Sept. 26, 2012: My 10-year Reconstruction Begins

September 26, 2022

Everything changed on September 26, 2012 at 10:15 AM (maybe 10:17, she was late). But first, the backstory. And it’s messy.

My forties were emotionally confusing. I had successfully risen up the academic ranks to a tenured full professor position but my love life was always in turmoil. I hadn’t yet connected the abuse I experienced as a child to the bad patterns I had perfected in adulthood. And work and romance tended to overlap. Pew research reports that most Americans meet their spouses at work, and I had habit of dating former students (with the emphasis on “former.”) While the university had no policy against relationships among faculty and university students, that line mattered to me. After grades were turned in, two consenting adults should be able to do whatever they want. It never was an issue, nor should it have been. There were several respected professors who were married to former students. Let love rule.

About a dozen years ago, I had a brief relationship with a former student that started off fun but, as new relationships sometimes do, quickly hit a dead end. It was clear that not only were we not a good match, there were red flags popping up all over the place. (The university would later deem this woman “unstable.”) I tried to end it amicably but she was not having any of it and went into full Glenn Close/Fatal Attraction mode. She found allies in the administration to champion her cause. They’d drag me into regular administrative tribunals and lecture me about “power dynamics.” (One of these administrators was having a “romantic, amorous, and/or sexual” relationship the administrator who had appointed her to her six-figure job.) I hired a lawyer who shut it all down and I recorded her confession that she made all her accusations up. Hoping to expedite my return to normalcy, I offered to sign an agreement that I wouldn’t date anyone who was enrolled at the university. Although I did briefly date an administrator after that. Because irony won’t be lost on me.

September 24, 2012 was the first day of the 2012-2013 school year and I had asked to teach a Sociology 101 class that started on Monday mornings. I wanted to be the first professor a fresh batch of college students would encounter. So I put a lot of work into that first class. It was a true performance, a sermon on the salvation of critical thinking. There’s always a few students who blow off the first class because they think nothing important happens on Day 1, and it always annoys me because everything important happens on Day 1. I make note of their absence and develop a grudge. One of those absentees was named Andrea Barrios.

So before she walked in late on Wednesday, I already had a bias against Ms. Barrios. Then she walked through the door. I’m not being overly dramatic when I say it felt like being struck by a bolt of lightning. It was an out-of-body experience. (She has told me of a similar experience.) My first clear thought was, “Oh no, universe, do not put this woman in front of me. I signed a contract!” as she sat in the front row and smiled. I was on the tail end of a two year relationship with a wonderful woman that was sputtering because I didn’t have a basic understanding of how to be in a relationship. But I was a good professor and stayed perfectly professional the entire term (while my teaching assistant routinely hit on Andrea). I stayed focused, as hard as that was.

At the end of the term, I posted on Facebook that I was going to see local singer Storm Large at dark club to celebrate the end of the quarter. It was a rainy December night and I was sitting by myself at the end of the bar when Andrea walked in. Of course I was thrilled to see her. She was probably the smartest person in a class of a hundred students and she radiated. She bought me a shot of tequila and said we should hang out sometime. I told her I didn’t date students. She bought me another shot of tequila and we ended up making out at the bar.

A mature man would have stopped right there. I began building my career as sociology professor at 17 as a freshman in college.  It didn’t make a lot of sense to risk it over a woman in her twenties, as fascinating as she may be. I invited her to dinner the next night so I could explain the situation, that I had signed a contract with the university and if I dated her I could lose my job. “Maybe nobody will find out,” she said. That’s all I heard. I was already head over heals in love. I just wanted to be near her. She tried to get into another school to avoid the conflict but that didn’t happen. We were two adults who just wanted to be together. Two years later we were married with a baby.

But it wasn’t easy for her. I was only just starting to figure my shit out. The first lesson was how I tended to keep old relationships on the back burner in case the current relationship went south (a product of deep abandonment fears). I learned that only burned the person I was with and I almost lost Andrea. Fortunately, it was a surprisingly easy fix. So many of my other issues, wrapped in my narcissistic tendencies, made her feel invisible. But, as a tenured professor, I represented the stability she craved. Then all that changed.

This is the part of the story that involves a psychotic inmate in an Oregon prison. (“Psychotic” isn’t hyperbole. It’s in his medical records.) He was a “former” racist skinhead who I had worked with before his incarceration. He had decided, for some stupid reason, that I had aggrieved him. He made it his personal mission to destroy me and found allies in the university who were endlessly annoyed by my role as a faculty union agitator. I was dragged back in before the administrative mob, with our daughter in her baby carrier, and asked me if my wife was a university student. “Yeah,” I said, “She’s taking an online Women’s Studies class.” That was it. They had me. I was toast.

My long career was successfully destroyed, not by a nazi skinhead, but my failure to make better choices. I could blame Glenn Close girl, psychotic skinhead, or a university administrator who was banging her boss, but it all came down to bad decisions I made over the course of years. I just wasn’t ready to accept that fact.

Who was I without my career? Certainly not the stable provider Andi and our baby needed. My issues began to cascade. I thought I was one of the good guys, but I centered my anger, creating less and less room for her in the relationship. To her credit, she not only finished her undergraduate work but earned a Master’s Degree and began teaching her own classes. All while I tried to pick up the pieces of my life and figure out how the hell to be a good father and husband.

There are numerous details but suffice it to say she told me in very clear terms what she needed but I was so wrapped up in my pain and anger that I repeatedly failed to deliver. It was when things were at their worst, that I started remembering the experiences of early sexual abuse. But it’s not like one has a realization that leads to an immediate change, “Oh, I was abused. Now I can stop being a self-centered prick.” I still had a ways to fall before I hit the bottom. And that happened on last New Year’s Eve when Andi told me she was in love with someone else. The floor opened up and I was ready to cease to exist. I felt beyond repair. Beyond redemption. There was nowhere to go but oblivion.

After that, as I have written much about, I found a wonderful therapist who helped me not only connect the dots from my trauma to my behavior, but who gave me practical tools to start to change the patterns. My trip to Ukraine to resettle refugees this past spring encouraged me to be a source of healing instead of pain. And Andi’s patience helped me to see how childish my behavior tended to be. I’ve learned that love is more than a feeling but behavior in the small moments; a comforting look, a curious question, a snarky text not sent.

I’m marking this ten year point for two reasons. First, that psychotic skinhead is out of prison and still threatening me. I need a public record of my journey. But the main reason is that this ten year effort to deconstruct myself and build a better version of me may not be enough to be Husband 2.0 to Andi, but it’s been worth the attempt. We all can repair harm and fix ourselves to reduce harm to the people we love. I’m proud of who I am becoming.

It’s All Too Much: You Don’t Want to Arm This Teacher at the Moment

June 1-6, 2022

Note: This piece was written in different sessions, usually while listening to The Monkees, or Death Angel’s “The Ultra-Violence,” and not the usual one-session stream of consciousness that is my usual blog brilliance.

Ms. McSwilly has been teaching 5th Grade math for over 40 years. She is just a few weeks away from retirement. On this day, she is discussing square roots with her students who are more focused on the AR-15 that’s slung over her shoulder. The gun and ammo were given to her to her by the government, who told her it was the best weapon to stop a school shooter. The government also paid for her training. That’s where she learned to keep her rifle on her shoulder at all times, to keep it out of the hands of students. Also, if a shooter burst into the classroom, she might not have time to retrieve it. Ms. McSwilly needed to be ready to shoot and kill in seconds. But on this day her headaches were back and she was losing focus. The classroom door opened as the school janitor entered to empty the trashcan. Ms. McSwilly spun around at the sound and unloaded three rounds into the man, killing him in front of her students.

Somewhere I wrote, “Life is a bedspring.” It was some metaphor for something. Now it feels like it was a bedspring in a mattress that needs to be replaced. Too many heavy dudes have been jumping on it. Too many bad headlines. The Russians are advancing in Ukraine. The Supreme Court wants to overturn Roe v. Wade. A white supremacist goes on a killing spree in New York. Another sociopathic teenager kills scores of grade school kids in Texas. Elon Musk wants to re-platform every hate monger on earth, including Donald Trump. My wife is choosing her boyfriend instead of her husband. And a tank of gas just drained America’s bank account. That bedspring just don’t bounce back like it used to.

When the mass shooting happened to Buffalo, I had to go into my “hate crime expert” mode, giving numerous interviews, including on CNN and Turkish News. Sadly, it was a fairly textbook case but I tried to keep the focus on the black community and the endless trauma people of color endure just being not white in America. When the shooting at Robb Elementary School unfolded, I just wanted to crawl in a hole with my second grader. Watching Ted Cruz suggest arming teachers made me want to throw up. The school drop-off the following morning was just about the hardest thing ever. Parents were in tears, extra hugging their kids, hugging the teacher, hoping that she would be able to protect them from a man-child with AR-15. The weight of the world falling on kids who shouldn’t know they are somebody’s target.

Andi had a great idea the day after the Uvalde shooting because we were both trying to figure out what to do in a nation where there are more guns than people and little will to stand up to the gun lobby. Her idea was to have “a day without children,” and let the country’s classrooms be empty for a day of protest. It was brilliant, but the school calendar was running out. Wanting desperately to please her, I tried the make the day happen two days later but the plan didn’t have time to catch fire and fizzled quickly. I felt impotent in the face of the entrenched status of bad news headlines.

I wondered allowed with my students what it would be like to have a year where nothing happened. You know, like the Obama years. Do we have the resilience to withstand what’s to come this summer? They say the personal is the political and both have been pretty traumatizing over the last few years. And, as we know, trauma can be debilitating, turning us inward into a state of learned helplessness. Getting up to fight seem pointless. Slide into bed and scroll through posts about Johnny and Amber instead.

It seems increasingly overwhelming and carbs (or whatever is your drug of choice) tastes so good. Bitcoin is down but suicide is up, way up. Is there a secret to resilience? A lifeline until happy days are here again? A reason to hunker down between mass shootings and GOP landslides?

Turns out there is; optimism. Not every solider that comes back from the battlefield is plagued by PTSD and not every kid with who is the victim of bullying shoots up his school. Research has shown a key factor in trauma recovery is simple optimism. A positive outlook is your hedge against the plunge into the black hole of despair. You might not know it, but reflecting on how (and that) you got through past shit will help you get through future shit. And there will be future shit. 

Worried that you might implode this summer and be Googling “Can I hold my breath until I die?” by Election Day? Here’s three things that will help keep you from losing it.

1. Get some friends. One thing all these shooters have in common is that they are loners. Most guys who go through job loss and divorce go out with their friends and get shit-faced until they’ve come though it. The guy with no friends (and easy access to guns) is the one shooting up his former office place. Get friends. Church, the bowling alley, adult kickball, even those LARP weirdos. Plug into your tribe. We all need each other right now. And not faceless Zoom or 4chan. Go have a beer, you wuss. We’ll get through this with karaoke.

2. Volunteer. Mr. Rogers famously said, “Life is for service.” Stop whining and do something to help. Not only is your aid desperately needed, it makes you feel damn good. The work I do on hate crime and Ukraine issues is unpaid but if feeds my soul. I just went to a Moms Demand Action gun violence event and those mothers were motivated to be the change they want to see. It was intoxicating. These narcissists who just want to “live their best lives,” taking and never giving, are draining energy and missing out on the magical spring of optimism, service to others.

3. Make a list. Setting simple goals is such an easy thing to do. After a session with my therapist, where I was feeling overwhelmed by my financial situation, I acted instead of wallowed. I bought a whiteboard and started organizing my bills and made lists of things to do to improve my situation and then began erasing said things as I did them. A few days ago I called both my senators to ask them to close the loopholes on gun background checks. It took five minutes and it made me feel like I was moving the ball forward. Just get shit done.

There’s so much happening right now. When we’re all super old, we can read about the history of the 2020s and be like, “How the fuck did we survive that?” But now is the time to be like sharks. Keep moving forward. Forest fires? Timmothy McVeigh wannabes? Custody battles? Trump tweets? It will all be in the rearview mirror at some point and me and all my rowdy friends will have a laugh and say, “Look how bad-ass we are. You kids today suck.”

This was going to be a piece about how if you arm teachers, we might pull a January 6 on all the assholes that have defunded education, like Ted Cruz, but, halfway through, I decided to write about resilience. There’s no flowchart for this moment we are in.