first climb-5Sissy's first climb-6Sissy's first climb-7

There was a point where I didn’t think I’d be able to go any further. The bump in the rock where I had my toe was so small and the blip of rock where I had my fingers was so miniscule, that I thought there was no way I could take another step. However, I dug deep and decided to trust my belayer – my sister – to catch me. I took a deep breath and pushed up. To my surprise, I didn’t fall. For me, that was the crux. After that, I knew I could make it all the way.

Sissy's first climb-8

I turned around to look at Long’s Peak and the lake below – there is never a better view than the one at the summit. I even looked down at my family below, who were cheering wildly for me, and I had no fear of the height. It was a big accomplishment for me, in more ways than one.

Sissy's first climb-9
Yay me! And thank you, Jessica.

I enjoyed the high of my accomplishment for a whole day. Then as is my way, I crashed into a funk. As great as that weekend had been, I fell back to reality with a thud. The view from reality wasn’t as pretty as the view from the top of that rock.

I had been doing so well, too: trusting the Universe, playing by the rules of the Law of Attraction, and being patient. Certainly I was on my way to a great job, or better yet, a great big wad of cash was going to fall in my lap, because I was doing everything right, right?

However, I checked my bank account and realized that the well had finally gone dry. I’m in big-time debt and I have very little coming in. Just enough to eat on and put gas in the car that I can no longer pay for. And to top it all off, even Big Lots turned me down for a job. I can’t even get a minimum wage retail job. What the hell is going on?

My old friends, Fear and Control, came to set up shop in my gut. Fear said, “You’re going to lose everything. You’re going to be out on the streets. No will hire you. Ever. You’re fucked.” Control said, “You have no choice. You can’t have a job you’ll enjoy. You have to take whatever miserable job comes along, if any of them will have you.  You’re desperate. Sell your bikes. How dare you think you can have any fun when you can’t even pay your bills!” Fear and Control work well together, don’t you think?

I cried for days. Fear had me in its grip and I couldn’t see any way out. Then it dawned on me that this is the way I always handle tough situations. I get scared and I try to wrestle the fear to the ground by trying to control it. I try to force things to go the only way I believe they can. I’ve always done things from a place of desperation and low expectations, yet I’ve never been happy with the outcome.

However, my mantra over the last year has been “Do It Different” and the first step to doing it different is to know when you’re doing it the same. Now that I’ve recognized that I’m reacting in the same way, how do I do it different?

I thought about what the opposite of control and fear is and realized that it’s trust and faith. But how does one have trust and faith when there is no certainty? I don’t even know for sure there is a “Universe/God/Creator”, but I believe that there is and that’s as close to certainty as I can get, so I might as well give it a go.

Then I realized that climbing that rock for the first time wasn’t just about climbing a rock; it was a lesson in trust. I looked up trust in the dictionary. It said:

Trust: firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something

In order to climb, to move forward and up, I had to trust that Jeff had tied me correctly to the harness. I had to trust that Jessica had her belay device set up properly. I had to trust the anchors at the top would hold me and that the rope wouldn’t break. Most importantly, I had to trust my sister.

The only thing I had control of was my own mind, which is, in reality, the only thing over which we ever have control.

I had to trust my way to the top. I had no choice. What I discovered that day is that when you trust, things flow much more smoothly. It wasn’t a struggle or a chore. I didn’t have to keep checking the rope for wear. I didn’t have to remind my sister not to drop me. I could just have fun. All I had to do was focus on the task in front of me and trust that the rest was taken care of. To me, that felt like freedom. Trust is surrender to the process. Trust is allowing others to support you, even when you don’t think you deserve it. Trust is a relief.

Sissy's first climb-10

What I learned in the mountains that day is that I can trust my family, that they have my best interest at heart, and that it’s okay to allow them to help and support me. You may think that’s obvious, but it wasn’t to me until now. After decades of believing I was all alone, it’s a relief to finally allow myself to belong.

I’m still working on surrendering my control of work and money to the Universe, but now that I know what it’s like to trust, I don’t think it’ll be that hard.

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Owning My Story Part 3: My Turn

bud and me
Me and my best friend, Bud Weiser.

I’ve aired my mom and dad’s dirty laundry. It’s only fair that I air mine.

If you haven’t read any of Brené Brown’s books, I’d highly recommend that you do. She is a research professor at the University of Houston with a doctorate in the Philosophy of Social Work. Her research revolves around shame, vulnerability, and how to be your authentic self. Shame is why we hide away certain parts of ourselves that we deem undesirable and it forces us to live in a way that is not true to ourselves.

I credit Brené Brown with helping me see how badly shame has impacted my life and showing me that I can let it go. She says that shame cannot survive being spoken. Once we tell our story and it’s met with empathy, the power that shame holds over us vanishes. I would like to thank those of you who have read my story so far, those who have reached out and shared their stories with me, and those who have given me a big old virtual hug in the comments. I appreciate you more than you know.

So far, I’ve written of a mother who couldn’t be the mother I needed, even though she tried and of a father who didn’t care to be a father beyond keeping a roof over our heads and food in our bellies. I was told to keep quiet (shame) about my mother’s illness and so I did. However, that family shame was just the beginning. The decades of shame that came after are all mine, so if it’s true that shame cannot survive being spoken, then I’m willing to speak of mine. I’m tired of being ashamed of my past and who I’ve been so far. Being part scientist, I’ll consider this an experiment to prove or disprove her theory myself.

I like to think that I first learned shame from being told to hide my mother’s illness, but it started before that. When I was eight or nine, I loved to perform “shows” for the neighborhood – mainly my parents and their friends across the street. I would perform a one-girl variety show with my brother doing puppet shows while I got ready for my next act. Our audience was small, but appreciative.

One day, I decided to go all out and do a dance skit that involved a choreographed number utilizing the entire backyard and the swing set as a prop, like Gene Kelly and his lamppost. I was rehearsing my big number,  Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World” at the top of my lungs, when a couple of boys popped their heads up from behind the fence and began teasing and taunting me, laughing about how stupid I was. I was mortified. I promptly cancelled my performance. From that day on, I have suffered from tremendous stage fright, terrified to look stupid in front of other people. I even have trouble trying new things because I don’t want to look dumb and chance having people laugh at me.

I used to spend summers with my grandparents, especially after my mom got sick. Until I was about thirteen, I mainly hung out with my grandparents and their friends. I got lots of attention, so I didn’t mind. However, my grandmother’s hairdresser suggested that I meet her niece and two of us became fast, summer friends.

She was the person I first started drinking with. The first time, I was spending the night at her house, when she suggested we sneak a drink out of her parent’s liquor cabinet. I don’t remember exactly what the drink was – some kind of hard liquor and Coke – but I do remember how it made me feel. It was warm and soothing. Although I didn’t necessarily like the taste, it washed away all my anxiety, as if someone had swaddled me in a big, warm blanket. That feeling made me happy.

My friend and I would drink whenever we got the chance, which wasn’t all that often. We used the old tried and true method of refilling the liquor bottles with water each time we took some. The first time I got truly drunk though was on beer. We knew some older girls who could get beer, so we planned a night at the drive-in. That was my first experience with binge drinking. Beer tasted awful, but it made me feel good. There were boys around too, and being drunk made me more outgoing and comfortable with them. The first time I made out with a boy was that night, in the backseat of the car. Luckily for me, the girls were watching out for me and knew how drunk I was. They kicked the boy out of the car and drove my friend and me home.

Being a night of firsts, it was also the first time I ever threw up from drinking too much. We got home and tried to act sober as we chatted with her mother before we rushed off to my friend’s room. After a while, as I was laying in bed, the room began to spin and my stomach started to churn. I leaped out of bed to make a run for the bathroom, but I didn’t quite make it. I threw up in my hand and it leaked out as I ran. After I’d gotten everything out of my system, I went back to bed and passed out.

The next morning, my friend’s mother asked if one of us had gotten sick in the night because there was vomit on the carpet. I said that it must have been the dog. So, she said okay and made us breakfast, and although I was in no way hungry, my friend told me to eat or else her mother would know that we were hungover. So I ate with what I’m sure was a very green face as her mother eyeballed me closely. She knew it wasn’t the dog.

I started drinking for real my freshman year of college. The drinking age in Kansas at the time was eighteen, so I took full advantage of it. I would go out five nights a week. Thursdays, I stayed home to prepare for the weekend and Sundays were reserved for recovering from the weekend. Every other night, they had drink specials to entice me. How could I turn down dollar pitchers?

I loved drinking while I was drinking. I became outgoing and talkative and wasn’t afraid of anything. However, I didn’t love the after effects. Not only did I have what I believe to be the world’s worst hangovers, I was also always horribly embarrassed by how I had behaved while drunk. The outgoing, talkative, brave person I was while drinking was the very person I was embarrassed of the next day. Ever since the incident with the boys, I hated looking foolish and I felt that drinking made me look foolish. It didn’t have to be anything major to embarrass me, perhaps just talking too much or showing too much emotion. Sometimes it was major, like passing out in a bar or going home with the wrong guy. I didn’t like being out of control, but that was also part of the reason I drank, to relax and loosen up the reins I kept myself restrained with. I was ashamed of my behavior and every time I went out, I promised myself I would maintain control and not get hammered, but I always did.

Drinking wrecked my first college career. I went to several universities, only staying a year or two at each. I usually did fine in my classes despite my partying, but soon I would wear out my welcome. My friends would get serious about school so they could graduate, while I was still only interested in partying, so I would transfer somewhere else to start fresh, because “this time will be different.”

The last university I went to before I dropped out was Colorado State. At the time, Colorado State was the #1 party school in the country. I didn’t know that when I went, but I soon found out why. They had a bar in the student center, so all I had to do was walk across a field and I had all the beer I wanted. I even took a bowling class because you could drink during class. I took it twice. I found the party kids right away, so I was never at a loss for someone to drink with. I had tried a few drugs in the past, a little speed and pot, but at CSU, I had access to cocaine. While I liked it quite a bit, alcohol was still my drug of choice, so luckily for me, I didn’t add cocaine addiction to my repertoire.

Colorado State had a yearly event at the time called College Days. A few weeks before finals, they let classes out for a couple of days so that the students could let loose a little. That year, my favorite band ever, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, performed for us followed by a few teeny, tiny, unscheduled riots in which things got burned, bottles were thrown, and kids were injured. We weren’t mad about anything. It was simply a case of too many kids, and a whole lot of drugs and alcohol. Needless to say, they don’t do College Days anymore.  (Read about the riots here).

Naturally, I started the party a couple days early and by Saturday, my body couldn’t take any more booze. It shut down. I passed out at a friend’s apartment in the early afternoon on Saturday. When I awoke, I thought I ought to rejoin the party. (FOMO is a real thing.) However, my body had different ideas. My legs wouldn’t support me going down the stairs, so my friends had to drag me home and put me to bed. It took me a couple of days to recover from that binge, but I was so ashamed of myself that it left me in a severe depression. To top it off, during dead week I came down with strep throat. I didn’t study for any of my finals and I didn’t even bother to go to a couple of them. When I got the letter over Christmas break saying that I was on probation, I decided that I had had enough of college for a while.

Not only was I ashamed of how I acted when I was drunk and the amount I was drinking, but I was ashamed of my drinking and driving. It is truly a miracle that I never hurt myself or anyone else while I drove with one eye closed so that I could drive in a nearly straight line. Or the times I drove completely blacked out and not remembering how I got home. I’ll tell you just a couple of those stories.

One night, during my freshman year of college, some dorm mates and I went to a frat party where they were serving Purple Passion. It was the best bathtub mixed drink ever. It was made with grape juice and grain alcohol, so it was sweet and went down easy. As was my way, I wasn’t done drinking when the Purple Passion ran out, so I decided to go to another house to do some more drinking. Since I had already been drinking grain alcohol, I decided that I’d bypass the grape juice and just drink Everclear straight. Everyone told me not to, but apparently I took that as a challenge and took a few long swigs straight out of the bottle. It didn’t take long before I decided that I had better get back to the dorm. I knew I’d crossed the line. I got in my car and even though I was only blocks from campus, the next thing I knew, I was out in the country headed away from town. I tried to turn my car around, but having little control of my body by that point, I ended up in a culvert and couldn’t get out.

I swerved and staggered the mile or so back into town and found a gas station that was still open. I told the employee what had happened and asked him to help me. He drove me in his tow truck out to where my car was, but because it was on private property, he had to get the owner’s permission to pull the car out. Unfortunately, the people wouldn’t open the door to give permission (probably because some crazy person had just been gunning their engine trying to get out of culvert) so the guy said that he’d have to get permission from the sheriff. Again, unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), the sheriff was out working a motorcycle accident, so we had to go out there to get him to sign the paper, which gave me a chance to sober up a little.

I suppose the gas station employee told him how drunk I was and what had happened, because when I got there, I had to do a field sobriety test. The sheriff told me that he didn’t know how, but I had passed the test and he said he would sign the paper as long as I promised not to drive the car home after we got it out. Drunk driving laws back in  the early ’80’s were not as strictly enforced as they are now. Who knows if I really passed the test or if he just took pity on me, but I’m grateful to that sheriff for not throwing me in jail that night. And of course, I drove the car back to the dorms that night.

Several years later, I was working in Vicksburg, MS as a plasma center manager. I decided that I wanted to go back to Colorado, so I packed all my stuff into my Land Cruiser and headed back to Colorado. I left in the late afternoon, and to celebrate, I bought a six-pack of Budweiser tall boys for the road. I didn’t get through Louisiana before I had gone through them all, so I stopped for more.

The plan had been to drive to Wichita Falls and stay the night, but at some point I missed my turn and ended up in Dallas. I stopped to use the restroom at a convenience store and I had to ask someone what town I was in. Even though I could clearly see the skyscrapers on the Dallas skyline, I wasn’t supposed to be in Dallas, so I didn’t believe that’s where I was. After I accepted the fact that I was truly in Dallas, I headed back out to try to find my way to Wichita Falls.

At some point, somewhere on a two lane highway, I realized that I was never going to make it. I wasn’t even sure where I was and I was nodding off at the wheel, so I simply pulled over, leaned back in the front seat, and went to sleep. I slept for eight hours on the side of the road. I awoke to the wind from the passing semis rocking my car. I looked around to try to figure out where I was and wondered how I had made it through the night without getting arrested or hit by a semi in the middle of the night. I thanked my lucky stars once again and took off back down the road.

There were many more, less dramatic, drunk driving incidents. I am mortified and deeply ashamed that I put so many people at risk, but I am so very grateful to whomever is watching over me for keeping everyone safe, even me.

Another big part of my shame has to do with some inappropriate relationships with men. I dated a few guys in college, but after one particularly painful rejection, I gave up. I was convinced that I was unworthy of love, so I quit looking for relationship while I watched all my friends get married. I still dated from time to time and some of them probably did like me, but I would deem them losers, because only a loser would like me, right? Besides, the most important marriage in my life was my parents’ and I didn’t want to end up like them. I found most of the guys I dated to be needy and I had no desire to take care of anyone, like my dad had to take care of my mom.

That’s not the shameful part though. The shameful part is the fact that several times over the years, I had what I term “booty-call relationships” with married, or otherwise taken, men. It didn’t happen often, but when it did I felt like the worst person in the world. They would tell me “I’m not leaving my wife, you know” and I said that I knew. Their being unavailable made it easier for me not to get attached. It kept me from being rejected because there was nothing to be rejected from.

Even though you claim that’s not the kind of person you really are when you do something like that, people argue that you wouldn’t do it if that’s not who you are. I’m not sure how I feel about that. All I can say is that I would never have done it if I had been sober and I have never fooled around with a married man since I got sober. The problem at the time was I wasn’t sober that often.

Eventually, all that shame and embarrassment piled up on me. Although I couldn’t stop drinking, I also couldn’t allow myself to keep doing things I knew were wrong, so I simply started drinking at home alone. I figured if I stayed home and drank, at least I wouldn’t hurt anyone else.

I bargained with myself to try to keep my drinking under control, because I couldn’t imagine never being able to drink again. I would go buy a couple of beers, promising myself that that was all I would drink that night. Inevitably though, I would want “just a couple more.” However, I was embarrassed to go to the same store where I’d bought the first beers, so I’d have to go to a different store to buy the next ones. Every time I went to buy beer, I had to go to different stores, so the liquor store employees to know how much I drank.

I tried to quit drinking numerous times, but inevitably I would con myself into allowing just one or two. I really thought I could keep it under control. and it even worked for a day or two., but very soon, I got right back up to speed.

As the years went by, I started to become more and more afraid that my luck would run out and something bad would happen. I knew I was biding my time. I was terrified of getting a DUI. Sometimes, on my third trip out for beer, I wouldn’t remember whether I had paid for it and I wouldn’t go back to that store for fear of getting arrested. I did everything I could to try to control it, but there was no way I could.

One day, I was at home with my nieces. I had been drinking a little, although I did maintain a little control when I was with them, and it dawned on me that that was how they were going to know me. I would be their “drunk auntie.” Despite the embarrassment, the drunk driving, the unavailable men, and my fear of running out of luck, the thing that ultimately made me quit drinking was the fact that I didn’t want “Drunk Sissy” to be how they remembered me. So on September 4, 2007, without any fanfare, I quit drinking.

Quitting drinking was by far both the hardest and the best thing I’ve ever done. I’ve been sober for almost ten years now and I am finally rediscovering the person I came into this life to be – the real me and not the lie. I’ve kept the real me hidden away for a long time, because I was embarrassed of who I thought I was. I thought alcohol made me better, but it only masked a whole lot of sadness and shame and drove the real me deeper undercover.

I wasn’t even sure I would be able to survive the pain I felt, but there was always a tiny spark of light hidden deep within me that kept me going. I like to think of that spark as my true self – my soul – and I hope to honor my soul by throwing off the thick, heavy blankets of shame that almost smothered it, so that I can be more authentically myself, whoever that is. As Marie Forleo says, “The world needs that special something that only YOU have.” I hope I can find my special something soon.

 

Alone in the Spotlight

Writing my story is much harder than I thought it would be, but it’s also more rewarding and freeing than I ever imagined. I’m only halfway done, but I’ve already had many, many epiphanies and I’m sure there are more to come. But along with all the unlearning of old beliefs and breaking of old patterns of thought comes a new fear.

Last night, I watched the latest episode of CMT’s Nashville. One of the lead characters is Deacon Claybourne, a country musician and recovering alcoholic. He was trying to support a rising artist by pushing her to record a song that exposes her truth about her relationship with an abusive ex-husband. She said that she just wasn’t feeling it and decided to quit recording for the evening. Deacon then said something to her that hit me right in the heart. He told her that he knew how scary it was when all of the obstacles to everything you want are gone and you’re left standing there, alone, in front of the mic.

I started bawling like I’d just lost my best friend – and honestly, I cry every time I think about it. Right now, I’m standing alone and the spotlight is on me. All of the obstacles that I’ve set up to keep me from doing what I want to do – because I was made to believe that what I wanted was wrong – are being destroyed, one by one, and I’m left standing here, exposed, raw, and unsure of what to do now.

However, I know the truth now. I know who he really was. I know that I’ve been living the lie he gave me for most of my life, but I also know that I don’t have to believe the lie anymore. I know that it’s up to me to sing my own truth or walk away from the spotlight, but leaving the spotlight is not an option. I know too much. I have to stand in that spotlight alone and be my authentic self. And that scares me to death.

Owning My Story Part 2: Dad

the king and the princess

 

My relationship with my father was not as cut and dried as the one I had with my mother. With her, there were distinct guideposts by which to tell the story. With Dad, it’s not as clear, even to me. So, instead of trying to explain a relationship that took me decades to unravel, I’ve decided to make it into a fairy tale of sorts, and let you glean from it what you wish. My Dad was beloved by many, but he wasn’t the benevolent martyr that he proclaimed himself to be, especially when it came to his kids.

 

Once upon a time, there was a King who ruled over a small, but independent kingdom called Narcissa. He didn’t inherit his kingdom. He came from very humble beginnings as the son of a farmer and struggled to build it on his own. He was proud that he had escaped the labor of farm life.

As was the way of royalty, he married a Princess from another, more wealthy kingdom to build upon his own kingdom. This Princess was unhappy under the strict rule of her mother, the Evil Queen, so she was relieved to marry a man who vowed to protect her and allow her to be the Queen of her own kingdom.

The King and Queen soon had a child, a beautiful dark haired little girl called the Dark Princess. The King remembered the day he fell in love with the little girl. She was sleeping with her head on his chest, when she awoke briefly, looked up at him, and smiled, then went back to sleep. The King loved the idea that someone could be that innocent and dependent on him. He thought he could love no one more.

After a few years, the King and Queen had a son, and the King went off to war. When he returned to his castle, the Queen was beside herself with joy. She bounded down the great stairway to greet him, leaving the Princess to struggle down the long staircase on her own. The Princess quickly found the King amongst all the soldiers and he was never so happy to see anyone, not even the Queen. A few years later, they had a golden haired daughter called the Golden Princess, and their family was complete.

The King was often out with his men, surveying his kingdom, and basking in the adulation of his subjects. The King was away more than he was home and the Queen, being prone to madness, became increasingly frightened that thieves would come and steal her youngest child away. Unbeknownst to the Dark Princess, the Queen would pace around in the nursery at night, keeping a watchful eye out for kidnappers. The Dark Princess heard the footsteps and knowing of her mother’s fears, began to fear for her own safety as well. She did not feel safe with her mother and would only feel safe when the King finally came home.

This went on for quite some time and the Dark Princess became increasingly afraid to be alone with her mother. She would wait to go sleep until the King got home, then she would lay at the foot of her mother and father’s bed. She would awaken before the King so that she could sneak back to her room, but one night the King found her and became angry. He said through clenched teeth, “I told you, there was nothing to be afraid of.” The Dark Princess cried as he dragged her around the castle, opening doors, trying to prove to her that no one was there. He told her that she was too old to be acting like a baby and, always wanting to please her father, she decided to hide her fears and do as she was told.

The Queen, however, could not suppress her fears. Instead, she built a tower and locked herself away. It was the only way she felt safe. The King would go visit her in her tower every day, while the Dark Princess watched over her younger siblings. The King gave her chores to complete and would get angry with her if he came home and the chores weren’t done. The Dark Princess didn’t understand why she had to make up for her mother’s absence and she resented all the work that she was expected to do. She was still a child after all, but the King and his confidants felt that the King was already terribly burdened, taking care of his sick wife and three small children, so the Dark Princess was urged to be good, be quiet, and help her father.

The Dark Princess missed her mother terribly. She couldn’t understand why her mother locked herself up in the tower and left her all alone. The King, not understanding children, did not try to help her understand what was going on nor did he try to convince her that everything would be okay. He simply left her to try to make sense of everything on her own.

Physical beauty was of the utmost importance to the King, and the older the Dark Princess got, the more disappointed in her appearance he became. She was not as pretty as she had been as a baby and he was afraid that he would never be able to marry her off. He resented the fact that the wealthy King and Queen had burdened him with an unhealthy wife and now he had a homely daughter he was going to have to care for as well.

The Prince and the Golden Princess, however, seemed to be everything the King wanted or at least that’s what he led the Dark Princess to believe. He boasted about how handsome the Prince was, how intelligent he was, and how extremely talented he was at all things creative. He also bragged that the Golden Princess was such a pretty girl, that all the young noblemen were enamored of her, and that she could dance like a fairy. Whenever the Dark Princess tried to gain her father’s approval with drawings, stories, or even her ability to compete in the hunt with all his men, he would simply pat her on the head and talk to her about how beautiful the princesses in other realms were or how smart, talented, and creative her siblings were. The Dark Princess finally gave up trying. She knew that nothing she could do would ever please her father and win back his love.

The King was not able to provide the Queen or her children with everything they needed, so the Queen’s parents often had to help them. This angered the King and he accused them of being coddled by the royal grandparents. Despite his resentment, the King was also dependent on the Queen’s parents to help him maintain his kingdom. He felt, however, that they owed it to him for taking their sick daughter off of their hands. He was not spoiled. The rest of his family was.

The Dark Princess, seeing no place for herself in the castle, ventured off on her own, but she was ill prepared for the real world outside her father’s realm. She had no confidence in her own abilities after years of negative comparison to others and had never found encouragement or support in anything she did. She didn’t even know who she was, she had spent so long trying to find a way to gain her father’s approval. However, she didn’t feel safe out in the world after depending on her father for so long and soon, she slunk back to the castle and locked herself up in her own room as her mother had done. She spent some time with her mother, telling her about her failures and her grief. The Queen confessed her own fears and did her best to shore up her daughter’s confidence, but by that time, the damage had been done and the Queen was too far gone in her isolation and madness to know how to help her.

The Prince and the Golden Princess eventually went their own ways, while the Dark Princess stayed in the castle with the King and Queen. She convinced herself that she was helping them, but she knew they merely saw her as a burden. Eventually, the Dark Princess knew the time had come for her to strike out on her own again and this time, she was able to eke out an existence for herself. She knew she could never go back to the castle again.

Eventually, the Queen succumbed to her madness and died alone in her tower. The King, after so many years trying to make the Queen happy and blaming her for his own unhappiness, was at a loss. He sat dejected on his throne and didn’t move for many years while his kingdom slowly deteriorated around him. Soon, his wife’s parents died as well. The King hoped that the influx of money from his wife’s inheritance would allow him to get back on his feet and repair his kingdom. He felt that he deserved that money after all of his years of sacrifice.

However, the inheritance went to their daughter’s children, the young Prince, Golden Princess, and the Dark Princess instead. The King was furious. He demanded that the children give him part of their inheritance and they acquiesced to his demand, even though they knew that the King had been given large sums of money throughout his marriage to the Queen. With that demand, the King hammered in the wedge that had been growing between he and his children for many years and they began to see the King for who he truly was.

The Dark Princess, despite her dour demeanor, was ever the optimist when it came to others. She believed that one day, her father would realize that she wasn’t worthless. She also hoped that he would finally start doing things for himself, instead of depending on others to do everything for him. She also wanted for him to quit seeing himself as a victim of his circumstances. She hoped, but she didn’t believe.

Over the next several years, the King’s health began to fade. He developed dementia in addition to the very weak heart he had lived with for several decades. The dementia removed the already porous filter he had on his thoughts and he began to pick at his children’s emotional weaknesses with vicious glee. Eventually, they decided to stop subjecting themselves to his abuse and refused to see him.

While her father’s health declined, the Dark Princess began to find her true self. She had hidden away those parts of herself that the King didn’t approve of for most of her life, but now she felt free to explore what it was that she truly wanted out of life. She returned to her drawing and other creative pursuits and she was happier than she had ever been. The King came to visit her in her own tiny kingdom one day and she decided to give him one last chance to realize that he had been wrong about her all those years. She showed him her artwork and told him how excited she was to be doing it again. The King looked at her work and said, “Uh huh. That’s nice. Do you remember that drawing I did for you many years ago? Do you still have it? I’d love to see it.” And with that, the Dark Princess smiled and knew that the King would never be able to see her for who she truly was. After so many years of trying to please him, she finally gave up trying to win his love and she let him go.

She didn’t see the King again until he was on his deathbed. The Prince and the Golden Princess convinced her that she should go see her father one last time, although she had no desire to put herself in the position to be hurt by him again. However, she knew she would regret not going, so she agreed to go. While her brother and sister attended to their ailing father, the Dark Princess remained distant. The King was aware enough to know that his children were there and he tried to act as he normally would have in healthier times, but he he was too far gone to fool anyone. The Dark Princess was relieved when it was finally time to go. She leaned over her father, kissed him on the forehead, and said, “Bye, Dad.” Soon after, he was gone.

Owning My Story Part 1: Mom

Owning our stories and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing that we’ll ever do. – Brené Brown

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*Disclaimer – I might not have all the facts right and the timeline is pretty fuzzy, but this isn’t meant to be a factual re-accounting of my childhood. It’s more of an emotional re-accounting of how I perceived my childhood. While my brother and sister shared a childhood with me, their perceptions may be quite different. They have their own stories to tell.

I learned shame at an early age and I’ve carried it with my throughout my adulthood. My childhood wasn’t horrific, but it didn’t have to be horrific for it to have a crippling impact on my life. I hope that by putting my memories down in writing, I’ll be able to let them be where they belong: in the past. As the saying goes, you can’t start the next chapter of your life if you keep re-reading the last one.

I also wanted to write my story because I want to prove to the younger members of my family that we aren’t doomed due to our family history and genetics, but we can use these things to make us stronger and help us grow. My goal is to help myself heal and in the process, perhaps heal all those who came before me and all those not yet born.

I sat in front of my computer for a couple of days, typing and deleting, typing and deleting. I had a hard time figuring out what my story is and how to tell it. I’ve decided to tell it in four parts: Mom, Dad, The Drinking Years, and The Not Drinking Years.

My life wasn’t all bad. I was a pretty cute, outgoing kid and the wheels didn’t fall off the family bike until I was about ten years old. However, you don’t need to hear about the time I was three and rode my tricycle in the 4th of July parade. I was dressed in a little sailor dress with a white bucket hat on. I was pretty darn cute. And you probably don’t care to hear about the time my cousins and I walked what seemed like miles down a blistery hot, dusty Kansas backroad to go swimming in the creek that only had about a foot of water in it, but it was nice and cool and we had fun anyway. Or the time my dad, brother, and sister and I were staying in a cabin in Lake City, Colorado and we went out one night along the winding highway to look at the stars. We were talking about the Colorado cannibal, Alferd Packer, and how this was the area where he ate a few people, when we suddenly heard a loud sound, banging and creeping its way up the highway toward us. It kept getting closer and closer until someone said, “Maybe it’s Alferd Packer’s ghost!” We all looked at each other and at once, turned and bolted for the car, my dad included. We sped off up the highway, laughing hysterically.

Those stories are cute and funny, but they’re not My Story.

My story started out pretty “normal” for the first ten years. I was a tomboy. I loved to ride my bike and climb trees and play just about all the sports, but the normal didn’t last. The first particularly bizarre and scary event happened when I was about ten.  The good Christian folks from Mom and Dad’s Wednesday night prayer group decided Mom was possessed by the devil and that they needed to do an exorcism. So one Wednesday night, they put us kids to bed and got to work on those demons. I heard some scary music, like Gregorian chants (which creep me out to this day), coming from the living room, so I got up to see what was going on. All these people that I trusted had my mom surrounded with their hands on her and they were yelling at her. Someone saw me and Dad told me to go back to my mom and dad’s bedroom. The chanting started again and suddenly, a white dress came floating out of the closet and went swooping around the room. I cowered on the bed as the dress swooped overhead, then I got between the bed and the wall so I’d be safe. Now, I’m pretty sure this was a dream. However, I’ve had several dreams that were so real that to this day, I’m not sure they were dreams. This was definitely one of those. I never spoke about the exorcism and like my dream, I wasn’t even sure it had happened. I asked my Dad about it several years ago and he confessed that it had happened. He said he felt pretty bad about it.

Soon after the “exorcism,” a nurse came to our house to explain to my brother and me that our mom was sick and had to go away for a while. I vaguely remember Mom sitting there, looking off in the distance, like she was someplace else.

“I felt very still and empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surround hullabaloo.” – Sylvia Plath

That’s how I felt that day. As the nurse talked to us, I felt numb. Voices were muffled like I was under water. I felt as if I were watching the scene play out from far away. All I wanted to do was get away, so when the nurse asked if I had any questions, I said that I was fine and walked away. I went to my mom and dad’s room to watch an episode of ‘One Day At A Time’ on our little black and white TV. I couldn’t tell you what the episode was about.

After that, we didn’t talk too much about Mom. We were told not to tell anybody about what was going on. Dad and my grandmother said that people wouldn’t understand and it wasn’t their business. That’s where the shame started. Dad wasn’t much on talking about feelings either, so if I couldn’t tell anybody, then I had no way to process what was going on. I had no one to tell me everything would be okay. I told by all the adults in my life to keep quiet and be a good helper. At school, I isolated myself from the other kids, because I was ashamed. I felt that they wouldn’t like me if they found out about my mother. I was so sad all the time and it made for a pretty lonely childhood.

Mom was taken to the Texas State Hospital in Vernon, TX where she spent about a year. Vernon was about a three hour drive from Amarillo. Dad went to see her at least once a month, but we didn’t see her until we went to pick her up. She seemed reluctant to come home.

The State Hospital had a “prom” for the patients while my mom was there. Just like in high school, she was chosen “Prom Queen”. My mother was thrilled. In fact, she seemed to thrive there. A big part of me believes my mother went in and out of the hospital at will, because it was too hard for her to take care of three kids. She was definitely sick, but I also think she enjoyed the attention she got.

As all this was going down with my mother, we had a student teacher in our music class that I adored. She gave me a lot of attention and was very kind and supportive. One day, she announced to the class that it was her last day as student teacher. I was devastated. They had to have one of my friends bring me lunch in the classroom because I was so distraught. No one understood why I was so upset and I wasn’t even sure why myself, but it was like I was losing my mother all over again and this time, it was just too much to handle.

I believe my mother was in and out of the local psychiatric hospital for the next several years. It was very confusing to see her acting fairly normal when we went to visit her, but hearing my dad tell people how bad off she was. She would come home for a while, but inevitably, she would go back. It was a very unstable life for three small children.

When I was in seventh grade, Mom was driving me to school one morning. We lived on a busy street and if you’ve been to Amarillo, you know that the streets are like four lane highways. As we were backing out, I was chattering away and she turned to the side as if checking to see that the road was clear. I looked at her and then back to see what she was looking at. Strangely enough, I remember thinking there must be a hot air balloon in the sky behind me. What else could cause her to look so shocked? When I looked back at her and asked her what was wrong, she didn’t answer. Her mouth just hung open and her eyes were vacant. Then she started making a groaning noise and fell over in the front seat. The car continued to roll across the street as I jumped out and sprinted back to the house to get my dad. Unbeknownst to me, my mother had had electroshock therapy while in the hospital and had since begun to have seizures. It scared me so badly that I told my dad that I wanted her to go back to the hospital and never come home. I felt guilty for wanting her to go away, but I didn’t feel safe around her. She continued to have seizures for the rest of her life. It was like waiting for the other shoe to drop all the time. And the shoes dropped a lot.

Throughout the years, Mom was diagnosed with every mental illness in the DSM: depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and multiple personality disorder. I’m sure there were more. I think they threw diagnoses at her to see if any would stick, but none ever did. To this day, we don’t know what was wrong with my mother. We just know that something was terribly wrong with her.

She was also given every psychiatric drug available at the time. The side effects were terrible, from hair loss to rapid weight gain because she couldn’t stop eating to Tardive Dyskinesia, which caused stiff, jerky movements in her face. And she, like a lot of patients with mental health issues, would periodically go off her meds, sometimes to make the side effects stop; sometimes because she didn’t want to deal with life or something happened that made her feel unsafe. My mom’s biggest concern was for her own safety and she knew if she went off her meds, she would have to go back into the hospital, where she would be locked up and safe.

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Life with my mother wasn’t all bad though. I loved her very much. When she was well, she would be my greatest champion and the only person I could talk to. She was also fun to be around. She laughed a lot and told the worst jokes ever, but she laughed so hard at her own bad jokes that you couldn’t help but laugh along with her. To this day, her horrible jokes are the only ones I know and they still crack me up. She was also very kind and loving. People were drawn to her like moths to a flame. She could be standing behind someone in a line and they would end up telling her their whole life story. If my mother had been healthy, I can’t even imagine the things she could have done.

This pattern of going in and out of the hospital continued throughout my junior high and high school years and for the first few years I was in college. At one point, I thought I was the cause of her issues because every time I came home from college for the summer, she would go into the hospital. I was told it wasn’t me, but I’m still not sure.

Her mental health grew progressively worse over the years, although she quit going to the hospital. I’m not sure why. My dad kept losing or quitting his jobs, so we moved around quite a bit during that time, which probably didn’t make Mom feel very safe.

In Denver, she started seeing a psychiatrist who diagnosed her with Dissociative Disorder or Multiple Personality Disorder. During the nineties, the psychiatric community was abuzz about repressed memories and satanic ritual abuse (SRA). It turned out that this doctor did some regression therapy with her that led he and my mother to believe that SRA had traumatized her at a very young age and caused her developing personality to split as a coping mechanism.

Mom thoroughly believed that she had suffered SRA at the hands of her mother and a cabal of other wealthy people in their small Kansas town. This doctor worked with her in an attempt to integrate all her personalities into one. However, after he had stirred up this pot of personalities, naming them, developing their stories, the doctor declared that he too was a victim of SRA and dropped my mother to focus on his own recovery. This was the diagnosis she would carry with her for the rest of her life.

We soon moved to Tulsa, which was probably the worst place for her to be. In Tulsa, she was not far from where she grew up. She was back in the area where she felt the most afraid. She thought that this cult of abusers would find her there and kill her. She became extremely manic and hyper-vigilant and she became convinced that God had a mission for her and my dad.

At one point, Mom and Dad went down to Amarillo to visit her mother. I don’t know whether the SRA ever really happened – although I have my own memory (or was it a dream) about people in the basement of the church with hoods and robes on and it was dark with only candles lit – but my mother did. They stayed in my grandmother’s house, because she was in an assisted living residence. I don’t know what happened there, but when my mom came home, she told me that she and Dad had gone through the house and found all the knives that my grandmother used to torture her with and threw them away. She told me that she had crossed over the thin line of sanity that she had been balancing on for so long and that she couldn’t come back. It turned out to be true. After they got home, she became increasingly manic and paranoid by the day and it became too much for all of us.

I don’t know much about torture methods, but I’m pretty sure non-stop, manic talking could be considered a torture method. Mom talked day and night, to anyone she could find. It was mostly my dad, my sister, and me. We wanted to help her, but she wouldn’t shut up. To me, her voice became like a mosquito in my ear canal. I could cover my ears, but I could still hear her. She lost weight, because she would talk instead of eat. She had all these plans. She was unsure that my dad was going to be able to keep up with her. Her plan was to start their own church in a small, southern Colorado town. It was called the Church of What’s Happening Now – which my siblings and I find hilarious but if you knew my mother, it made sense – and their mission was to convert Jews to Christianity. She believed that Dad was the chosen one. She believed he could heal people, but he was weak and she had to be the one to push him. By this point, she had worn Dad down to the point he would do whatever she wanted, just to keep her quiet. She was biding her time until God told her when the time was right to go. They were living off a Texaco credit card. They had no home, their belongings were in my garage, and they were living with me.

One day, I had had enough. I don’t recall what set me off, but I couldn’t take her non-stop talking anymore. I told her to get out of my house. She ordered my dad to come with her, but I told her that he could stay, but she had to go. She told me that if she left him there with me, he would sit on my couch and do nothing. I told her that I didn’t care. He could stay, but she had to go. I have never been so angry with anyone in my life and at that moment, I hated her. I wanted her gone. I jumped in my car, drove to the ATM, and got her some money. When I got back, Dad was still sitting on the couch, head hanging down while she talked at him. I drug her outside by the arm, told her to take the money, and go. She refused to take the money, so I shoved it into her shirt, scratching her skin as I did so, and told her to get the fuck out of my house. She just smiled at me. Not a nice smile, but a smile that said, “You’ll regret this” and she drove away.

I never really meant for her to leave forever. I thought it was a fight. I waited for her to come back or call, but three days went by and we didn’t hear from her. My dad called their friends, our former preacher and his wife who lived a few hours away, and they said she had been there, but was headed to Amarillo.

Mom tried to stay with my grandmother in her apartment at the assisted living facility, but she was told to leave and banned from coming back because she became abusive to the staff. She spent another month or two in my grandmother’s house without food, without money. The neighbors, whom we had known for many years, watched out for her and fed her, but she often refused to eat. They would give us reports on her health, but the only one that tried to go help her was her brother and she refused to let him in the house.

I’m not sure how she spent her time. I heard that she would do a lot of walking and eat the crabapples off of people’s trees. Or play with the kids across the street. I think a part of her knew she needed to get help, so she checked herself into the psychiatric hospital, but quickly checked herself back out when she got scared of the people there.

When she left the hospital, she left without her seizure medication. Not long after that, the neighbors noticed that the doors and windows were all open, which was odd for my mother to do. They went into the house to check on her and found her dead in the back bedroom. Since she didn’t have her seizure medication, she had gone into status, which is a prolonged seizure of 5 minutes or more. Status will cause either brain damage or death if not stopped. My mother died three and a half months after I kicked her out of my house. “Get the fuck out!” was the last thing I ever said to her.

 

 

 

Here’s Your Sign

Here’s Your Sign

Don’t think you’re on the right road just because it’s a well-beaten path.

(Author unknown)

A few days ago, I was stuck in my head. You see, I still don’t have a job. I’ve applied for about twenty jobs and not a nibble. I’m trying to be pickier than I have in the past, because I want to do something that will be interesting, challenging, and/or fun. Apparently my résumé doesn’t have the keywords for the fun, interesting jobs. My résumé only shows that I have experience at jobs I don’t want to do anymore, which makes me either over-qualified or under-qualified for all the jobs I’ve applied for.

My goal is not to dwell on the lack of job, but to do things I enjoy doing, so I’ve been working on my photography skills, remembering how to play the piano, and doing a little reading. I’m doing what makes me happy in the hope of bringing more enjoyment into my life, including a fun job. Like begets like, right?

However, sometimes my brain gets stuck in a downward spiral of fear and gloom. When that happens, I go for a hike. (I’ve been hiking a lot lately.) Luckily, hiking takes me out of my head and into my body, which, I have to say, is much more level-headed and intelligent than my brain. I should spend more time there.

I was following a moderately easy trail which begins with a long, slow, steady incline and doesn’t let up until you get to the top. I spent most of the way up talking to the universe. I explained to the universe that I know it gives us signs all the time, but I can’t see any signs, because my fear of scarcity, money in particular, blinds me to any signs the universe may give me. I told the universe it was going to have to make my signs a little more obvious, maybe a big flashing neon arrow pointing HERE’S YOUR SIGN because apparently I’m missing them all.

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When I got close to the top of the incline though, my mind started to slow and my body took over. Lack of oxygen will take you out of your head every time. As I focused on my breathing, I watched as my feet moved steadily along the trail, one step after the other, in rhythm with my breath. I noticed then that I had a bit of tunnel vision. I wasn’t seeing anything other than the trail right in front of me. So I decided to look up, when suddenly a flash of color caught my eye. It was a line of tiny yellow flowers.

 

The flowers weren’t on the main trail, but on a steep side trail. I had to scramble a little bit to get to them. As I headed up, I also noticed to my right, a tiny lavender flower growing all by itself. I’m like a kid in a candy shop when it comes to flowers. My eyes get wide and I even giggle a little with glee. (There’s a reason I’m called a plant nerd.)

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It was then that I realized that these flowers were my sign. I had been so focused on what was directly in front of me that I almost missed it. Come over this way. Look at this beauty that was right here the whole time. Go see what’s at the top of the hill. Turn around. Here’s a view you never would have seen if you hadn’t followed the signs. I reveled in the beauty and gave the universe a big cosmic hug and a thank you.

What was the sign, you say? Stop following someone else’s path.

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I’ve never been one to enjoy the well-beaten path. I’ve tried my whole life because I thought that’s what I supposed to do, but there’s a reason they call it a well-beaten path. It’s already trampled down and smoothed out. It’s been walked by billions of other people. I’ve felt like a failure my whole life, because I couldn’t stay on that damn well-beaten path, no matter how hard I tried. I’ve come to realize though, that the people who move society forward and make a difference in the world are those who create their own path. That’s all I’ve ever wanted.

Most of the beauty is off the beaten path. It’s where the wildflowers grow. It’s where the extraordinary view is. There may be big boulders on the path, but it’s kind of fun to figure out how to get around them. Should I go this way through the brush? Should I go that way through the water? Or should I try my hand at bouldering and just climb over?

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We all have a choice. We can choose the smooth trail with most of the obstacles worn down or removed, where we simply have to put one foot in front of the other to get where we want to go and that’s okay. Or we can choose to head off onto a side trail even though we’re not exactly sure where it’s going. Perhaps it’ll end up somewhere amazing and give us lots of fun and interesting challenges. Perhaps it will take us somewhere the world has never been. Or perhaps it will lead us back to the well-beaten path eventually, but life is an adventure and that’s what makes it fun.

I’m accepting that I actually like my little side trail. It’s helped me to heal. It’s helped me to help others to heal. It’s led me toward self-acceptance and dare I say, a wee bit of confidence in who I am. It’s led me back to who I truly am. It’s shown me my soul.

If I Hear “Everybody’s a Photographer” One More Time…

If I Hear “Everybody’s a Photographer” One More Time…

I want to be a photographer. There. I said it. I try to keep my deepest desires close to the vest, because I don’t want anyone to tell me the “reality” of trying to break into the photography biz. How “everybody’s a photographer” or how their brother has 15,000 followers on Instagram or how I’d better have a back-up plan. I’m not confident enough for that yet.

My goal is to quietly teach myself the art of photography. I’ve been taking photos for quite a while now, but I’ve been living in my comfort zone of landscapes and macros of flowers, so I started a 365 photo challenge in the hopes of breaking out of my rut. I’m posting them on Instagram (@stefaniejones365), but I’m not pushing the hash tags. I’m doing this project for me, to challenge myself and to have a record of my progress. And it is challenging me. It’s not so much a technical challenge, but a composition challenge. My ultimate subject is people. Hopefully, somewhere along the way during this challenge, I’ll get over my fear of photographing people which I know will open an avenue to the real purpose of my photography. That, however, I will keep to myself.

I get a lot of my learnin’ from YouTube and a vlog I particularly like is Ted Forbes’ The Art of Photography. Ted is a true lover of photography and has introduced me to tons of photographers I’ve never heard of. The video I watched today was called If Ansel Adams Used Instagram, in which he spoke about being a part of one’s time. Adams was an innovator in his time. He was doing things no one else was doing and pushing the boundaries of the technology of his time. Ted says (and I would agree), Adams would surely embrace the technology we have today. He would have been one of the first to try drones and the latest camera technology and would still make amazing images. So, yes, everybody these days is a photographer, but not everybody is an innovator and making unique and interesting photos. As with any art, you have to think outside the box and more importantly in photography, you have to learn to see.

Peter McKinnon is another vlogger I enjoy. His videos are mostly concerned with teaching technique and how to do cool things with the latest technology, but today he posted a video called Stop Taking The Same Boring Photos. In this video, he encouraged people to delve a little deeper in their subject. His example was a salad. You could take a picture of the finished salad and that would be okay or you could take a photo of the prep work or the ingredients before it is all put together or present it in a wine glass or even show the empty bowl with a little dressing and tiny bits of salad leftover. Those images are far more interesting than simply a picture of a salad. In order for your work to stand out, you have to do it different. (See what I did there. Maybe I should rename this blog “Doing It Different”). You have to give your viewer or client that little something extra, so that they’ll be more likely to use you again or recommend you to their friends.

So, that’s what I’m working on right now. Learning to see more, to see differently. My challenge is definitely a challenge and sometimes I fear I won’t be able to come up with a decent image, but that’s what trying new things is all about. My photos may not always great and my ideas might flop, but it sure is fun trying.

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This photo accidentally turned out to be even more interesting than I first thought. Instagram wasn’t interested, but I love it.