No. 31 – The Wading Game

No. 31 – The Wading Game

The alarm on my cell phone jolted me from REM cycle to reality. Sitting fully upright, I frantically reached for my phone lying on the carpet next to me. It seemed that with each millisecond that you didn’t shut it off, the alarm grew louder and more frequent. I viciously tapped my phone screen, urgently seeking to shut the thing up.

Ahhh…tranquility. I exhaled as my sleep-laden eyes struggled to fully open. I grasped for my phone, checking to see if I had any notifications awaiting my perusal. As I nonchalantly glanced down at my illuminated phone screen, the day’s date registered in my foggy brain. It was September 25th! The day I would get my first paycheck! I couldn’t log into my Chase Bank app quick enough.

After mistyping my credentials a few times due to my still foggy brain, I successfully accessed my account. I blinked. Something must be wrong. There was still only $0.21 in my account. The same number that had remained for the past 3 weeks. Maybe it was too early and the money wouldn’t process until the banks opened their doors at 9:00. I mean there had to be some explanation for my lack of finances. I had been working for a month and a half…I certainly earned my check.

I was in dire need of some funds and had a page long list of items that required my financial attention. I HAD to get my money today. I had not budgeted for getting paid a day later than the 25th. I would be in some serious trouble if that was the case. But paycheck or no paycheck, I needed to get up and get ready for the day. But most importantly, I required some coffee. Way too much had gone on for 6:30 AM.

I had checked my bank account 5 times so far; and it was only lunch time. Every hour on the hour, and still zilch. Nothing! How was this possible? Did I misinterpret the payment date? Did the 25thmean at midnight that night? Maybe the funds wouldn’t disperse until 12:00 AM. Distraught on how the rest of my day would play out, I tried to shift my focus. Just make it through the day, and I could figure something out later.

A text message from my best friend Jess commanded my attention. Jess was a teacher also. She worked in a school district just outside of Fort Worth. It was her first-year teaching too. So she understood my struggle…kind of. I quickly typed up a message to her asking if she had gotten paid yet. I went in to vague detail about how tight my situation had been with having a new apartment and not having any furniture, “not even a bed yet lol,” I tried to downplay my desperation.

Moments later, my phone was vibrating. Jess was calling me.

“Hey! What’s up?” I playfully answered.

“Sarah, you don’t have a mattress?” She cut to the chase.

A long pause. “No. My parents didn’t bring mine. And the air mattress they did give me has a hole in it and won’t stay inflated.” I barely managed to choke out.

“Umm…why am I just now hearing about this? Why didn’t you say anything?” she questioned.

“I don’t know. I just figured I could make it a month or so and then once I got paid, I could buy a mattress. It’s no big deal.” Embarrassment laced through my tone.

“Well, I have a mattress that I’ve been storing in Longview from my old apartment. I haven’t needed it, but didn’t want to sell it. It’s at Coach T’s house in his storage shed. I’ll text him right now and let him know that you’re coming over to get it later today. It’s a mattress, box spring and bed frame. You can have it.” The kindness in her voice brought tears to my eyes.

“…are you sure…?” I fought hard to get out.

“Dude, of course. Take it, it’s just sitting in storage collecting dust,” she assured me. “I feel awful that this whole time you could’ve been using it. I can’t believe I didn’t know, Sarah.”

“I could have said something. But it’s not the most exciting topic to bring up,” I responded honestly. “Being so broke that you have to sleep on the floor isn’t the first thing I dying to tell you, you know?”

“I get it, but you still should have said something,” Jess replied. “But, you shouldn’t have that problem anymore, we got our first paycheck today. Finally, right?”

“See, I thought so, but the direct deposit hasn’t posted in my account. I’ve been checking all day!” frustration dripping.

“No, our first check is a physical check. Direct deposit won’t kick in until the next pay period. At least, it’s that way for my school.”

My jaw dropped. How had I neglected to remember that? “Duh! I completely forgot about that. I remember them saying that…now.” I exclaimed.

“So you better go check your mailbox, girl!” she teased. “And, I’ll text Coach and shoot you the details later about picking up the mattress.”

We said our goodbyes, and I thanked her what felt like 100 times, yet somehow still not enough. And then I bee-lined it for my school mailbox. My heart was thumping so violently that I was sure others could hear it. I flung open the teacher’s lounge door and scanned for the box with my last name. There it was. Moment of truth. Did I have an envelope with a check?

I grabbed the stack of papers in my mail box and shuffled through them, searching for one very important item. And then, my fingers felt it. The edge of an envelope. This was it. My golden ticket. I dropped the stack of papers on the counter next to the mailboxes, and gave the envelope my full and undivided attention. Slicing into the top fold with a key from my lanyard so as not to damage any of the precious contents.  My fingers grasped hold of the slim slip of paper. Gripping it gently, I shimmied the contents free from their casing. I unhinged the tri-folded piece of paper and let my eyes devour the contents. Tears quickly engulfed my eyes as the realization sunk in that this was, in my hands, my first adult paycheck.

The money that I had worked tirelessly for. The money that was fueling my race towards independence. The funds that were supporting me establishing a brand-new life for myself wholly on my own. Relief echoed through every fiber of my being. Resonating through my heart and into my spirit. Water welled in my eyes as I forced the lump down my throat. Trying to hold it together so I wouldn’t have a complete break-down in the teacher’s lounge at 11:23 in the afternoon.

I sniffled a few times before collecting myself and taking the plunge out into the hallway. Briskly walking with my eyes averted downward on the papers in my hand. This way I’ll look preoccupied, not rude.

Unloading Jess’s mattress into my apartment that afternoon made me feel like I had just won the lottery. I had been lying to myself about sleeping on the floor. It wasn’t helping my back stretch out. I was not able to get a sound night’s sleep. And I was waking up to muscle spasms at 2:45 in the morning, because my muscular quads and a hard, flat surface did not coincide.

After the frame was assembled and the mattress was in place, I drank it all in. My first piece of furniture. And my first paycheck. This hollow shell had just begun to feel like home. A glimpse of light penetrated the darkness.

Author’s Note:  

This photo was captured by my generous, artsy, talented and adventurous friend, Jess. The very same soul, who gifted me her bed four years ago. Who still to this exact day helps me in ways I didn’t know I needed to be helped. Slow to judge, quick to give and open to adventure, always.

 We set out to take some pictures a few Sunday’s back. I got all dressed up, decked out and was ready to shoot. Jess being incredibly generous offered to come with and take photos for me. On her one off-day as she is a high school coach and works all the time.

So we show up to this picture perfect location and it starts to rain after five minutes. My hair instantly poodle-izes and my dress gets wet as I slip trying to duck and cover. Hoping to salvage all the hard work I put into getting ready.

But instead of worry and chalk the day up as a loss, I decided not to simply splash in the puddles, but embrace the mess. I stripped off my shoes, got my hair wet and waded into the water. The water was cold, I got eaten alive by mosquitoes, my hair remained a frizzy mess, but I reveled in it. We had the most fun by simply stepping out into the water. An experience I would have truly missed out on had I only been willing to stick to my original plan.

I feel like this photo captured a facet I rarely see in myself. A glimpse seldom caught in my own reflection: adventurous. A quality I hope to pursue more.

No. 30 – Blinds

No. 30 – Blinds

I opened my eyes to find a brown wooden ceiling. Deep brown wooden panels that covered the length of the room. I blinked for a moment, absorbing the sights around me. My head was fuzzy and my eyes had difficulty focusing. I glanced around me and observed that I was surrounded by a sea of brown. Brown walls, brown ceiling, brown tile floor. The room was warm. I stood up and walked over to an air conditioning unit, resting in the window sill. I pressed the on button, noticed the green light illuminate, but it wasn’t functioning properly. All I could feel protruding from the vents was warm, moist air. Like a blow dryer, heating the room rather than cooling it.

I looked around again. Why did this room feel so familiar? My head hurt. My panning gaze stopped on a big, brown door, that I assumed was the portal out of here. I walked across the room from the faulty air conditioning unit and towards the door I hoped would lead me out of this eerily strange room. I jiggled the golden door knob, but it seemed to be locked. Locked from the outside. Strange.

Slices of light from the window to my left caught my attention. I quietly crossed the room, making my way to the opening. Stepping gingerly so as not to make any noise. Breathing softly, so as not to make a sound. Why was I being so intentionally quiet? Was I nervous?

My head really hurt.

I arrived at the window without making a peep. My fingers gently grasped the wooden tassel at the end of the pull cord. It was cool to my touch. An unexpected side effect because the room was warm, and gaining temperature by the minute. I rubbed my fingers on the wooden tassel and noticed the smoothness. I pressed my fingers into the wood and tugged the pull cord down until the slats ran parallel to the floor. Light penetrated the room causing me to avert my eyes momentarily while my pupils adjusted.

I surveyed my outdoor surroundings. There was a black roof that extended from the window over what looked like a patio. Beyond that was green grass running to a white, chain-link fence. Beyond the fence was more grass and then a section of trees. Tall trees that blocked whatever was lying behind them. I moved further to my left so that I could get a broader view. I strained my neck to glance further down the surface area of the roof. It looked like a road…or a driveway. It appeared I was in a house.

I couldn’t remember anything from before I woke up. Whose house was I in? What was I doing here? Throbbing in my head continued.

As if it magically appeared before my very eyes, I suddenly noticed another door. Right next to the very door that was locked. Perhaps this door led to my escape from this befuddling room. I approached door number two and tried the equally golden knob. The cool knob turned with my hand and I pulled the door away from the frame. My eyes settled on clothes, draped from multi-colored hangers. The apparent closet was full of clothes. And jewelry. Shoes. Belts. Scarves. The closet smelled fresh and clean. As if these clothes had recently been washed. Not musty from being cramped up in a closet while going unworn.

No, these were someone’s clothes. I stepped further into the closet and realized how large it was. There were more articles to both my left and right, invisible to me until I stepped inward. As I turned around to gaze back out into the room, a shimmer caught my eye. It was a mirror, mounted on the inside of the closet door. I looked at the reflection, and…

Gasp! It all came flooding back to me. I quickly spun back around to face the clothes. My clothes. This closet was full of my clothes. I flung through the hangers hoping to find something contrary to my epiphany, but only further confirmed it. My shoes. My jewelry. My everything.  I darted out of the closet and into the room. My eyes widened as I crumbled to the floor.

I sank further and further into the cold, brown tile. I was in my bedroom. In my parents’ house. Trapped upstairs with no way out. I suddenly recognized all my belongings filling the room that was closing in around me. How did this happen? And why couldn’t I remember anything?

No! This was not happening. I leaped towards the window and gripped the metal frame surrounding the glass pane. I pressed my feet into the floor and powered through with my legs hoping to open the window. But it wouldn’t budge. I repositioned and tried again. But still, nothing. Exasperated, I pounded my open palm on the wall, unconcerned about disclosing my presence. It was obvious, I was not here in secret.

Sprinting to the window with the air conditioning unit, I surveyed my options. Either try and lift the widow and let the air conditioning unit tumble down to the ground, or try and pull the unit out and maybe I could squeeze through the tight opening. At this point, I had zero concerns for the well-being of this old air conditioning window unit. It was the one obstacle standing between me and my escape. I positioned my feet close to the wall and took a firm grip on the window unit. Deep breath. On the count of 3, I’d pull with all my strength.

1, 2, 3…

Pulllllllllll!

All the strength I could muster was no match for this stubborn window unit. Alright. I was going to kick it out the widow then. Who cares if it plummeted and shattered.

In one powerful motion, I pressed up through my left leg and propelled my right leg forward and towards the window unit. Nothing personal, I just needed out. The force of my kick and the steadfastness of the unit collided and sent waves up my entire body. My foot throbbed in pain as I collapsed to the floor.

I composed myself and stood up. I crossed the room, getting as far away from the window unit as possible. A running start. That’s what I needed.

1, 2, 3…

I lurched forward gaining force as I encroached on the window unit. I powered through my last step and flung myself forward with all my energy. Again, my foot met the unmovable unit and I was sent reeling towards the floor. I flung my closed fists towards the ground in frustration. I had to get out of here!

I sprinted to door number 1 and viscously shook the knob. It was still locked. I couldn’t breathe. I was trapped. With no way out. I pounded on the door as tears streamed down my face. I opened my mouth to scream, but couldn’t muster a sound. Sheer panic overtook my entire body. And then…

I awoke with a rapid thump in my chest, gasping for air. Sitting fully upright in a matter of milliseconds. The oversized t-shirt I wore to sleep clung tightly to my skin. Beads of moisture covered my skin and plastered my shirt to my sweaty body. The neck was already stretched out and hung limply around my collarbone. I grasped at the neck of the gargantuan t-shirt yanking it downwards, ensuring that nothing was remotely close to the circumference of my neck. It didn’t help. I attempted to take deep breaths to sooth my petrified heart, beating more intensely by the second. Not effective. I tried to guide my mind in a new direction, shifting my focus. But nothing was assuaging the sense of sheer panic wreaking havoc through my body.

Moments after catapulting from dream to reality, my brain yearned for clarity. My eyes darted around my bed room that was flooded with light from my lack of curtains. My focus slowly sharpening as my gaze slowed. There was no one in the room but me. This was my bedroom. In my apartment. In Longview. The stillness crescendoed into a deafening silence. Penetrating the stillness making the lack of movement chaotic.

This was the third night in a row I had suffered through this nightmare. A reoccurring dream that haunted me several nights a week. They varied slightly, but all ended the same. With me being dragged back to my parents’ house and trapped with no escape. The worst part wasn’t even the dream, it was the reality that I awoke to. A heightened stage of panic. Crazy scenarios running rampant through my head. Was I being watched? Were my parents here to kidnap me and drag me back home? Was this my subconscious warning me of impending doom? I wasn’t in a position to take these dreams lightly, so I proceeded with precaution. First I needed to secure the perimeter.

Slowly lifting one blind, I peeked out my living room window. My heart beat becoming more noticeable as I examined my outdoor surroundings. Grass. Sidewalk. Street. Cars. A bird walking along the top of the short brick ledge running parallel to the grass embankment. My eyes fixated on the small, black bird as he paid no notice to me. He was being watched, but was completely unaware of that fact. My heartbeat quickened and my body felt tingly. I removed my finger tip from the edge of the blind and let it slide back into its rightful position.

My mind reeled as I began the daunting task to mentally prepare myself to step outside. I could not go back there. Memories of my parent’s house flooded my head. Again, my heartbeat quickened. My legs felt heavy and immovable. My Fear became almost paralyzing as the possibility of being taken back became more and more real. Breathe. I closed my eyes and took another breath. I quietly removed my keys from their hook to the right of the door. I selected the apartment key and readied my hand.

I exhaled and unlocked my front door. I pulled the door open and surveyed the outside. No one was there. Gulp. I stepped out of my apartment and pulled the front door closed. I locked the door, and checked the handle to make sure it was truly locked. I forced myself to take another deep breath, and took the first step towards my car. As I rounded the corner of my apartment building, I surveyed the parking lot, but I never stopped my stride. They weren’t here. I briskly continued the path to my car, unlocked the door and got inside.

I let out a deep sigh of relief. They weren’t here. I let that phrase resonate through my entire body. Relief washed over me, forcing Fear out of the car. Almost. I knew Fear would be right here waiting for me when I got home from my day of work. We would pick up right where we left off. We always did.

Author’s Note: Plans. Plans. Plans. We all have ‘em, and we all realize that it’s impossible to always keep them. Being a recovering perfectionist, planning was my safety blanket. If I knew what was coming, I could be prepared for it. If I didn’t know what was coming, I was left to my own, under-equipped devices. A situation I wanted to avoid at all costs.

What I have come to peace with, after many, many instances contrary to my natural instinct, is that you can’t spend your life planning everything. It’s an impossible battle to fight. Not one of those “its only impossible until its done” sort of things. No, it is not physically possible to plan everything. You can’t predict every outcome. Situations arise you couldn’t have dreamed up if you tried. And you know what, it’s a lot less exhausting rolling with the waves.  

Life is like surfing. I can look out at the ocean, and see there are waves. I can plan to surf those waves, but what I can’t plan for is the strength, magnitude, and frequency of those very same waves. I can see waves, paddle out to the surf and be met with stillness. I can also observe stillness in the water and be met with a gargantuan wave that knocks me off my board.

What I can do is to anticipate when a big wave is coming, put in the hard work to get myself into position for it, and then let the wave do the work. I cannot make myself ride a wave that isn’t there. I cannot will the waves to come. All I can do is realize that ultimately, I have no control over the waves, but if I relax, work hard, and learn to trust my gut instincts, then I can enjoy a beautiful ride.

*This was the first post I wrote when I decided that I wanted to start a blog documenting my experiences. Why this particular subject? Because palpable fear was something so raw and so present in my life for such a long time that this instance came to mind immediately. I’m glad to be in a place now where Fear is not my roommate anymore.

No. 29 – Driving Me Crazy

No. 29 – Driving Me Crazy

I was one step away from absolute independence. The only puppet string that I hadn’t cut was the one attached to my car. Well, I was told it was a “gift” and that it was mine. But I was also told that if I left the house in that car that the cops would be called and a stolen car would be reported. I was living in fear that one day, I would walk out to my car to find it surrounded by police officers waiting to take it away.

I couldn’t continue living in fear worrying that any day I could be without a car. Trading it in wasn’t an option either because the title was in my father’s name. That would require me asking him for a title change, something I wasn’t willing to do. I didn’t want any help or to attach any new strings. Knowing that I used the car they bought to purchase my own would suck any joy out of the experience.

No, I would have to purchase a car all on my own. Except that I was unable to put any money down and had nothing to trade in towards a new one. I hadn’t really put much thought into buying a car, it was not something I had ever worried about before. My father was a car connoisseur and I had never had to think about purchasing one without his guidance and expertise up until the past few months.

Add another item to the list of things I would have to handle on my own with zero experience doing so. I asked Kendrae to come with me to the car dealership for moral support. He knew less about vehicles than I did. But I felt that I should have someone to celebrate this milestone with me. Just because my situation wasn’t one that appeared to be ideal, didn’t mean that I couldn’t celebrate my own mini victories. Buying your first car is a big deal and should be treated as such. So I was happy when Kendrae agreed to support me.

We pulled up to McKaig Chevrolet in Gladewater, TX and I had a ball in the back of my throat. It was hard to swallow and my palms were moist. I was anxious. I felt like the salesmen could tell I didn’t have any collateral and no money in my bank account. I was unsure if it was even possible to purchase a vehicle with no money down, not much credit and nothing to put towards the first payment.

Walking into the dealership doors, I steeled myself and tried not to get my hopes up. I didn’t want a new car. I wanted something low maintenance, with great gas mileage and compact so it was easy to park. I didn’t want something in a loud color. I wanted a car that blended in – a common model that wouldn’t draw any attention. So if my parents decided to drive by my apartment complex, they wouldn’t be able to identify which car was mine. I wasn’t comfortable with them knowing where I lived, but by changing my car, I was adding an extra measure of security. A miniscule measure of security that eased my mind, even if only slightly.

I was greeted by a young woman named Alexus. Her smile consumed her entire face and instantly put my nerves at rest. Her face didn’t strike me as a salesperson who would try and get over on someone interested in purchasing a car. She struck me as warm and helpful, exactly the kind of person I was interested in car shopping with.

Alexus, Kendrae and I test drove three cars. The first two cars were total letdowns. Not at all what I pictured myself driving. Reality was beginning to settle in that maybe I had set the bar too high. It was true, I didn’t really know what my budget was and maybe all I would be able to afford was an even older model than I imagined. And then we walked up to car number three.

“This is it, Sarah,” Kendrae remarked, emphatically. “I can feel that this is your car.”

If this car was anything like the first two, I wasn’t so sure. But I kept my mind open. Maybe I needed to lower my expectations. I needed a car because each day that I kept the Honda Accord, was a day I risked having it taken away. I needed a car. So, I needed to find one today.

As I drove the 2013 Hyundai Elantra down the long stretch of road, I was surprised at how easy it was to maneuver. It rode smooth, had a quiet engine and I definitely took note of the great MPG it clocked on the highway. It was light blue with a soft tan cloth interior. Perfect for the excruciating Texas summers. It was small, with not much room in the backseat, but how often did I really plan to have more than one other person in my car for an extended period of time?

Kendrae was right, this was my car. So long as I could afford it. I crunched some numbers in my head and came up with a figure that was the absolute highest I could afford. If this car was over that number, I would have to find something else. A highly unfavorable option.

An hour later, I left the dealership driving my new car. The payment matched the figure I calculated in my head, I owed no money down and wouldn’t have to make my first payment for two months. An actual miracle! I was soaring. This was it, the last step required to get my affairs in order and begin my new life.

Suddenly my flight was sent hurtling down to the ground by a text from my grandmother from Ohio. A text completely out of the clear blue sky as we hadn’t communicated since I left her house in July.

“I can’t believe you never told us about what happened with your high school boyfriend. Being forcefully made to do something you didn’t want to do. You are damaged. You need to go to counseling. No wonder you ended up with Kendrae. Look what happened to you.”

My jaw fell open as I stared at my phone screen. My mind was blank, still in shock from her vicious words. All the moisture from my mouth instantly evaporated and my throat went dry. I swallowed in attempt to satiate my tongue and allow my brain to come back from that blow.

What…?

That was all I could compute. I read and reread that message what must have been a dozen times and still the shock was just as potent. Unbelievable. I saw it with my own eyes and couldn’t wrap my mind around the contents.

I certainly wasn’t going to respond to her message. I shuddered as the all too familiar feeling of guilt overtook my body. It was MY fault that I was taken advantage of? I did tell my mother about this situation about a year ago. And her response: “You know how to say no now though, right?” No concern, no anger, no solace. Just cold matter of factness. We never discussed it again after that one night.

And now, it was being used against me. It was my fault and just HAD to be the reason I was dating Kendrae, a man that they labeled as unsuitable for their daughter. Who now was also damaged goods.

This vicious cycle of guilt and manipulation had to stop. I couldn’t control what they said and did. But I could control allowing it to have an effect on me.

A few days later Kendrae and I decided it would be nice to take a trip to visit his family in the Houston area. Things had been tense for me and getting away sounded like a nice change of scenery. This also provided the perfect way to give my parent’s car back.

But I crafted a plan so that I wouldn’t have to see them to give it back. I didn’t want a fight. Or a guilt trip. Or anything for that matter. I just wanted to give the car back and move on. So I found a public place halfway between Longview and Van Alstyne. Kendrae would follow behind so that once I dropped off the car, we could make our way to Houston.

It seemed so cold and final, but I couldn’t think of any other way to give it back that wouldn’t rip my heart out.

I pulled up the pre-written text message and hit send.

“I dropped the car off at Walmart in Terrell. The key is under the back-passenger floor mat; the back-driver side door is unlocked. Thank you for providing me with a car for as long as you did. The Walmart address is 1900 West Moore Ave. Terrell, TX 75160.”

I stared at my screen as I sat in the passenger seat. It had been 30 minutes since we left that Walmart parking lot, but I wasn’t sure we had enough distance between us yet. Maybe in 15 more minutes, I would feel a little safer. Wrong. As each minute ticked by on the dashboard clock, I grew more and more anxious. Why did it seem like making any choice was so difficult? Why did every situation feel like I was the only one losing?

“Did you send it yet?” Kendrae asked.

I nodded my head yes. I sent it. Kendrae reached over and grabbed my hand. We sat in silence. Tears poured down my face as my body gently shook in resistance to my suppressed sobs. I kept reassuring myself that I was making the right decision. I shouldn’t feel guilty. But I did. I was so programmed to feel guilty, feeling any other emotion would seem foreign.

I was snapped back to reality by the vibrating of my cell phone. Dad read across the top of the screen. My heart sank. I anticipated that they might call in response to my recent text message. I stared at my screen and let it go to voicemail. It rang again, and I clicked the button on the side of my phone to silence the vibrations. There was no sense in answering. My text had said everything I needed to say. They had lost their privilege to speak to me in a non-controlled environment. And I wasn’t sure I possessed the strength to speak to them over the phone. Not yet.

A notification that I received a voicemail lit up my screen. I handed the phone to Kendrae. “You listen to it. I can’t,” I squeaked out, my voice quivering. I stared out the window, my eyes scanning as if there were answers in the grass. The sound of the road was the only audible sound in the truck as Kendrae listened to what I couldn’t.

“They’re confused why you dropped off your car,” Kendrae said.

I gave it back because I didn’t want it anymore. I didn’t want anything with a string attached to it that could be ripped out from under me at any given moment. A car that could be reported stolen because I wasn’t coming home. This was the only remaining string of the tethered rope of my parents’ hold over me. Any car payment in the world was worth paying for my independence. The knot in my stomach uncurled slightly, as I reassured myself this was a step in the right direction. I sat up straighter, gazed back out the window and let the feeling of ease wash over me.

I had started at the bottom. With absolutely nothing, but now I had taken one step forward. One slow, small painstaking step. But forward progress is progress all the same.

Author’s Note: We are all the same. Your struggles. Your fears. Your dreams. Your story. You are not in this alone. Of course no two situations are quite identical, but what you’re going through is not unique to you. You do not have to suffer in silence and think that no one knows what you’re going through. Don’t let your pride prohibit your healing process. Don’t believe the lie that you can handle it all on your own.

 True strength does not come from muscling through something, gritting your teeth and suffering through. Strength comes from identifying and admitting your struggles. Strength comes from allowing others to support you.

I spent so much time in my own head delaying my overall health and well-being. I was so worked up, stressed out, heart broken and lost. All because I believed that I had to handle everything on my own. Partly because I was embarrassed, partly because I was raised in a family dynamic that avoided confrontation at all cost and partly because I was prideful. I was more concerned with what people would think when they learned the truth that it prevented me from telling it.

So I struggled and struggled to find the surface of the water. Frantically panicking in every direction but up. Consumed in a sea of darkness and self-doubt. Only hurting myself. Only stunting my own growth. And not gaining any strength because of it. It was not until I vocalized my struggles that I was able to learn from them. Somewhere along the way we are fed this idea that we have to have it all together. We have to fix all our own problems, self-inflicted or not. We have to have all the answers on our own, without any help or guidance. When nothing could be further from the truth.

No. 28 – Taking Care of Business

No. 28 – Taking Care of Business

My first order of business was Step 1: Make sure Kendrae was alright.

So I quickly typed up a message asking how he was feeling. Kendrae responded that he was fine. That messages of hate had no effect on him, because he knew they were full of lies. In fact, he even messaged my mother back. A response that caught me off guard, but filled me with pride and a hint of jealousy. I was proud that Kendrae was able to stand up for himself. Jealous because that remained a feat I was unable to master. I had written, typed and vocalized a thousand responses to my parents. Some came out of spaces of anger, others came from places of brokenness and disappointment, others from confusion and guilt. And then most were a mixture of all of the above. But every single one, came from a place driven by emotion. And I knew, until I could remove my emotions from the situation and be objective, no conversation would better the situation. Anything I said, would only heap more onto the pile.

So I continued forward in silence. I believed that right now, the most impactful thing I could say, was nothing. My heart was too tender and still bleeding. Attempting to have a civil conversation was not only out of the question, but not safe for my well-being. And like I planned out, saying anything before I had taken care of the items on my mother’s list was a waste of energy.

Which brought me to Step 2: Get through the rest of the school day.This would most likely be the most difficult of the steps. I am a girl who naturally wears her emotions very openly. To survive the past few months, I had to fight against my natural tendencies and wear a mask. A task that drained me and left me feeling completely empty. But, I wasn’t out of the clearing yet. I would have to don my smiling mask, yet again and get through another day. Outwardly wearing a smile while inwardly suppressing tears.

The bell rang, indicating that I needed to join my students in their next class. Mrs. Vaughn’s 6thperiod. A dynamic class that engaged both students and teachers. A class that was going to be exceptionally difficult to fake it through. Mrs. Vaughn didn’t accept anything but the best from her students, and she would certainly notice if I was slacking in that department too. I was worried that she might notice something was wrong, and want to talk about it. She cared deeply for everyone; a trait that I very much admired normally, just not on this particular day. Because that would mean spilling the beans to my entire story. A fatal chink in my armor of surviving the school day.

So I pulled myself together, and glanced at my reflection in the glass window pane on my door before exiting. Smile,I told myself.Just two more periods. Even for a small glass window, my reflection wasn’t very convincing. So I closed my eyes, slowly breathed in. And out, then tried my smile again. Better, I thought. I could work with this.

I joined my students in the class and sat down in the back. Seeing their faces renewed and lifted my spirit. You can do this, I reminded myself again, a little more convincingly. And then Mrs. Vaughn and I made eye contact, and my cover was blown. She knew. She didn’t say anything, but I could tell that she knew something was up.

Oh please, God, don’t let her ask me any personal questions. I cannot handle any more right now.

I quickly moved to the other side of the room to check on two of my students. They were working quietly, but I stayed over there on the opposite side of the room. Maybe my acting skills weren’t up to par today, so my avoidance skills would have to kick it up a notch. I did a lot of floating around from desk to desk, a continual motion. Never stopping so that I really seemed engaged. I mean, I was, but still.

45 minutes passed by and the bell rang, bringing the class to a close. I shot Mrs. Vaughn a poor attempt at a half smirk as I quickly slipped out her classroom door. I passed through the busy hallway, making a bee-line to my classroom at the end of the hall. It was my conference period, the final period of the school day. I was in the home stretch. I used this time to google where an Allstate insurance office was located. I hoped there was an office in Longview. There was, thank goodness, 2.9 miles from my school. And they were open until 5:30. Perfect.

I had made it through the day without any hiccups. Which took me to Step 3: Go to an Allstate insurance office.After the final school bell rang, I gathered my belongings and followed the mass exodus of students out the doors. I kept my eyesight forward, not desiring to make eye contact so as to deter my crucial plans. I made it to my car without engaging in any conversations with co-workers or students. Pulled up the programed insurance office on my cell phone GPS and pulled out of the parking lot.

I was nervous as I pulled up to the insurance office. Not nervous to get on my own plan, but nervous about the payment details. I knew it would be embarrassing to admit that I had $0.00 in my bank account. Not even some change. And the couple bucks I had on me in cash would not be enough to cover the cost of an insurance plan. That if the agent asked me to prepay for a plan, I would have wasted their time and have to come back on a later date.

I composed myself and took the first step towards the office. I opened the door and was greeted by a friendly, dark-haired receptionist. She informed me that Mr. Gonzalez was with another client at the moment, but that I could wait in the lobby for him. I’m not sure how long I waited, but it felt like hours. And with each passing moment, my nerves only worsened. My mind running full speed towards the worst-case scenario. Not only did they expect a payment up front, they would need to speak to my parents to get me removed from their family insurance plan. I would have to have an awkward and overly personal conversation with my mother in front of a complete stranger only to be declined coverage. Or even worse…

“Sarah, Mr. Gonzalez will see you now,” the kind receptionist interrupted my crazy thoughts.

I exhaled, relieved that her timing stopped my crazy train dead in its tracks. But now my nerves were at an all-time high. I stood up and walked into Mr. Gonzalez’s office. I smiled nervously and sat down, absorbing all the details of his office. Motivational sayings, a picture of his young family, an award hanging on the wall. It was welcoming, but not too personal.

I explained to Mr. Gonzalez, or Eddie, as he insisted that I call him, that I had just gotten my first “big girl job” and that I wanted to get off of my parents’ insurance plan. I tried to keep the conversation light and polite, disclosing enough information to seem friendly, but not too much that would probe further in-depth questions. We talked about where I was teaching and a little bit about the special education field. Fine, I could handle these surface level questions.

As Eddie pulled up my current insurance plan, he noticed that my father was not tapped into all the discounts he could be receiving. With a few keyboard clicks, Eddie applied more discounts to my father’s policy. Not exactly on my seven-step plan for the day, but whatever.

After going through the rest of the details, and selecting the lowest coverage plan I could possibly manage, we reached the final step. Settling the payment.

“Card information please?” Eddie asked.

I swallowed hard as I reached down in my purse for my wallet.

“You are wanting to enroll in the automatic monthly billing, correct? It will lower the cost of your monthly plan, and ensure that you never miss a payment.” Eddie further explained.

“Sure,” I responded. My face must have matched the color of his office walls- white. I was sure all the color had retreated from my face.

“And your payment date?”

“I’m sorry”, I questioned, “payment date?”

“Yes, you have the ability to select the date that your payment is drafted.”

The color instantly rushed back to its rightful place under my skin. “Ummm, can we do the 25th? That’s the day I get paid every month.” Why I felt the need to explain my date selection, I’m unsure. But I was nervous.

“Not a problem! So your first payment will come out on September 25th. Anything else I can help you with today, Miss Sarah?” the kindness in his voice soothed my nerves.

“No, thank you Eddie. You have been very helpful.”

I smiled, a real smile, and thanked him again as I left his office. I said my farewells to the receptionist and made my way to my newly insured car. I placed my new insurance card in the glove compartment and glanced at my phone.

It was 4:45. Plenty of time to complete the next item on my list. Step 4: Visit a Sprint store. The store location was actually on my route home from the Allstate office. They closed at 8, and I wanted to make sure that I got everything squared away tonight.

I pulled up to the store and sighed as I saw the line of people ahead of me through the glass window storefront. I put my car in park, turned off the engine and walked into the store. I was greeted and instructed to write my name down on the paper sign-in sheet. There were five names ahead of mine that had not yet been crossed off. Great,I thought, more waiting. No, this time I was going to be productive with my time, not allow my mind to turn down the dark road it inevitably always turned down.

I paced around the store for at least 45 minutes, feigning interest in the different cell phone models and accessories. I was not interested in a new phone at the moment. I had just purchased the one I had this summer. I hoped that switching plans would allow me to keep my phone and my number.

“Sarah…” my name was called by gentleman wearing a black polo shirt with the yellow Sprint logo.

Finally, I wasn’t sure I could pretend to look at the new iPhone one more time. I smiled as I approached the counter. Halfway genuine, halfway out of politeness. I pretty much gave this guy the spiel that I gave Eddie. First job, wanting to get on my own plan. Can I please keep my same phone and cell phone number?

To my absolute surprise, I was! Same phone, same number, new plan. This was actually the easiest step so far, minus the long wait. Again, I was signed up for the automatic billing feature. Since I signed up in the middle of their billing period, I would not have to make my first payment until October 10th, well after my first pay check. Whew! What a relief!

I thanked Greg for his assistance and walked out of the store. Wow, now all I really had left to do was Step 5: Text my mother that everything has been taken care of. The most difficult step of all. Communication with my mother. I never knew how to phrase things with her. What I meant to say and what my mother actually heard were two completely different messages. As far removed from each other as Mercury was from Neptune, millions and millions of miles away.

I would have to be objective and succinct. Nothing about my message could be open to perception or interpretation. After about 15 drafts and over a half hour sitting in my car in front of my apartment, I had crafted the perfect message.

Got my own car insurance, switched over my phone line, and took care of the health insurance. Thanks for covering it all as long as you did.

It was to the point, it let my parents know that they no longer needed to spend a cent on my behalf, and was objective. I toyed with the notion of not even including the second sentence, but it felt too cold without it. I was appreciative that up until this point I didn’t have to worry about my own bills while I was still in school. I truly was grateful. We may have disagreed on some fundamentals, but none of that negated my gratitude for their providence.

I reread the text for the twentieth time. I couldn’t find any flaw with it, but I’m sure there was. There was bound to be something that wouldn’t be received well and would be added to list of things Sarah couldn’t do right. But it was late, I had an exhausting day and I was ready to be done with this whole mess.

So I copied the message from the notes in my phone and pasted it into the open text message. I entered my mother’s name at the top and hit send.

I wasn’t sure if I would get a response from her or not, but I didn’t have the emotional stamina to deal with it tonight. I turned my phone on silent and wouldn’t look at it again until the next morning, when my alarm woke me up.

Which brings me to Step 7: Get some sleep. Tomorrow is a new day, and you’ll be a few steps closer to true independence. This will all be worth it. Chin up.

I didn’t skip Step 6: Pray. That step was interlaced all throughout the other seven steps. I wouldn’t have been able to make it through any of the other steps if I hadn’t been praying along the way.

A big inhale. And an even bigger exhale. In all the commotion of the day, I hadn’t realized what a relief this all truly was. I had taken two huge steps toward absolute independence from my parents. All the puppet strings had been severed, except one. And I would take care of that string another day.

Author’s Note: I want to touch on the concept of gratitude. It’s a word that has been on my heart a lot lately, because I don’t know if was I truly grasping the concept. What I’ve come to realize is that living a life of gratitude does not mean you have it all together. It does not mean that you have no desires for anything else because your heart is already so full.

 Delving into these painful experiences from my life, I see a common thread of reaching and longing. A thread that is still present today. And for a most of my life I believed that in order to practice gratitude, it meant I had to be holly content with every aspect of my life. And if one area of my life was still in process, I wasn’t truly grateful, because I was still longing for something else.

Guilt overwhelmed me and I thought that if I was TRULY grateful, I wouldn’t be concerned with having a mattress. If I was truly grateful, I wouldn’t be worried about how I was going to eat. If I was truly grateful I wouldn’t be fixated on my broken relationship with my family.

 And it wasn’t until very recently that I was hit over the head with the concept of gratitude. Gratitude is not something that only presents itself when life is just peachy. Because, let’s be honest, when is life ever peachy? Sure, we all go through phases, but part of being human is growing, developing and moving forward. With that forward movement comes reaching and longing and pushing. To be a better individual, sibling, friend, partner. Gratitude is not the absence of want. Gratitude is not complacency. Gratitude is rather the overwhelming presence and acknowledgement of what we do have.

I can be grateful to have four solid walls around me with a roof over my head, and still long for a bed. I can have all my bills paid and still long for margin. I can be working at a job that I don’t love while still demonstrating gratitude that my needs are being provided for. Gratitude is not a destination or a complete lack of want. Gratitude is the warm wave that washes over us as we continue swimming.

No. 27 – The Message

No. 27 – The Message

My new life had begun to fall into a routine. Going without was normal. I didn’t find myself as hungry. My back grew accustomed to the floor. Without furniture, my apartment seemed much bigger. It was easy to keep clean. I didn’t have much to mess it up anyway. My sleep schedule was even adjusting because me and mornings…were not on the same team. This adulting wasn’t so hard.

I also began to get in the groove of this whole teaching thing. I had developed a positive rapport with my students quickly. Were my days utterly exhausting? Oh yes! Very much yes! But I felt like I was making a difference in my students’ lives. Seeing their eyes light up when I walked in the room to help them helped to give purpose to my exhaustion. And to my struggle.

I communicated with my parents about once or twice a week. Most of the conversations revolved around teaching. It was all very surface level and forced. I doubt that would ever change. However, the newest development was that my mother was coming down for the weekend to visit me. I wasn’t quite sure what we would do, but maybe this would provide an opportunity for my mother to see the state of my apartment that they left me in. Or maybe, just maybe it would allow us to have a mother-daughter interaction that doesn’t end in a fight, tears, or both. We hadn’t had one of those in a long time.

Maybe this weekend could set our relationship on a new, more positive track. I didn’t want to set my expectations too high, because that usually ended in heartbreak, but I was still hopeful. This could be good. We had some time and space apart so everything had to have settled down, right?

It was a Thursday afternoon and I had several students in my room to complete an assignment. I was walking around, monitoring. A buzz from my cell phone on my desk redirected my attention. I finished my lap and paused at my desk, picking up my phone. The screen illuminated as I glanced at the notification. It was a text message from my mother. She most likely wanted to pin down the plans for tomorrow.

I froze as I read the message.

“I’m not coming this weekend. Ask your boyfriend why.”

My stomach sank and my face was flushed. It felt as if one of my students had set the thermostat on 100 degrees, a vast difference from the usual “meat locker” temperature it remained set at. I tried to swallow the lump in my throat and stared at my screen. My fingers hovered above my phone’s keyboard, but they were frozen. Or maybe it was my mind that had come to a screeching halt. I set my phone back on my desk as I couldn’t steady my shaking hands.

I let out the breath I hadn’t realized I was holding and walked back to the round table. “Good job,” I managed to blurt out as I nodded towards my student’s reading excerpt. The rest of the class period was a blur. I was glad the students were working on their own and needed little support to finish their assignment. Seven minutes seemed like 700 as my mind was reeling from the text I received from my mother. The bell rang, and my small group of students left. I remained seated at the table and blankly stared out the window. Maybe I had misread. Maybe there was another piece of the message that hadn’t come through yet.

I rose from the chair and walked back to my desk. My entire body was tingling, reeling with the intenseness from my mother’s message. Where was this coming from? Why out of the blue? And Kendrae? Had they talked to one another?

Upon reaching my desk, I gently picked up my phone and stared at the blank, black screen. My hands trembled as I unlocked the screen. I blew out a deep breath and re-opened the message. Eyes wide, ready to soak it all in.

“I’m not coming this weekend. Ask your boyfriend why.”

It was still the same. I hadn’t forgotten a single syllable. I screenshot the message and sent it to Kendrae. The alleged boyfriend in my mother’s message. Moments later, I received a screenshot of a different message my mother sent out.

“Tell your girlfriend she has a week to get her own cell phone plan, car insurance and health insurance. This is just as much your fault as it is hers.”

The feeling in my hands turned numb. I couldn’t feel the phone in my hands. The four walls around me started spinning and closing in at the same time. A lump formed in my throat, and as I tried to swallow, I couldn’t breathe. Cold beads of sweat percolated on the back of my neck. Glued to the screen, my eyes reread that same message over and over. And then one more time.

My mind was too frazzled to settle on one thought. I had hundreds bouncing around in there. Reverberating off the walls, knocking into one another, spinning out of control in circles.

Where did this come from?

What do I say?

What do I do?

How am I going to pay for all of that?

Did they bug my apartment?

Was there a tracker on my car?

Now what?

I sat in the chair behind my desk and handed over the control of my thoughts. Leaving me no more at ease because of it. I was actually more distressed than before. I felt as if someone dropped me in the middle of the ocean. I was underneath the waves, frantically swimming. Searching for which direction was up. Getting tossed and tumbled with each new wave, tiring more by the minute. The moment I stopped thrashing, stopped trying to make sense of everything was when I began to float up to the surface. The murkiness began to clear and the light penetrated the depths of the water. I emerged on the surface, gasping for air.

This was not something I could fix. This was not a problem I could out-think the solution to. Bottom line, I would have to do what the message said. Get my own phone plan, health insurance and car insurance. I was planning to do all of that in a few weeks, once I got paid, but it didn’t look like I had much of a choice. The logical portion of my brain took back the reigns and drove my thoughts to safety.

First, I would transfer my phone plan from my parents’ plan to my own. That shouldn’t cost anything up front, I could just be billed for all of that later. As far as car insurance, I would try the same thing. Transfer my insurance to my own policy and hope that I could pay the bill at a later date. After the 25thof September. But health insurance…I don’t think I would be able to take care of that now. I had already declined coverage with the school district because I was covered on my parents’ plan. I didn’t get sick often, I could handle a year without health insurance.

I could do this. Calmly, I could do this. I just had to breathe, and handle this situation one step at a time. Thinking about the situation in its entirety was too overwhelming. I had already been down that vortex, and it was paralyzing. No, I had to tackle this task in small, manageable chunks.

Step 1: Make sure Kendrae was alright. He did nothing to deserve a message dripping with disdain, guilt and shame. All he had done was love their daughter.

Step 2: Get through the rest of the school day. Which meant, closing this up for now and not allowing anyone to know what was going on. My students didn’t deserve to suffer because I was.

Step 3: Go to an Allstate insurance office and see how to get on my own plan. Make sure to double check that I could pay at a later date.

Step 4: Visit a Sprint store and get my own cell phone plan. Again, make sure that I could pay the bill at a later date.

Step 5: Text my mother that everything has been taken care of. Do not be tempted to text beforehand, it will do no good. Perhaps even make the situation worse.

Step 6: Pray that I don’t get sick because I certainly won’t be able to afford it.

Step 7: Get some sleep. Tomorrow is a new day, and you’ll be a few steps closer to true independence. This will all be worth it. Chin up.

Authors Note: Life can be overwhelming. We’ve ALL been there. Been through seasons, long and short, of struggle. Survived, barely, on the other side of a harsh reality. I will admit, I’m the first person to smile, nod, and say “I’m fine” when I’m absolutely not. I am the first person to sit and listen to someone else’s struggles, but never verbalize my own. Offer a helping hand to pull someone else up, when it feels like I’m the one falling. Focus all my remaining energy to brighten someone else’s day when I haven’t seen the light for weeks.

The recent tragedy of Mac Miller losing his life to drugs really hit home with me. Any death, untimely or not is tragic. Losing a loved one is never easy. But I was unsure why this particular tragedy really resonated with me. I didn’t listen to his music. Didn’t follow him on social media. Didn’t really know much about him. So I researched and consumed every article about him I could. He was 26, my age. And a common theme laced through each post and article I read was that he was kind. He was caring and a good friend. He was a positive person. Not the first adjectives that come to mind when hearing of an individual who suffered from a drug addiction.

But that’s the thing. EVERYONE has their own inner battles. Everyone is struggling with something. And it is often the ones with the biggest smiles and kindest hands that have the deepest wounds. How many people have I passed by and smiled hoping they don’t ask me how I’m really doing? How many people have I greeted and just went through the motions, not taking the time to truly see them? We need to do a better job of seeing those around us. Not just smiling and exchanging casualties because we’re too busy or too consumed with our own lives to care.

On the flip side of that, we need to do a better job of letting ourselves be seen. Allowing other people to be there for us, rather than trying to take on the world in solitude. Speaking from personal experience, my first response when I’m down is to shove that mess in the farthest corner of my brain and focus on anyone else but me. And while this might sound noble, it’s really not. Because how can I truly help someone else up if I won’t tend to my own broken arm? Life is messy. And hard. But don’t ever feel like you have to go through it alone. If you’re hurting, don’t minimize your pain. Because ignoring it, will never solve anything. It actually makes it worse.

I wasn’t able to truly move through my struggle because of my own grit. Did it help? Sure, but I came through this valley by the pure grace of God and because I leaned on those around me.

So in short, what I want you to gather from my post is this: you are not alone. Reach out to those around you. And if you have no one around you, reach out to me. I’ll welcome you in with open arms. See the people you come in contact with. And allow others to see you too. It always seems darkest before the dawn. Your light is coming, I promise.

No. 26 – Kindness of Strangers

No. 26 – Kindness of Strangers

My first week of teacher inservice was completely overwhelming. I knew no one and had no earthly idea or money to prepare my first classroom. I was hearing conflicting job descriptions in regards to what my day would look like and was disheartened to hear that even though I was starting work in August, I would not receive my first paycheck until September 25th! See, I was naïve to the knowledge that teachers get paid once a month. And new teachers, don’t see that first paycheck until the end of September. How was I going to make $78 dollars stretch that far? Especially when I had so many needs.

Just don’t think about it, I told myself. If you ignore the problem it will go away.

Food’s not that important…plus, you could stand to drop a few pounds anyway. This will be good. You’re just going on a diet for a month. Maybe your stomach will shrink, and you won’t need to buy many groceries anyway.

You don’t need paper towels, you have nothing to make a mess with. No mess, no cleanup.

Dish soap? If you have no food, you have no dishes to wash. You can do without that too.

Toilet paper…? I would have to be creative with that one. I would have to find a way to make my small supply stretch.

 Shampoo and body wash?  It’s better for your hair to skip daily washes. Maybe I could stretch my shampoos to three or four days. And my half empty bottle of body wash…I could dilute it so that I had more to work with. Adding a little water to your soap can’t hurt anything.

 Now gas, that was another story. I had to have gas to get to and from work. Fortunately, my commute was about 10 minutes, and my Honda Accord got decent mileage. But, I wasn’t sure how much money to set aside for my gas budget. Gas was not something I could make stretch. When my tank was on E, there was no ignoring that. I would have to limit my driving as much as possible. I set aside $40 for gas. Hopefully that would cover it.

That left me with $38 dollars. $38 dollars left from the check my father wrote me. Most of it dedicated to the rent due next week. I had nothing left for furniture. My living room remained a giant empty room. No couch, no dining room table, no chairs. I had one small, beat up, end table that served as a place to house my keys and purse next to the door. My dining options were to eat standing up in the kitchen, hovering over the sink or sit on the floor and use this strange, short, long table. Since sitting on the hardwood and scrunching down wasn’t very comfortable, I opted for kitchen sink hovering. On the rare occasions that I did eat.

In the bedroom, I used an old comforter that my parents brought that was mine from 8thgrade to make a pallet on the floor. Being that it was nine years old, it had an unpleasant distinct scent to it, and was lumpy. But if I folded it just right, I could match the lumps to the spaces with sparse cushioning so that it was almost flat. The old lumpy pillow with a different distinct smell had to be older than the comforter. I was able to fold and bunch it in a certain way so that it felt like my head and neck were supported. A small, decorative aquamarine blanket was used as my covering while I slept. The blanket was much too small for my long legs. So I would turn the blanket in more of a diamond shape, draw my knees close to my chest and tuck my feet in. Not the most ideal way to sleep, but it worked.

The shower had no shower curtain, so a towel next to the dual shower/tub sufficed to catch all the excess water that splashed out. It also doubled as a bath mat for when I stepped out of the shower. I had two towels. One for the floor, one for my body and hair. Washing them frequently was a problem, because I had no washer and dryer. The apartment complex had a laundry room, but it was expensive, and not in my tight budget. $1.75 to wash and $1.75 to dry? Plus, I had no laundry detergent. So that wasn’t an option. Instead, I would draw a bath, soak the towels in the tub, and scrub them down with my diluted body wash. Then hang them on the shower rod to dry out.

Kendrae’s apartment that he shared with two roommates was equipped with a washer and dryer, but I didn’t have the gas money to make the 15-minute drive every other day to wash my two towels. No, in about two weeks, after I had worn everything in my extremely limited closet, I would have to make the drive to his apartment to do my laundry. Then I could throw the towels in too, to get the thorough wash they so desperately needed.

Kendrae grasped that I didn’t have much, but I didn’t let him in on the severity of my living situation. In fact, because he was fearful of my parents, he did not want to step foot in my apartment. Which, honestly, was a relief. For one, I wasn’t entirely sure the place wasn’t under surveillance. So him staying away was to our benefit. And secondly, I didn’t want anyone to know how much I was struggling, especially Kendrae. He was going to school full-time and working as a Kroger cashier. He had to pay his own bills and was on an equally tight budget. I knew if he saw how much I lacked, he would insist on helping. But I knew he wasn’t in a position to do so. No, it was best if I kept my living arrangements to myself.

The first week of school wasn’t as wild as I anticipated. I spent most of the first few days familiarizing myself with paperwork, shifting student schedules around and praying no one asked me any personal questions. I was exhausted from being forced to live such an extreme façade the past few months just to survive. Now that I had taken a step away from that situation, I wanted to practice being myself. Or at least finally having a slight bit of freedom to rediscover who I was. So I kept my head down, and tried to keep conversations with others as surface level as possible. I smiled a lot and was always polite, but I learned how to avoid talking about myself or any facet of my life.

Under less extreme circumstances, I am drawn to people. I love human-to-human connections and feed off of other’s energy. But I was embarrassed. I was mortified at the thought of telling someone that I wasn’t close with my family. What was even more intimidating was trying to describe our relationship with one another. Estranged? Ex-communicated? Ostracized? Complicated? All adjectives that would just prompt further questions that I didn’t want to or know how to answer.

I ate my lunch in my classroom by myself because I was embarrassed at my lack of food. I didn’t want to raise any concern over my three crackers for lunch. Plus, lunch rooms can foster conversations about one’s personal life, so it was best if I just hid out in my room. I would just explain that I needed some down time or that I would be working through lunch if I was ever invited to eat with the others.

Once September 25throlled around, I would be fine. If I could just make it to that first paycheck, my living circumstances would improve. I could buy a mattress, half-way stock my pantry, buy a shower curtain. Then each month I would slowly furnish the rest of my apartment. I would purchase a table so I could sit down to eat. Then a couch so I could actually use my living room. Oh, and internet! I couldn’t wait to have internet installed. I could transition to my own cell phone plan so I could ditch that burner phone. Get on my own car insurance so I could be fully independent and earn the freedom I deserved.

I looked down at the large, free desk calendar gifted to all the JMS teachers and exhaled as I focused on the date: September 3rd.  21 more days until I got paid. How was I going to make my last few dollars stretch that far? I could feel my heart beating faster and the blood rush to my cheeks. My typical meat locker of a classroom suddenly felt like the outside Texas heat.

The question reverberated in my head again: how was I going to make my last few dollars stretch that far? My gas light was on and my pantry was bare. I had no necessary toiletries. The fact that I only had $14 remaining was starting to truly sink in. My throat was expanding and taking a breath transformed into an arduous task. Before breaking into a full-on panic attack, I pushed all my worries into the furthest back crevice of my brain. Worrying will get you nowhere, I chided myself. Plus, I didn’t have the time right now. I was due at the first staff meeting of the school year.

The meeting started off like you would expect a first-of-the-year-staff meeting to go. The room was filled with, happy you’re here’s, we’re going to have a great years, and are you as tired as I am after only a week and a half? The kum ba ya was interrupted as the principal called my name out loud. Again, the blood rushed to my cheeks and I’m certain I looked like a sunburnt strawberry. I stood up, mortified, as I was beckoned to a table displayed in front of the entire staff. Two more names were called and the trio of new teachers were awkwardly standing in front of the room.

Then, in a gesture I’ll never forget, Mr. Mitchell presented us with a new teacher care package. He stated, that everyone knows how difficult it can be to be a teacher. Especially when you’re just starting out and waiting for your first paycheck. So JMS wanted to help us out in a small way and gift us some vital necessities. All three new teachers were given two tote sacks with grocery store and essential items inside.

I was instantly embarrassed. Could they tell I was that hard up? Did someone notice my lack of lunch or heavily repeated attire? Was it plastered across my forehead? All I could do was smile nervously and embrace the kind gesture. I may have felt humiliated, but I wasn’t too proud to accept the offering. I needed it more than I was willing to admit.

I left the staff meeting hoping that my face hadn’t given me away. My cheeks were flushed and warm to the touch of my hand. Just smile big enough and no one will know. The mantra that ruled my life. Smile and nod. That method had been my go-to move for just about everything. Who could blame me, it had about at 98% success rate.

Back in my empty apartment, I set the sacks on my poor excuse of a dining room table. If I was honest with myself, I had to get over any insecurities about accepting this gift. Could they have just been trying to help out struggling new teachers? We all had received the items; I wasn’t singled out. Just be grateful, Sarah. You are working at a school that cares about the well-being of their staff.

As I unloaded the bags, I couldn’t suppress the tears. Four rolls of paper towels, eight rolls of toilet paper, trash bags, Lysol wipes, household cleaner and more food than I had eaten the whole last week. I was overcome with humility and gratitude. All of my major needs were taken care of. These people that I barely even knew and I had purposely been trying to avoid eye contact with, had come together and taken care of me.  They had provided for me in my most crucial needs, ones I hadn’t even expressed. Crossing my legs on the floor as I rested my back against the kitchen cupboard, I closed my eyes as the waves of kindness washed over me. Thank you, I expressed aloud. And my words echoed through the empty apartment and through my heart.

I learned that “just enough” is still ENOUGH. I may not have had a mattress, a full gas tank, or even a full stomach. But I had a heart, overflowing.

KindnessofStrangers

*Actual photo of my gift bag my first year at Judson Middle School. September 4, 2014.  

Author’s Note: As I sat and wrote this post, one message hung around the forefront of my mind. So I want to leave you with this thought as it has proven its autonomy in my life over and over. Financial wealth does not equate favor. Let me say it again. Financial wealth DOES NOT equate favor. When stuck in the middle of a circumstances that seem overwhelming, do not believe the lie that if you were on the right path, you should have smooth sailing with money rolling in. If I had taken my absolute lack of any material items as the compass for being on the right path, I would have turned and sprinted the other way.

Allowing material possessions and money in the bank to determine your validity, your direction, and your favor will only leave you empty. Money does not equal fulfillment. Money does not equal good life choices. Money does not equal happiness. I am not saying that possessing money is bad. But using money as lighthouse in the middle of the fog to guide your ship into the harbor will only end with a crash into the rocks.

Looking back, it was in this stage of financial famine that I felt the most fulfilled. It sounds backwards, but in my dire need, I was forced to rely only on the one true guiding Light. If I had taken my lack of money as any indication that I had made the right decision, I would be poorly mistaken. But instead, I continued to step forward in faith and have been reassured again and again and again that while the path I am walking is not easy, I am exactly where I’m supposed to be. So next time you find yourself in a phase of famine, take heart because it may just mean that you are precisely where you’re supposed to be.  

No. 25 – The Caged Bird

No. 25 – The Caged Bird

Slivers of light sliced through the white, wooden blinds. I turned over on my right side, and felt an ache through my back. The top of my hand rested on the plush carpet. Confused, I peeled open my eyes which quickly settled on the carpet directly beneath me. I was literally laying on the ground. As I sat up, I felt the strain in my muscles. My air mattress seemed to be lacking a crucial element – air.

Frustration rushed to the surface as I remembered yesterday’s events. I had a sinking feeling this air mattress was faulty. And I was disappointed to be right. This was not right. How could my parents give me a broken air mattress instead of my fully functional mattress? A mattress that would now only furnish an empty, extra bedroom. This was not an accident or slip of the mind. It was my main request in fact. No, this, was thought out and intentional.

My eyes scanned the barren bedroom. Then stopped on that awful dark brown armoire. This they managed to bring. The utterly unnecessary piece of furniture I made clear I didn’t want or need. I shook my head in amazement. Then thought better. At this point in time, nothing my parents did or didn’t do should shock me. All my expectations had been shattered months ago. Even if it felt like a whole other lifetime ago. Sarah pre-two months ago and Sarah now felt like two separate beings. Individuals who had nothing in common.

So this was how it felt like on the other side of the fence. I took in a deep breath and released it slowly as the changes settled in. My body yearned to relax, to let my guard down. But my mind had other plans. What if’s and extreme and crazy scenarios held my mind hostage, convincing me I hadn’t escaped captivity.

Paranoia grabbed hold of my throat and slowly choked my breath away. There was no way I had gotten out that easily; there had to be a catch. Why else would my parents trek out to Longview with none of my furniture? They hadn’t stayed long, weren’t interested in looking around much and really didn’t ask many questions about my new job.

Was their entire trip a hoax based on the ulterior motive of scoping the place out?

Did they just want my address?

Did they bug the dresser?

Was there now a tracker on my car?

Crazy, I know. Even for my wild imagination. But after you’ve been traumatized, your filter of what a person is and isn’t capable of doing goes out the window. Even someone you’ve known and loved your whole life. Nothing is labeled off limits. So while, yes, I felt like a crazy person for allowing my thoughts to run rampant, I also reminded myself that being cautions was my best bet.

Three hours of distance, my name on the lease, and I still felt trapped. The freedom I had dreamt about all summer turned out to be a mirage. No closer within my reach than it was two months ago. How had nothing really changed? Geographic relocation was just as it sounded. Simply a change of geography. None of my problems were alleviated with my family. My relationship was still forbidden. A secret trapped in my inmost vault so as not to mention to anyone that could somehow connect back to my parents. No pictures, no spending excess time in public, not sharing any information with my friends.

For these next few months, I would have to fly under the radar. Once I saved up enough to be completely financially free, then I could step out from the shadows, and into the light. But until I got my own insurance, car insurance and cell phone bill, I would be forced to keep our love tucked away. I would have to continue to use my burner phone to communicate with Kendrae. I knew my parents would continue checking my current cell phone record even though I was now out of their house.

All of their restrictions and judgements followed me to Longview. My big, empty apartment suddenly felt much smaller.

Trapped like a bird in her cage, I walked around the vacant apartment. Dragging my finger along the textured wall as I walked the inside perimeter. Wanting to familiarize myself with every minute detail. So if anything was slightly out of place, I would notice. I wanted to familiarize myself with the sounds outside my window, the hum of the refrigerator, the clunk of the ice dropping into the icemaker. I wanted to recognize the sound of the air conditioning cooling the wide-open spaces. And grow accustomed to the wind as it breezed across my patio. Because not only was I still on guard, anticipating a stealth attack at any moment, I was now in foreign territory as well.

I steeled my resolve and heightened my senses. This time, I would be ready. If I caught even the slightest glimpse of freedom, I was flying out of the cage without looking back.

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams

his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream

his wings are clipped and his feet are tied

so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings

with a fearful trill

of things unknown

but longed for still

and his tune is heard

on the distant hill

for the caged bird

sings of freedom.

-Maya Angelou

Author’s Note: In the spirit of keeping it real, I’m going to do just that. Some of you may have noticed that a post didn’t go up last week. Which for me, was a pretty big deal. When I set out to begin this journey, I planned out a year’s worth of posts to get started. One post a week for 52 weeks. And I kept to that schedule for 24 weeks. For almost half a year, I committed to weekly open-heart surgeries. I committed to sort through my brokenness publically, which hasn’t been an easy undertaking.

Every week, I’ve benefited from this process and allowed myself to heal. But last week was different. Ironically enough my message from the previous week was that done is better than perfect. So what happens when you don’t even start? Is there an adage for that?

I’ve had a lot of life changes going on behind the scenes. Which is not to be used as an excuse. Bottom line, I didn’t set aside enough time required to write in the manner that I do. Sure, I could have scrambled and slung something together to post for the sake of posting on a scheduled timeline. Because after all, something is better than nothing, right?

Not always the case. Because I care so deeply about the message that I’m sharing, I take careful consideration in regards to the content. Are any of my posts going to be perfectly written? No. But do I intend to write each of them in a meaningful and well thought out manner in a way that hopefully serves someone else? Absolutely. One hundred percent, YES. So just know that I will never post for the sake of posting or meeting my own quota.

And while I don’t believe in sitting around and waiting for inspiration to write a powerful piece, often times there is a little magic that comes into play. It takes more than just dedication and making myself sit down to write. I can craft a post, and still lack quality. And other days, the lens through which to tell my perspective of this narrative flows right through me and I don’t stop typing for an hour straight.

All this to say that life should not only be measured by what we produce. True growth and wisdom come from the process, not the end result. And I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to accurately articulate how grateful I am to every single person who chooses to partake in this process with me. Thank you.

Anyway, back to your regularly scheduled posts!