Sunday, July 2, 2017

A Secular American in Europe: Secular life in the Southern US vs Germany

Long time, no see everyone. A large part of my absence has been due to my studying abroad in Germany since September 2016. I spent the first half of 2016 preparing and saving money for my departure and from September until now...well, studying. I'm a graduate student pursuing a dual master's degree where, if successful, I'll earn two master's degrees. More on that in another post, but this post is specifically dedicated to my vastly different experiences as a secular person in Germany versus in the US (more specifically, in the region known as the Bible Belt).

One of the aspects of Germany that stands out to me is how the secular experience here differs from home. For those new to my blog or not aware, I'm from the American South, a region over-saturated with evangelical Christianity. Identifying as openly atheist from the age of 16 has brought its share of challenges. By "open," I don't mean shouting my nonbelief from the rooftops in the manner that American evangelicals tend to do with their Christian beliefs. I'm referring primarily to responding honestly when asked about my religious beliefs.  In person, I keep quiet about my atheism unless specifically asked. Hearing nonsense about the moral depravity of atheists is quite the norm. 

 Being openly secular in a rural southern town can be uncomfortable at best and extremely ostracizing at worst. Speaking to fellow southern secularists has confirmed that my experience with approaching the topic of religion with caution is far from unique. Many irreligious people in the South choose to remain secretive about their lack of religious beliefs out of the fear that their families and friends will disown them, their employers may fire them, and otherwise suffer ostracization for not being a Christian. Those of us with friends and family that would do such a thing have had to create creative ways to avoid or divert attention from the topic of religion so that we're not subject to these risks.  I am fortunate in that I have accepting friends family members, but a number of experiences with others have not been so pleasant.

 For example, several years ago a former acquaintance invited me to church after finding out I was an atheist. I politely declined, but the acquaintance responded with "Well, I tried to save you. Only God can deal with you now." Just knowledge of my atheism (not even discussion) was enough to offend and elicit a "loving Christian" response of ridicule and dismissal. This is but one of many stories I have of how negatively my atheism has been perceived back home. Your religious beliefs are often used as a judgment of your character. Telling this to my friends here in Europe, they can hardly believe a developed country would still place such a huge emphasis on personal religious convictions (or lack thereof) when simply getting to know someone.

The great thing I've noticed about being in Germany is that people just don't ask you about your religious beliefs on a regular basis. People don't even talk about religion often in general conversation unless you are close to that person and the topic is of interest to them.  When the topic has happened to come up, no one's batted an eye when I mention that I'm an atheist. No arguments, no defensiveness, no disgusted huffs...just nonchalant acceptance. Back home, I brace myself for rejection and ridicule when asked about my religious beliefs. It's been a true breath of fresh air to be openly atheist without fear. I'm not an argumentative person by nature and go to great lengths to avoid discussing religion with people I don't know well back home. It's great that here it rarely, if ever comes up, and when it does, it's not a big deal at all.

The differences I've noticed aren't limited to the way people discuss and react to the religious beliefs of others, but the role religion plays in German society. In my city, Konstanz, there are of course churches and at least one synagogue and mosque that I know of. However, unlike my hometown, houses of worship are not literally everywhere you look. I guarantee that my hometown with 16,000 people has many more churches than Konstanz, which has a population of about 83,000. Religion is noticeably less important here, evidenced not just by the number of houses of worship, but people's behavior as well. If people are religious, most are private about their beliefs instead of trying to push them on others. In my entire 10 months in Germany so far, I have only seen one person evangelizing. 

Lack of religious beliefs isn't even on the list of things one might judge your character by here. The stigma atheists are branded with in the Bible Belt is entirely absent in Germany. I'm relieved that I can be open and honest about my atheism without hostility. I have never been the type to be in-your-face about my lack of belief, but I have longed to be at ease when the subject of religion comes up. I just wanted to be treated with the same respect afforded to someone with religious beliefs. Not having my moral compass questioned just for being an atheist is a wonderful feeling. I have finally found that peace and comfort that I wouldn't have if I were still in the US. When I do come home, readjusting to tiptoeing around my lack of religious beliefs will provide me with quite a challenge. Whenever that day comes, may my pleasant memories of acceptance in Germany bring me peace.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The Recent Resurgence: Confronting Mental Illness Years later

It has been a year and a half since I have been inspired to write anything. Looking back at my old material, it is clear to me how much I have matured in the past few years. My blog is going to take a new direction, and the first step is changing its name. Even though I am indeed still a "Southern Atheist Bisexual Vegetarian," a change is necessary. However, my post is not dedicated to this declaration, but the compulsion behind my urge to write.

My mental illnesses have largely lied dormant during my hiatus. I have managed my anxiety and coat-tailing depression without medication or self-injury for years now.  I am living a happy life - I have been in a healthy relationship for a year and a half and counting, I'm in graduate school and earning excellent grades, and working a part-time job that's fun. I have no reason to feel scared, depressed, or otherwise disturbed. Yet, I find myself suffering from my worst episodes of my depression and anxiety in years. I want to share this with everyone as I navigate a road I have not been on in a long time.

For the past few weeks, I have been devoting the majority of my energy to not succumbing to the impulses my disorders are trying to induce. I started to notice the subtle onset of a bout of depression when I kept choosing to sleep in hours after my alarm went off. My demanding standards of punctuality and reliability in my scheduling are things I have taken pride in for most of my life, but a steep increase in lethargic behaviors has ensued. Getting 8 hours of sleep a night has turned into 10 or 11. I have been turning in half-assed assignments minutes before the deadline when I'm normally done with everything days ahead of time (and actually proud of the content). I'll start on an assignment, only to immediately quit and save it for later. I've grown irritable when I'm forced to engage with reality instead of being allowed to be in my little Christi bubble, undisturbed. Answers to "how are you" are sounding more like "Ok" instead of the cheerful "great!" that usually radiates just as much from my smile and characteristically friendly body language as it does the bubbly tone of my voice. This blog post has taken 3 attempts to finish.

The explosion of anxiety was not far behind the depression. Last week, a classroom exercise left me in a panicked state hours after the class ended. We were asked to debate one another in small groups and then rate each other's performance. I freaked out because I knew I sucked at debating and didn't want to be told this by others. My body immediately went into fight or flight mode, perceiving my classmates as a threat despite the friendly environment. I expressed my strong feelings of repulsion toward the exercise, strongly considering leaving to go home. My heart rate flew over 120 BPM, my head began throbbing, and my arms and legs trembled relentlessly.  The real me would have said, "oh, this sucks. Whatever, I'll get it over with." The mild discomfort of speaking up in class is now an exhausting balancing act of expressing my words coherently while suppressing my mind's urge to shut down from people looking at me.

For those not aware, I passionately study the Russian language and have done so for the past three and a half years. It is one of my favorite hobbies. I am currently conducting an independent research project in my field (Peace and Conflict Studies) for elective credit in which I write papers in English and translate them into Russian.  I send my work to Russian friends and they fix my mistakes. Their corrections are often met with gratefulness. Lately I have grown discouraged and upset at myself, lamenting over why I'm bothering trying to write these papers at all if they're going to suck. A quitter is not who I am, but you would never know it after I refused to even look at the corrections of my latest paper for days. I wouldn't even talk to my friends in Russian because the thought of Cyrillic characters pissed me off.

Erosion of my self-motivation, not managing stress appropriately and sudden regressive changes in my personality clearly indicate my mental illnesses are still present. I'm tired of retreating in shame, fighting alone when I know I'm not. I have been humbly reminded that even though I have managed them well for years and am living a life with few problems of substance, there is no shame in admitting I still struggle with these illnesses every now and again.

This wave will pass, as the others that may come after it. My depression and anxiety will not win in the long run. They do not have the same power over me as they did when I self-injured. They do not have the same power over me as when I expected medication alone to combat their effects. Keeping these victories at the forefront, the direction I choose to move is forward.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Cutting Out Self-Injury, Year 3

My name is Christi, I'm 23 years old, and I'm a recovering cutter.

It has been six months since my last post. A lot has happened in that time - I began and ended a relationship, I graduated university with my English degree, got into graduate school, and as of today, made it to three years without self-injuring.

Looking back at my post from two years ago, Cutting Out Self Injury, I continue to face many of the same struggles outlined there. I compare my cutting to fighting an addiction. It is not uncommon for an alcoholic or drug addict to be sober for years or even decades and still consider themselves in recovery because, chances are, they had to try and fail a number of times before getting to where they are today. It doesn't mean the struggle to steer clear of old self-destructive habits and behaviors has become any easier because there has been no relapse in years. I view my situation in the same way. From the ages of 15-20, cutting was my go-to response for coping with my GAD and depression. I became dependent on it after multiple failures to stop, convinced that it was simply a necessity in my life. I saw it as a clever escape instead of the trap door that it was.

I vividly remember the night I was escorted in hysterics to the county mental health department, sitting in that lonely police car in the dark. It clicked for me that night that although I had tried in the past to quit, NOW was my time. I am unsure to this day exactly what about the situation reawakened my determination to get better: the threat of institutionalization, the realization I had so much to live for, the fear that I was on a slippery slope that could end in death...take your pick. I arrived at the same mindset regardless.

The stigma of mental illness is slowly fading. My story is by no means unique, but I have no shame about my past and am here to put a face to mental illness. Eight years after my initial diagnosis, I am still mentally ill and battle my disorders every day. The urge to go back to my old ways haunts me on a regular basis. Knowing that I have made it three years without giving in to their tempting promises of solace and relief through cutting makes me incredibly proud to say that while I continue to fight, I'm the one winning now. There is hope out there, and I am grateful to be alive to tell how I rediscovered mine.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Myth of Being "Bi Enough"

There is an interesting situation that bisexuals (and to a lesser extent, everyone else on the sexuality spectrum who is not straight) are faced with when discussing their sexualities that straight people largely do not encounter.

As a bi person, when I come out to someone new, the question of “so, have you ever been with a woman?” usually comes up. Others who express interest in the same sex tell me they have been asked this too, but I do not know how much this occurs as a whole in the gay community. There is frequently pressure from non-bisexuals to “prove” my same-sex attraction in order to legitimize it in their eyes. My lack of experience with women has led well-meaning, curious people to ask “well, then how do you know if you REALLY like women if you haven’t had sex with or been in a relationship with one?”

Why should my level of experience determine how legitimate my bisexuality is when the same standard of determining orientation isn't applied to straight people? It sounds utterly absurd when you turn the question around. Hardly anyone thinks twice about a straight person who doesn't have sexual or dating experience yet – their word that they’re straight is taken as good enough. Even in the gay community, some have looked down upon me because I’ve never had a girlfriend or had sex with a woman (random aside: the time for the latter is coming very soon, hehe). I’ve felt pressure since first coming out at 16 to “validate” my sexuality through sex, just to stop the stupid assumptions I’m not really bi. I thankfully realized early on that desperation was not the right motive for seeking out a woman to sleep with.

My first experience with a woman is going to add to my gay résumé (if there is such a thing, haha), but I’m excited to do this because I want to. I’m eager to act on the attraction I’ve felt for years and learn more about what makes me happy. Almost 23 now, I'm finally ready to do this just for me. No one needs proof I'm bi enough. I'm secure now and know I'll be no more or less bi once going through with this.

It’s ATTRACTION that determines your orientation. Not your experience, not your peers – but YOUR feelings. I’ve been out for over six years now. I knew I liked guys before I started dating and having sex with them; it is the same for women. I’m tired of people judging me with their silly mental checklist of necessary criteria that will convince them I’m bi. Some will never believe that I, or anyone else for that matter, can be truly bi. These people aren’t worth wasting time on. Even though being asked about my experiences with women is annoying, most of the people who ask do not intend to offend me and I find it worth it to turn the conversation into a teaching moment. I won’t convince everyone that sexuality is determined by attraction alone, but I feel accomplished that I gave people something to think about.   

Fellow gay, bi, and other non-hetero people, have you encountered situations similar to the one I’ve addressed, from straight people and/or the gay community? I’d like to know if this has been an issue outside of me and the gay/bi friends I’ve talked to. If they were straight, have you challenged them to think about how ridiculous the questions seem when they’re asked the other way around?

Monday, September 23, 2013

An Orientation to My Orientation: How I Knew

I've written a few posts specifically devoted to my sexuality already, namely Bisexuality on the Of'fence'iveI Should Know Bi Now, and A Special Day for Christi. A Special Day for Christi covers my coming out story, but I'd never thought to include how I realized I was bi in the first place. To come out as...well, anything, you first have to figure out that's indeed who you are. The process is not always an easy one.

When LGBT people are asked, "how did you know you were LGBT?," a common response is that we just knew from an early age that we were different - we didn't necessarily know HOW we were different, but there were signs. Others say their knowledge of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity didn't hit them until they were in their pre-teens/teens or, in some cases, well into their adult lives. We are all different, and this post is about how *I* knew.

There were signs when I was young that foreshadowed same-sex attraction. In elementary school, I wanted to be assigned to classes with the prettiest female teachers. I was engrossed with their adult figures, beautiful hair, and bodily softness when I hugged them (yeah, I loved hugging teachers as a kid)! I remember paying more attention to these teachers and wanting to participate more in class so they'd like me. Sure, lots of kids want to be just like their role models...but this wasn't about trying to be like them...it was about my mindset that there was nothing better than a beautiful woman's approval. At 8 years old, I had no idea at the time this meant a thing. I was not a sexual being yet. When puberty hit at 13, more pieces of the puzzle were coming together.

I found myself looking at other girls my age with a fascination I couldn't explain. I wanted to stare, but didn't know why. All I knew was that when a girl caught my attention, I blushed and wanted to keep looking at her. I felt the same way with boys and recognized that as sexual attraction, but not with other girls - even though I reacted the same way when I found one cute. I simply thought that I was admiring them in a platonic way, not desiring them sexually. I was also friends primarily with boys growing up and did not have many interactions with girls; thus, I felt that my blushing and awkwardness around them was one way of proving I didn't know how to act around them. The idea of being sexually attracted to women was still not obvious to me.

I remember desperately insisting to my second boyfriend when I was 15 that I wasn't bi, I "just know an attractive girl when I see one." He didn't even think I was bi or try to insinuate I was. All I wanted was for someone to listen to my lies and believe me in the hopes that I'd eventually believe myself. I got sick of fooling myself and looked in the mirror one afternoon and finally admitted the truth out loud: "I like boys and girls."

I was quiet about my orientation for about a year before deciding it was time to come out. I had to make sure I really KNEW. I questioned myself fiercely to delay acceptance of who I was. The fight to destroy every last tidbit of denial did not end quickly. This was the beginning of a dark period in my life, where I resorted to cutting to "punish" myself for something that is neither shameful nor abnormal. The feelings of shame and dislike of my identity continued well after my coming out at the age of 16. I knew who I was and accepted my sexuality, but I didn't feel like I truly appreciated it until I was 20. 

Looking back on the signs I ignored and resisted to accept for so long, I feel fortunate enough to acknowledge and embrace them today as parts of a beautiful, complicated story with a happy ending. Accepting yourself is always the hardest part of the journey. Once you are over that hurdle, you can certainly handle what comes next. You'll know when you're ready.

Monday, July 1, 2013

No Miracles Here

At a church service one Sunday when I was ten years old, the pastor asked congregants who wanted to share stories of their personal experiences with God to gather at the front of the church. This was the very same church I attended that moved to me convert through a fearful sermon less than a year later, but getting back to my point, I decided to share an experience.

My younger brother had recently been born. A high-risk pregnancy, I thought his uncomplicated birth was indisputable evidence of God's work. After all, my mom was a carrier of a virus that, although caused no harm to her, had the possibility of causing developmental damage to my brother. The doctors also paid special attention to her pregnancy because she was nearly 35 when she became pregnant. After sharing my mom's "miraculous" story, a woman approached me after everyone had spoken and told me she enjoyed my testimony. To have another person approve of my story only reaffirmed my belief in miracles...but only ones that happened to me. Everyone else's was subject to criticism.

I was trapped in a hypocritical situation that many religious people find themselves in today. Everyone else's miracles, I told myself, had an explanation. The ones that happened to me, however, were immune to questioning. I  remained completely ignorant to answering the questions surrounding the improbable happenings in my own life until I did away with religion entirely in my early teens. I wanted to believe that my stories were the only unique ones. Surely the survivor of that car accident was just exaggerating about their odds of survival and therefore did not experience a miracle. Certainly that person who was "healed" by prayer was just secretly taking medication, exaggerating about the severity of their ailment, and feigning their "miraculous" recovery.

Everyone's "miracles" have explanations, even if a person may never find out the real cause(s) behind his or her situation. Some people just don't want to hear and believe the truth, even when the explanations for their miracles ARE in plain sight. My older brother was rear-ended by a semi truck two years ago and nearly clipped by another, escaping only with minor injuries. Was he very fortunate? Yes, but it wasn't the work of a guardian angel or God's intervention, as some have suggested to me. Was my younger brother being born without developmental complications unlikely? Again, yes, but I now understand that the situation had  biological, not theological, answers.

There have been happenings in my life that I am unable to explain and will probably encounter more. That does not make them miraculous "works of God" by default. Some of these instances will later be explained through new evidence, and some I'll die without ever figuring out. Attributing seemingly inexplicable events to the miraculous work of a deity is a psychologically satisfying, but intellectually inaccurate way of interpreting something. It requires further investigation and inquiry, not taking the easy way out and giving the credit to some god just because the real answer isn't available right now.

In my case, I wanted to believe everyone's miracles but mine had no divine explanation. Until I learned to see  ALL miracles as potentially solvable mysteries, none of which deserved the label of "unique," my mind was closed. Having it open now has been a brilliant journey for me, unashamedly and rigorously searching for answers to some of life's toughest questions and situations. I may never figure them out, but that is no reason to stop pushing the limits of the human mind in favor of a supernatural cop-out answer.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Bisexuality on the Of"fence"ive

When it comes to stereotypes in the LGBT community, most people have heard the quip "bi now, gay later." It didn't work quite that way for me. In fact, it happened the other way around. When I first came out as bisexual at 16, I grew more attracted to women over time , so much so that I declared myself a lesbian for a brief period when I was 19, and again when I was 20. No matter how hard I wanted to fit  into the "one or the other" category, there was still a part of me that was attracted to men. So for those confused, don't worry. The short version of this sequence is bi-gay-bi-gay-bi. I'm sure there's going to be some of you who don't believe that I've completely figured out my sexuality...and you're right, to a degree. I am not the same bisexual woman I was yesterday, and tomorrow I will not be the bisexual I was today. My preferences shift over time, but it is the degree of those shifts that ensure me that I am, and always will be, part of the bisexual world. I was right the first time.

I'm always going to be learning about my sexuality. My point is, the idea behind the stereotype of "bi now, gay later" is that once one comes out as gay after identifying as bi first, there isn't any going back. Bisexuality is often seen as a transitional phase into gaydom and not a legitimate sexuality in itself. "Fence-sitter" is a term many fellow bisexuals are sure to know, a metaphor used to illustrate the claim that bisexuality is transient. Heterosexuality is on one side of a metaphorical fence, homosexuality on the other, and bisexuality being the fence itself that you must climb down from once you "make up your mind."

 I have been confused about the degree of my bisexuality over the years, leading me to believe I was a lesbian once I developed a strong preference for women. I was never 100% gay, but I assumed that it was okay to label myself this way because I felt I was "close enough." To this day, my preferences still occasionally shift, but I am never 100% one way or the other. That is one thing I am certain will never change. Every time I labelled myself as gay, I would worry about finding a guy I really liked. I've found myself in that position twice now.

Bisexuality is indeed a transitional phase, a "fence" for some, and many gay people I know today identified as bisexual first. My goal here is to increase awareness of people like myself, who saw their gay identities as their transitional period, their "fence." I once believed that my bisexuality would "evolve" into lesbianism, buying into the crap that bisexuality could not stand alone as a permanent sexuality. The only time I was unsure was when I called myself gay. Bisexual is the sexual identity that brings me certainty and happiness.  I envy those who have never had to fight with their sexualities, never having to try out different labels for themselves before settling on one that fit (or no label at all). Although that envy is real, I would not forgo my journey of self-discovery in order to have come to peace with my sexuality sooner. I needed to learn this valuable lesson about myself.

If you are struggling with your sexuality, break down your fence. Don't let anyone tell you you are on the wrong side of it or are sitting on it. Only you can determine where you fit onto the sexuality spectrum, but that can't be done without removing those barriers and trusting your instincts.