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Enter Burning Man

Burning Man

I began journaling in 1996 when I was a sophomore in college. It took about a year for me to record all the times I’d been molested, and after that I only picked it up from time to time. For me it was enough that the experiences were out. That they lived on paper instead of inside me—or so I thought. I didn’t feel like I had anything else to add.

It wasn’t long before I started to ask myself why I was holding onto an object like that—a book heavy with the worst secrets of my past. I began to feel like I really didn’t need or want it around. That I wanted to be rid of it.

Enter Burning Man.

Mike and I had had our tickets since spring and had been planning to go for over a year. Then, over Labor Day weekend 2000, my friends and I made the ten-hour trek to Black Rock Desert, Nevada, an expanse of lava beds and playa, about two hours outside of Reno. We caravaned to camp on a Wednesday.

I’d heard things about Burning Man’s bartering system, and that people created things for the sole purpose of setting them ablaze. I was also familiar with the ethos of the festival: be who you want to be, without shame or fear. Everything was supposedly open and acceptable and free, right down to the nudist camps. But I also knew rumors could often be miles from reality, so I didn’t really know what to expect.

Driving up on the scene—an entire city built from nothing, shimmering like a mirage in the middle of the desert, filled with groups of vastly different, expressive people—was gorgeous and surreal.

Across the city, attendees created beautiful art that would be burned later in the week in protest of commercialism and other socially created systems. Other people made drinks, food, and music. Each camp had its own theme, and we spent our days walking from camp to camp experiencing what everyone had to offer. Some gave us necklaces and others offered prayers. We found a popular camp making frozen drinks that chased away the desert heat. In the middle of the camp was the giant wooden effigy, the Man, that would be burned along with the art on the penultimate night.

When darkness fell, the scene transformed. We traversed the camp amid generator-powered laser lights, music, and dancing from one side of the playa to the other. We rode our bikes everywhere, at times through dust storms, to meet people who’d come from across the globe to install their art before lighting it up. The cathartic, symbolic burnings happened throughout the week, timed to lead up to the main event: burning the Man.

Finally on Saturday night, it was time to light the central fire. Dancers appeared around the Man’s base before the fire began, their bodies undulating and curling like flames. Soon the scent of smoke filled the air; fire engulfed the Man.

And amid the beautiful dancers and hungry flames and ecstatic energy of the people around me, I paused.

I’d brought my own creation to burn. It wasn’t something I considered art, but something I’d created all the same: my journal. I was determined to see it go up in flames.

So in the fever pitch of festival frenzy, I threw it into the fire.

And it felt incredible.

All that terrible shit scrawled into the pages of my journal had happened, but as the words became ash to be carried away on a desert wind, it felt gone. I had gotten it out of me, and now I could let the fire do the rest. I felt free of it all.

The dancing continued, and I joined. I danced and danced and danced until the sun came up.

I had never felt so good in my entire life. I’d graduated from UCSD the year before and had just finished my first year of law school—as number one in my class. I felt untouchable. And as the pages and pages of my history curled in the flames at Burning Man, I was convinced that my past was done. Behind me. I’d said goodbye, closed the door, and set it ablaze.

As far as I was concerned, there was nothing left for me to do to address the past.

Then in 2002, I graduated from law school, got married, and began my career and my family.

And that’s when things started going downhill.

To discover the rest of the story, get your copy of Fired Up today.

My Husband’s Confession: You Scare Me, Alreen.

Ripple Effect

Meanwhile, rage had been causing contention in my marriage for many years. How could it not? That kind of behavior takes its toll.

In 2007, Mike and I had been married for about five years and together for ten when things began unraveling. I quit my job to start my own law firm and he had quit his construction business to go back to school to get a degree in architecture. Like a lot of relationships do, ours had hit a lull. We weren’t very sexually active anymore; we’d grown distant. And then one day I found out that he’d strayed from our marriage. His indiscretion didn’t involve sleeping with another person, but I still felt incredibly hurt and betrayed. I was also deeply disturbed by his dishonesty, even though it seemed almost like he wanted me to find out.

After I found out, Mike began going to individual therapy for the first time. I was so hurt by what he’d done, but also wanted to save our marriage, so we decided to go to couples therapy. We spent our evenings working through exercises, exploring our hopes, dreams, and preferences. Little by little, some truths about his actions and mine came into focus.

“I probably wanted you to find out,” he admitted one day during therapy. “I couldn’t tell you.”

Wow, I thought.

“Why couldn’t you tell me?” I asked. “Why can’t you be open and honest with me?”

He took a deep, shaky breath.

“Because you constantly threaten that you’re going to leave me,” he said. “You constantly say you don’t want to be with me anymore. So I think that if I say what I’m actually feeling…you might go off on me. So I avoid those things. You scare me, Alreen.”

You scare me, Alreen.

It echoed through the room. Through my head.

My heart.

Scared of me? The girl who spent every day of her childhood quietly terrified?

I had never heard anyone say that before. Then suddenly, like watching a split-screen movie, I saw myself and my dad side by side. We were both screaming nasty things at the people we loved the most. We were both threatening. We were both so consumed by rage that we were lost to it. I may never have said the exact words to my husband that my dad spat at me, but I was just as rude and mean.

I was in shock.

I had never seen myself like that before. I had only ever seen myself as the scared one—never the scary one.

I did not want the person I loved most in the entire world to be afraid of me.

Mike’s confession forced me to acknowledge that what I had experienced as a child had taken root in me. The lifelong effects of trauma I hadn’t addressed were twisting me into the kind of person I never wanted to become.

In fact, I reflected on my issues with Mike for a long, long time. I thought hard about all the times I’d flipped out over insignificant things. It was incredibly eye opening. He was right: I made a lot of threats and went off on him when he said something I perceived through a skewed lens. I thought about them all, and I saw how they would seem real to Mike, who came from a family of divorce, in ways they never would to me. I thought I was pushing, maybe trying to find his limits, but I never intended to follow through. If anything, I expected him to leave me and make all my beliefs a reality: that I wasn’t meant to be with a man who was kind and loving, and that I deserved abuse. After all, that was the pattern I’d always known. There’s no divorce in my family. For better or worse, we stay together until the end.

When I was clear-headed, I could apologize and acknowledge that my behavior was a problem. I could tell him how much I wanted to be different, how much I wanted to be able to stay calm. But at the moment, I didn’t know what a trigger was and had never heard about “triggers” in a clinical context. So while we were working through our communication issues, I didn’t know I was being triggered by his behavior because of my own past. Beyond my ideas about my fiery family and coming from a fiery culture, I didn’t understand why I behaved the way I did.

Still, my husband had spent a decade loving and accepting every part of me. No one else in my chaotic world had ever done that.

So I wanted to be better. For him.

Discover the full story and find the courage to share your own with a copy of my new book: Fired Up!

Stronger Together – Why I wrote Fired Up

Stronger Together

You are the only one who can clean up the mess in your own mind, but you don’t have to do it alone. When you hear someone else tell a story that’s similar to your experience, you are drawn to that person’s vulnerability as they share. Your perspective begins to shift. You begin to realize that you are not the one who should be ashamed.

That’s what happened to me during that psychodrama exercise. Seeing other people stand up and tell their stories empowered me to tell mine. I needed to see someone else go first. And that’s why I’m telling my story in this book. It’s my turn to go first.

It took so many years and so much work for me to come to a place where I can openly say what happened to me: I was sexually, physically, emotionally, and verbally abused by my father. I can say it, so you can hear it and know you are not alone. Most victims, when they are being victimized, don’t have that kind of clarity. They don’t know what to call what’s happening to them, so, too often, they don’t call it anything at all. They say nothing, and the abuse continues.

Today, I am a big proponent of speaking up and speaking out. I work daily with survivors of sexual assault, harassment, and related crimes in civil court, and I have seen how empowering it is for victims when they finally speak up about what happened.

Why now, though? In some ways, I feel a responsibility to the clients I represent. They come to me every single day to share their stories. They tell me about the abuse they’ve suffered at the hands of others. They tell me about their trauma. Sometimes those things happened in the past. Sometimes they’re ongoing. But the result is the same: the worst details of their lives go into a public document, to be filed with the court. These survivors will eventually have to sit and be questioned about what happened—and often whether it happened at all.

They are so brave. These survivors are putting everything out there to stand up for themselves, for others, and make sure it doesn’t happen again. There are so many reasons to speak out. Not only do their stories empower me to tell mine, I want them to know I understand what they’re going through because I have lived it. I feel many of the same things my clients do. It’s why I can defend the people who come to me for help with such passion. It’s why, when I’m interrogating an abuser, my words come through with such fire. I believe the unique ability I have to fight for my clients comes from many things. I have guilt over not speaking out sooner, and for not speaking up in the moments I watched my sisters get abused—that feeling is one I’ve carried since I can remember, and it motivates me to speak up now. All the things I didn’t say or do back then come out in my words and actions on behalf of those who have been victimized and abused by people who hold power over them. Those things come out for my clients.

Speaking out about how you were sexually abused or harassed is difficult. There’s so much shame, and it’s completely understandable to be frightened to say something against those in power. But every time you speak up, you’re building toward taking meaningful action, whether it’s removing yourself from the abuser’s reach, reporting the abuser, healing from the trauma it has caused, saving someone else from the same fate, or something else. The more we talk about it, the more other survivors will be believed, and we will be able to recover from the trauma it left behind. The more you repress and keep it in, the more you will continue on a path that is not the one of your dreams.

What I’d like you to take away from this book is that you can say what happened to you, and when you do, you’ll find out you are not alone. You’ll discover that your experiences, memories, and feelings are common. They’re valid. Listen to your feelings and trust your intuition. If a covert or overt sexual invitation or act makes you uncomfortable, you are right to feel that way about it. You were not destined for a life of shame, unworthiness, or lack. Others are not the only ones that get to live their best life, while you hide in the darkness. 

You have the power to create a life of light and joy, too.

Discover my story and catalyze the courage to share your own with a copy of my new book: Fired Up!