“We’re Going to the Jersey Shore!!”– to Connect With Friends & Family!

By Shannon Perez-Darby

I know what you’re thinking; Jersey Shore is nothing but a hot mess, right? In short, yes… there are many upsetting and frankly quite disturbing things that have happened over the course of 4 seasons.  And while I can say that I watch Jersey Shore for “research,” the cold hard truth is that I like it and watch it as much for entertainment as for critique.  Many critiques have been written about the show and while I think there is a lot of validity to those critiques that’s not what this post is about.

Talk to any avid Jersey Shore watcher and they can tell you who their favorite cast members are (I prefer Snookie and Vinnie, not that you were asking).  Now Vinnie is no saint, and recently got into some hot water for a seriously upsetting rap he released glorifying rape.  While disgusting and upsetting for me, this point brings home what I already know: people are complex and not easily pinned down into the narrow character archetypes offered us by reality television.

Sammi's mom hold her in her arms as Sammi cries over her recent fight with her boyfriend.

As a domestic violence advocate who watches a lot of TV I’m often asked for representations of domestic violence in pop culture.  These days I’ve found myself coming back time and time again to the relationship between two Jersey Shore Cast members, Ronnie and Sammie.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with this now-famous reality-television duo, Sammie and Ron meet during the filming of the first season of Jersey Shore and they’ve been in a tumultuous on again off again relationship over the course of the 4 seasons.  One of the most upsetting fights to watch happens in the 3rd season in an episode entitled “Cabs Are Here!”  in which we see Ronnie and Sam in a fight that culminates in Ronnie taking Sammi’s stuff and throwing it out on the porch while they’re shoving, yelling and screaming at each other.  There are tons of horrific things that happen in this episode but what I want to focus on is how the roommates react to this fight.

At the very end of this fight we see the aforementioned Vinnie telling Ron, “Breathe bro… dude that’s not healthy.  Enough is enough”.  In the MTV interview after the episode airs,  Vinnie tells us “I was telling Ron, I was like, ‘You guys need like real help. You need to sit down with like a therapist or something and just really get real help because this stuff isn’t healthy.’” It’s really worth watching the entire 10 minute clip for a lot of reasons not the least of which is to hear Sam talking in a really calm and thoughtful way about the unhealthy dynamics in her relationship with Ronnie.

What I think is so powerful about these moments is that you get to see real life moments of friends and family offering support.  We see Vinnie not only intervening in the actual fight telling Ron to calm down and get out of the house for a little while, but we also see Vinnie following up after the fact, telling Ron how concerned he is about the dynamics of his relationship with Sammi and supporting them both to get help.

In the world of domestic violence where isolation is the single most unifying characteristics among folks who are surviving abuse what would it mean if every person who was surviving a pattern of power and control had friends and family showing up to support them through all of the ins and outs of their abusive relationship?  How would rates of domestic violence change if every survivor could go stay at their mom’s house to recuperate and get support and if every person who was battering someone had friends reflecting back to them the impact of their behaviors?  While these moments may seem small and insignificant I would say that they’re anything but; in fact I think this is one of the only ways we’re ever going to roll back rates of domestic violence, by each of us looking at our own relationships, by staying connected to our friends and family, by stepping up and asking “So how’s it going with your sweetie?”, by opening up our houses, bringing food, having that weekly friend date to reconnect; these are the things that each of us can do to support the people in our lives.  While examples of people acting bad via reality television are a dime a dozen, it’s not often we get to see friends and cast mates stepping up and supporting each other to get the help they need. Hot mess, it may be… but don’t say you never learned anything from watching Jersey Shore.


The Key To Disaster Survival? Friends And Neighbors

In July 2011, National Public radio’s All Things Considered aired Shankar Vedantam’s  segment entitled “The Key to Disaster Survival? Friends and Neighbors” which highlights the importance that community-based networks of support play in insuring survival in the occurrence of a disaster. Citing data from Hurrican Katrina, the 2003 Indian Ocean tsunami, and the March 2011 Tohoku earthquake, disaster researcher Daniel Aldrich demonstrates that “communities are not the sum of their roads, schools and malls. They are the sum of their relationships” and suggests that “Instead of practicing earthquake drills and building bunkers, we could reach out and make more friends among our co-workers and neighbors.”

Residents check an earthquake-damaged house in Sukagawa city on March 11, in the Fukushima prefecture in Japan. A researcher says that after large-scale natural disasters, it's frequently friends and neighbors who are key to survival.

Listen Up!

By Connie Burk

During a stay at a friends’ home a few years ago, I came across the book, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk . Within the first few pages, I was running down the stairs hollering for my partner to ‘come read this!’

The biggest take away for me was that I could listen to and love my kids without trying to solve their problems.  “Mama, I’m bored” would normally evoke a response ranging from, “Why don’t you go outside and play?  You have an entire playground out there!” to “I’d be bored too if I spent all my time moping around begging to watch t.v.” or “You had a chance to go to Mia’s house today but you refused to finish your chores.”

A black and white photo in which a small child smiles towards the viewer in the arms of a man facing away from the camera and down a path that curves into the blurry distance. This book suggested that the most compassionate listening involved…LISTENING!

Not problem solving or pointing out my kids’ many failings or schooling them on the cause and effect of their current condition.

This was news to me.  I am an advocate, an activist, a Mid-Westerner:  such people are doers.  We DO things.  When someone I care about is suffering, I shift into high-gear problem solving. But that kind of “doing” is sometimes just anti-listening, protecting me from my own feelings of worry, sadness, defensiveness or anger. I have to ask myself if I am interested in acknowledging someone’s experience or in them simply not having the problem.

Instead of “doing” when my kids said they were bored, the book encouraged me to look at them, take them in and engage with empathy—no problem solving, no minimizing, no lectures.  “Oh, you are bored.  I know that can be hard, especially half-way through summer!”

It turns out, this is much sweeter than the burden of trying to fix everything or teach the next life lesson. AND more importantly, it opens the way for them to solve their own problems, instead of taking over with my own solutions.

The more I thought about it, and the more I practiced it, the more I realized this is what I was craving in my own relationships.  The minimizing, the fixing, the mini-lectures disguised as helpful tips—all felt like rebukes.  What I really wanted was for someone to listen with empathy. As friends  and parents, we often say “you can tell me anything.” But in order to make good on that offer, we have to set aside bad habits and actively cultivate the skills to listen well.

Harder is Harder.

By Connie Burk

What do you do when you are worried about something in your relationship or a friend’s relationship? When you notice your friend’s partner do something that seems controlling? Or your date gets angry in a way that is scary? What if the behavior you’re worried about is in the “grey area” – not abusive, but maybe not okay either?

Lots of folks have these grey area concerns and think: “This isn’t bad enough to say anything. And maybe I’m wrong. If it was worse, I would know what to do. I’ll wait to see if it gets worse and do something then.”

Survivors and friends and family alike have said, “If they did something violent, I’d know exactly what to do, but…”

It can seem like dealing with outright violence is easier to address because it is clear, not in the murky grey area. But this is a false logic. The truth is, harder is harder.

 The more damage someone has experienced, the further isolation has separated folks from one another, the longer emotional abuse and victim-blaming worm their way through a person’s life, the harder it is to tease out the threads, reach out for/reach out to help, and minimize the harm.  The more time a person who batters has to set up a web of coercion and control, the harder it is to get away from the abuse.

It’s not easier to ask someone a friend about her partner hitting her than to ask her about her partner yelling at her.  It’s not easier to tell your friend you are afraid of your lover than to tell a friend you think your lover might have a problem with control.  Harder is harder.

People who batter know both of these things: that no one wants to be the uncool sucker who overacts, and that harder is harder.  They rely on the hesitation.  The impulse to ‘wait and see’.  And they work to ensure their control is complete before friends decide to try to connect or intervene.

That doesn’t mean everyone needs to drop relationships at the first sign of a red flag.  But, it does point to a practice of reaching out at the first sign of trouble, to check in and talk about concerns, as strong defenses against abuse.

Mapping Our (Collective!) Wellness

By Nathaniel Shara

One of the primary questions behind the FAR Out! project is always:  “What structures can we proactively put in place to meaningfully support ourselves and each other when hard things come up in our lives?” What we know is that– whether we’re talking about a flood or a breakup–  more often than not, we don’t make plans for dealing with the hard stuff until it’s happening.

Inspired by a “Mad Maps” workshop put on by The Icarus Project in 2010, I developed this FAR Out- Wellness Mapping tool for participants in the FAR Out project (and all of us) to do just that.

You are Not Alone Round StickerThe worksheet starts with some space to reflect on what happens for us, personally, when we’re having a hard time. Do I stop sleeping or start sleeping all the time? Eat more than usual, less than usual? Stop taking medications or exercising? Spend hours and hours on the internet without pleasure? Etcetera. There are loads of examples to choose from, as well as plenty of blank spaces to add your own.

Once you’ve spelled out this intimate portrait of what hard times look like, the rest of the worksheet focuses on laying out what helps, what doesn’t help, and what other people in your life might be able to do to be supportive. There’s also a section to spell out what is NOT supportive… which many folks have said was their favorite– and the most useful– part of the process.

After you’ve filled in the worksheet, ask yourself: “What would it be like if my trusted friends and family members had a copy of this sheet of paper? What if I had a copy of their Wellness Maps too?”

While the idea of sharing our answers can feel very vulnerable, I think there also can be something powerful about the idea of meeting each other in the depth of that vulnerability… instead of perpetually feeling like our friends and family only care about us because they don’t know all the things that are on that sheet.

For a lot of folks, this self-reflection alone is a valuable process. And for many of the folks who have shared pieces of this map with their loved ones, it has been a way to open up some new possibilities of receiving meaningful care and support. I’ve also found it to be a powerful group activity among people who are committed to working together or being in relationship to one another over time. Please don’t feel pressured to reveal every last thing on your map, but do ask yourself if there are even a few things on there that you might be willing to share.

Authenticity can build trust. And proactive requests and agreements can often get us further than crisis-based reactivity can. As well intentioned as our friends and family may be, it’s not reasonable to expect that they’ll always be able to read our minds about what kind of support will feel meaningful and relevant to us. Hopefully this activity can be one useful tool among many as we continue to develop a toolbox for building self-determination and interdependence within our communities.

Art by Jacks McNamara.

From Human Pretzels to Painting Gourds: On Authenticity, Belonging & Being Less Afraid of Ourselves

By Kristin Tucker

You know when you notice a dynamic in your life, or have a feeling about a certain experience, but you can’t quite put your finger on it? I’d been mulling over some reflections about my amazing chosen family and the inevitable growing pains of maintaining relationships over time when I came across (on Facebook, of course) this recent article by Brene Brown.

There are lots of valuable insights in here (her work has been profoundly transformative for me), but I was struck the most by the way she was talking about the differences between belonging and fitting-in.

“Fitting in, I’ve discovered during the past decade of research, is assessing situations and groups of people, then twisting yourself into a human pretzel in order to get them to let you hang out with them. Belonging is something else entirely—it’s showing up and letting yourself be seen and known as you really are —love of gourd painting, intense fear of public speaking and all.”

A woman in a purple dress and brown cowboy boots carries a blue heart in her arms with the words "She lives and love wtih a whole heart" at the bottom right of the paintin.

I’ve been in a series of conversations with people I love about feeling disconnected or left-out, feelings made all the more painful by their invisibility in an otherwise loving and supportive environment. It seems as if our collective energy as a friend-family has shifted more towards human pretzel-ing and away from group gourd-painting nights. I could ruminate on the how’s and why’s of this shift, but the reflection that has most stuck with me is that we are all feeling this way, in some way or another, whether we can name it clearly or not.  And not only are many of us feeling these uncomfortable feelings, but even worse, we’re feeling them in isolation.

What am I afraid of? What are we afraid of? If I’ve learned anything from doing anti-violence work for the past 10 years, it’s that people need connection. We’ll do a lot to get it and even more to keep it, even when it’s no longer serving us. Even when we are surrounded by people we deeply love, there can be so much standing in the way of revealing ourselves, of truly being seen. The hustle of fitting-in comes so much from feeling like there’s something wrong with us:  if I could just have ________,  or look _________ or be ________, then I’d be worthy of love and connection. It’s exhausting, expensive, and frankly totally unachievable, at least for me.

Brene Brown writes:

“Belonging starts with self-acceptance. Your level of belonging, in fact, can never be greater than your level of self-acceptance, because believing that you’re enough is what gives you the courage to be authentic, vulnerable and imperfect.”(Brene Brown)

If belonging requires revealing more of who we are, how can we create more space to celebrate vulnerability? How can we name (and work towards changing) the ways that trying to fit-in actually takes us farther from each other? Pema Chodron offers some helpful advice on genuineness, unconditional friendship and being less afraid in this video.

I’m going to start by sharing this post with the people I love and care about and inviting them to be more authentic by taking this risk to share more of myself.

Reaching Out- A Place to Start

If you’re anything like me, the word “community” can feel like an exceptionally mixed bag. On the one hand, it speaks to a cozy and familiar fantasy of mine: sitting on a big couch in my living room, surrounded by a dozen of my closest friends, eating delicious things and chatting about politics for hours. Preferably in front of a fireplace. On the other hand, there’s the reality that my two-room apartment can really only (comfortably) accommodate two or three visitors at a time, that I’m far more comfortable with a series of one-on-one hangouts than I am hosting a big gathering of people, and that the idea of friends representing the many, varied parts of my life all gathered together is pretty hard to even wrap my head around.

For many folks I talk with, this is one of the most challenging aspects of FAR Outplanning. People get really excited about the idea of having these intentional conversations about how we can support one another better, but it can be really hard to figure out who you actually want to pull together.

To help break down this barrier, I’ve encouraged folks to think about multiple groupings of friends if that makes it easier to think about. Each of us has multiple interests and may have friends or communities associated with each of these– for me, that includes my my two best friends (who aren’t super close to each other though they get along fine), my co-workers, my organizing friends, my running buddies, etc. In thinking about how I would structure a FAR Out project within my own communities, it’s helpful for me to imagine each mini-network of relationships and to think about what kind of process would work best for each, instead of trying to find some (mythical?) catch-all that will work for everyone.

The skills and agreements that I want to be practicing vary a lot across these groupings too. My expectations of my co-workers are quite different than my expectations of my best buds, and my hopes inside each of these categories of relationships are somewhat different too.

In thinking about having these conversations with the various people in your life, some questions that may be helpful to ask yourself include:

  •  Who do you want to be having these conversations with? (It can help to start by listing everyone who comes to mind—you’ll have plenty of opportunity to edit the list later on!)
  • Are there differences in the kind of process or conversations you imagine having with various people on this list? (You can use different shapes or colors on your list to indicate which people might go together, if that’s helpful).
  • Do you have concerns associated with any of the people on this list? For example, a friend who you know has a hard time keeping secrets, or maintaining confidentiality. For some survivors of abuse, it may feel complicated or unsafe to include friends who are also close to an abusive partner or ex-partner. Note: these concerns don’t mean that these friends can’t or shouldn’t be involved; it’s just helpful to keep these concerns in mind as you’re thinking about who you want involved, and in what capacity.
  • Are there factors that might make it difficult for some people on your list to participate with others? This could be because of interpersonal relationship dynamics (Cam and Sofia don’t get along with each other, for example) or it could be because someone lives in another part of the country/world or has a work schedule that conflicts with other folks’ availability. Again, these don’t mean they can’t participate, you just may need to be creative in coming up with workarounds.

A quick heads up: This process, by itself, can elicit lot of emotion. For some of us, this brainstorm may bring up feelings of sadness, shame, anger and/or confusion about not having the community or friendships that we long for. For many survivors of intimate violence, it can stir up anger, grief or still other feelings to recognize how disconnected we may have become from friends and family due to the isolation that was part of our experience of abuse.

If you notice any of these feelings coming up, know that there is nothing wrong with you for feeling these things. In the coming weeks, we’ll be posting several worksheets to help you brainstorm ideas for taking care of yourself when difficult feelings come up.

It may also be helpful to remind yourself:  Why am I organizing this process? What am I hoping to create for myself and my community? Bringing these goals to mind may help you re-connect to the longer-term vision that motivates you to begin this exploration.

{Owl image painted by Melanie Mikecz}
{Talking Bird by Matte Stephens}