Tag Archives: inspiration

The Doney Clinic: A Free Vet Clinic for Homeless People & Their Pets

homeless street dog

This is Angel. She lives on the streets of Seattle with her dad. When I met Angel, I told her dad he named her perfectly because she was a real sweetheart. He looked at me without a beat and said, “She is my best friend.”

Last Saturday was my first day volunteering with the Doney Clinic, a free vet clinic for homeless and low-income people to bring their pets. Every other Saturday, two dozen volunteers set up mobile veterinary services and a pet supply donation center in the basement of the Union Gospel Mission Men’s Shelter. Angel and her dad were the first pet-parent couple I met. They were near the front of the line that stretched all the way down and around the block. They had been waiting in the cold for six hours so that Angel could get free winter clothes, food, toys, a harness, and a check-up.

Angel was one of a hundred dogs and cats that came through the doors that Saturday. Amidst the chaos, we clipped nails, cleaned ears, drew blood, gave vaccines, and more. I helped a homeless woman bundle her long-haired Dachshund back up in his winter coats. She instructed me that the clothes were put on in a specific order. The pink jacket was the first of the six coats to go on her furry companion. It would drop below freezing that night.

Every single person that came through the clinic was extremely grateful for our services—I mean extremely grateful. But I found myself thanking them for coming in, for being such caring and doting pet parents, and for helping to restore some of my own faith in humanity.

Admittedly, volunteering here for me isn’t a selfless endeavor. I’m trying to fill a void in my heart that’s calling for me to give back more to this wonderful planet and amazing community that has done so much for me. I’m trying to understand the individuals behind the homeless epidemic, trying to find a channel for my compassion that doesn’t compromise my safety.

I will be journaling about my experiences with the Doney Clinic every month in an effort to help the clinic continue its services and to share my own transformative journey looking in the eye  people and animals that too often are passed by.

Under the streets of Pioneer Square in the heart of downtown Seattle in a bustling basement on a cold winter day, I saw hope and a reciprocated love that, between man and his best friend, remains unconditional.

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The Silence Breakers: This Is What Happened When I Stood Up for Myself in 2017

When I saw who TIME named Person of the Year and then read the article and watched the video, I cried a puddle of happy tears.

At the turn of the 2017 new year, I vowed that I would start standing up for myself. It has not been easy, but it has been worthwhile.

I have a tendency to let people walk all over me or to turn the other cheek way too many times. I am the first to stand up for others but the last to stand up for myself. This is because I’m a peaceful person who sees the good in everyone, but those traits have also been my downfall. Like every year before it, 2017 has been a year of change and growth.

Standing up for yourself doesn’t have to mean throwing daggers. I started off the year by negotiating the crap out of an unexpected rent increase, presenting a professional and well-informed counter-proposal. In the past, I would have just whined and written bigger checks, but I work damn hard for little money and I’m a good tenant. It was a learning curve for me to acknowledge to myself I that could negotiate, and to realize that the worst I could hear back was no.

This newfound courage carried over into my professional and personal lives, and for once, I was respectfully fighting for myself with dignity and grace. It ruffled some edges, because it’s admittedly a shock to witness me, once someone who would roll over, now engaging in confrontation to protect myself. But those who stuck with me are the ones who value my own self-worth, and they’re the people I want in my life.

And of course, the biggest and most meaningful way I stood up for myself this year was in breaking my silence by not keeping my sexual assault a secret any longer. I’d been working up the healing to share my story for the better part of a year, and, coincidentally, I was ready around the time that the #MeToo movement began taking off.

We live in days filled with so much terror, hate, confusion, and fear. Imagine how much love and prosperity we could generate if we enabled ourselves to nobly stand up for what is right and just?

TIME Magazine did right by naming The Silence Breakers as Person of the Year. We are in the midst of a cultural revolution chasing inherent human dignity, for women, for gays, for blacks, for Muslims, for the handicapped, for the poor, for everyone. The movement starts within you.

Be the spark that starts the fire. Be Bold. Be Brave. Be You.

10 Reasons My College Improv Troupe Was Some of the Best People I’ll Ever Meet

It would have been easy to be the outcast when I joined my college improvisational comedy troupe. I was different and naive in so many ways—a sober, prude, Catholic girl with zero fashion sense tossed into a hodgepodge of intelligent, talented, funny students who made witty political commentary and iconic pop culture references that sailed far above my bouncing ponytail.

I could have been singled out for navigating college in an unorthodox way and not having the common knowledge to understand that Bono is a person, not a thing, but somehow, these people found their way onto my list of favorite humans. And if you ask them, I’d venture to guess that one of their favorite things about me is the fact that I am so different.

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In college, I was lucky to land myself in an improv troupe that treated me like family. Being a member of Ohio Wesleyan University’s Babbling Bishops might very well be my fondest college experience. This group of humorous souls trickled their way into my heart and became some of the best people I’ve ever known, and here’s why.

improv comedy

They know empathy.

Good actors are empathetic. In order to portray someone else–funny or not–you have to be able to put yourself in their shoes. My improv friends are the type of empathetic people who have embarked upon career paths that actively give back to others and fill a great void in this world, from artists to scientists to mental health professionals and beyond.

They understand patience.

In order to be a successful (read: entertaining) improv troupe, everyone has to practice together. It takes time and effort to reach that level of group mind where you’re so fast on your feet with each other that the audience feels like they’re watching a scripted comedy of errors. The best improv team doesn’t take jabs for cheap laughs but rather slowly builds up a scene until the audience is guffawing and chortling like your weird aunt at Thanksgiving dinner.

improv comedy

They practice inclusivity.

The most challenging, authentic, open-minded conversations I had regarding my Catholic faith occurred with my atheist improv friends. Comedy isn’t determined by your religion, skin color, gender identity, sexuality, or physical appearance. You can be a frizzy-haired, pimpled, handicapped, biracial lesbian or you can be a buff, straight, cisgendered hunk of a man. The one with the skills to be a team player in an improv comedy show makes the troupe.

They engage supportively.

Improv is a team activity, not an individual one. When a member is struggling on or off the stage, the group is there to pick you up. When I was in the hospital with a head injury, my improv troupe piled into cars and drove forty minutes on a school night to visit me. When I couldn’t perform for a month because of subsequent speech problems, they let me introduce the shows and watch from the stage.

improv comedy

They exude compassion.

During an improv show, you don’t want your partner to fail, so you don’t leave them hanging out to dry. Then and now, few people have offered me more compassion in my break-ups, career changes, anxiety struggle, and battle with Lyme disease than these humans that I acted like a fool with in college.

They live honestly.

Comedians are funny people, which means you generally see them as happy people. But those who have the highest of highs can also have the lowest of lows. Many of my improv friends are open publicly or personally about their life struggles. They share the good and the bad on social media, actively encouraging others to live authentically.

improv comedy

They take risks.

Achieving group mind requires being vulnerable with each other. In a show, you put yourself out there regardless of whether or not you get a laugh. The improvisers who surrounded me in college are the ones who hiked the Appalachian Trail, traveled on a cross-country amends road trip, and took a giant leap from the secure present with no idea about the future because they believed in themselves enough to make it to the other side.

They seek self-awareness.

Being an improviser means knowing your strengths and weaknesses. My troupe members have consistently expanded their quest for mindfulness beyond the theatre, searching for who they are and what their place is in this world. If they can’t find their purpose, they make one.

improv comedy

They stand committed.

On stage, you can’t abandon your partner. You ride through the bumps in a rocky scene until you get to the end. Now, post-graduation and full-on adult-living, we’re still friends, no matter the geography or complications that arise. Improvisers don’t run away from difficult conversations and they don’t turn their backs on their choices.

They are carefree.

All of us in the Babbling Bishops have our insecurities, but we’re also the ones you’ll see dancing like escaped zoo animals in the bar, in the kitchen, in the grocery store, or at the bus stop, with absolute and complete reckless abandon, with no care to the eyebrows raised in our direction. We carpe diem, baby, because we know we only have one chance at life on earth, and we’re going to choreograph our way through it however we darn well please.

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In no other group of people have I ever been more different but felt more accepted than with the Babbling Bishops. We share a bond that no distance or time can shake.

Improv taught me skills to pave my way through life as an adult. It also granted me lasting friendships with people that I look up to, good people whose accomplishments and existence constantly inspire me to be a better person. Somehow, I was lucky enough to become an unlikely member of a family of hilarious yet compassionate misfits.

 

improv comedy

Of Love Languages & the Power of Physical Touch

If you’ve not read psychologist Dr. Gary Chapman’s The 5 Love Languages yet, make that the first thing you do after reading this post. Yes, it’s kind of a “girly” book, but I’ve gotten a few of my male friends to read it and they’ve admitted that they learned a lot from it.

Within the chapters, the author speaks of how teaching people to find their own and their partner’s love language can save a relationship. At the core of any association between two people, communication can make or break their union. We show people we care about them by way of a love language and we also know that people care about us when they speak our love language.

Chapman believes five universal love languages exist, and that we should learn to speak each of them. However, we tend to want and give some more than others. You can take a quick quiz to find out which language you speak. The five languages are:

  • Words of Affirmation
  • Quality Time
  • Receiving Gifts
  • Acts of Service
  • Physical Touch

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I didn’t need to take the test to know that my dominant love language is words of affirmation. The saying “sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me” has never been true for me.

But words of affirmation isn’t my only love language. I’ve spent a lot of time (maybe too much time) analyzing my past relationships, and in many of them, my love language wasn’t spoken (literally). However, more recently, I’ve realized another love language missing in my daily life: physical touch.

Most people automatically assume physical touch equates to sex, and therefore many couples assume that this must be their love language. That is often not the case. However, it’s important to note that physical touch means so much more than sex.

From hand-holding to hugs, from a passionate kiss to a peck on the cheek, physical touch is something we all crave to some degree in life.  In a famous experiment by psychologist Dr. Harry Harlow, baby monkeys were placed with one of two fake mothers that both offered milk, a “mother” made of wire and another covered in soft terry cloth. The babies with terry cloth mothers clung to them after nursing and were well-behaved little monkeys, unlike the others. Harlow’s experiment showed that tactile comfort offers emotional reassurance.

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Few can come up with an argument to debate this study’s findings. Physical touch can be both positive and negative–a terry cloth or a cold wire. Most of us have seen or experienced how both a slap and a kiss can be exclamation points that make words superfluous. Physical touch exudes strength and power.

In the past few months, I realized how little physical touch I have in my day-to-day routine. Seattle is the first city I’ve lived in. Everywhere else has been little towns where everyone knows everyone’s business, but where everyone hugs one another after four hours apart like it’s been four years.

Snuggling and head scratching and spazzing on each other happens a lot with my Florida Keys friends and my college and gradeschool friends. My best friend and I have a relationship built upon physical touch. Ten seconds can’t go by without one of us jumping on the other’s back.

friends hugging

But when I’m not around these people, I’m lacking this emotional reassurance, and it’s not just because I’m single. Physical touch isn’t always guaranteed when you’re dating someone, and in fact, I recently wrote about how one of my relationships actually caused me to flinch in response to certain corporeal gestures.

Some people just aren’t huggers, and in city life, it takes longer to build the level of friendships you made in college or small town living. It’s harder to find those people that feel comfortable doling out the kind of bear hugs that knock you off your feet.

After going through some recent hardships, I realized how much I just needed a good hug. When I got that hug–a wave of hugs–my struggles seemed to momentarily melt away. In so many of my trying times, I have felt utterly alone. I have always had wonderful, dear, true friends who will make a routine out of talking to me for hours, on the good days and bad, to get me through. But too often, they’re still on the other end of a phone line. Their words of affirmation can only help me so much.

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I wonder if any of my past pain would have been easier to bear if I was also able to lie next to someone I cared about (and who cared about me) while watching a movie on the couch. I’ve realized how many times I have simply needed a friend to hold me while I cried. I’ve realized how electric a handhold can be, how soothing it is to feel a reassuring thumb rub on my forearm.

I’m working on recognizing my needs. As I do, I’ve begun verbalizing them to the people who surround me. I tell them my love language and ask them to tell me theirs, and then we begin to practice speaking each other’s.

Give the Gift of a Personalized Book on Turtles This Holiday Season!

It’s that time of year again when we scour the Internet for the perfect gift idea. I’m gearing up for the holiday season with a big shipment of my book: 254 pages of fun and informative turtle facts in Q&A format–with pictures, of course!

turtle book

I’ve received terrific feedback from kids through adults who love the short and easy-to-read “chapters” as well as learning so much about such an incredible species. Animals really are amazing!

If you’d like to purchase a personalized copy, shoot me an email to smvenzel@gmail.com. Order soon to get yours in time for Christmas!

(If you already have a copy, please consider leaving a review on Amazon! Yippee!)

I Was Sexually Assaulted & This Is My Story

For quite awhile, I didn’t know if I would ever publicly share this story. I didn’t even know how much I’d personally share it. Part of that is because I felt so very, very ashamed.

Another reason is because I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to feel any better after telling it, largely because people don’t know how to appropriately respond.

The more I noticed how much I feared other people’s reactions to my story, the more I saw that I needed to share it—when I was ready.

In the networking, research, and self-help I’ve encountered since long before I realized the assault, one thing I’ve learned is that too many people don’t understand.

I want people to understand what is going on inside a person’s mind days, months, or years after he or she has been sexually assaulted so that the humans hearing these stories can be empathetic, not judgmental or dismissive.

I want other survivors to know that they are not alone, and it is important that we talk about it.

Too many people think that the assault was an isolated incident. It happened, it was horrible, and that was the end of it.

Too many people don’t realize that the incident, the memory, the trauma, lasts for years. Relocation doesn’t solve the problem. Addiction doesn’t sweep the issue under the rug. Staying busy doesn’t block it all out.

Too many people question the strength and integrity of a woman who let herself get into a situation in which she could be once, twice, repeatedly sexually assaulted.

Too many people don’t realize that it is often strong, loving, giving people with good hearts who find themselves in these situations, who hear that it’s their fault, always their fault, and so they try to do better because that’s the humans they are. But nothing was ever their fault in the first place.

Too often these people are the victims themselves.

I didn’t do anything wrong. But I was told I did. I collected stones in an invisible backpack with each transgression. I collected stones each time I did something I didn’t want to do because I was coerced, manipulated, humiliated, and dominated into doing it. I collected stones until the weight held me down and the only way to pick myself up was to start unloading those stones until my bag was empty.

Sexual assault commonly results in post-traumatic stress disorder. The realization, acceptance, and effects are not always immediate.

In my case, it took me more than a year to realize I was sexually assaulted. And it didn’t occur to me on my own.

The effects of a past relationship slowly started to trouble me. I became nauseous when I heard his name or saw something tangible that reminded me of him. I began to flinch when men gingerly put a hand on my shoulder, making a move. I became hypervigilant and hyperaware, lending toward a constant state of anxiety and subsequent depression. I had nightmares that were only memories. And yet, I still obsessively thought about him.

My mind concluded there was something wrong with me. It didn’t help that this is what most of the world was telling me.

But one day I couldn’t take it anymore. One day I picked up the phone and told my story to someone, with as many painful details as I could remember, from beginning to end. That conversation positively changed the course of my healing, because I felt for the first time in a very long time that I was not alone. I felt listened to and respected. I felt empathy instead of judgment.

I had been carrying this burden that I didn’t fully understand and I just couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t carry it alone.

But understanding the truth of my past relationship was only the beginning. From there, I had to go through heartache all over again. I had to break up with the memories—all while continuing to function in my daily life: go to work, cook food, make new friends, sleep. Most importantly, I had to forgive myself, because in the first months of the healing process, I blamed no one but me.

I thought I was weak for getting myself stuck in this situation in the first place, for being blind to the red flags. I felt guilty and shameful, dirty and disgraceful. In my mind, I had become infinitesimal.

The man who assaulted me took my virginity. I lost something I can never get back. For a very long time, I felt that this man took with him a piece of my spirit.

Since realizing the assault, I have been trying to redefine what intimacy means—without being intimate with anyone. That’s a very hard thing to do.

But by opening up to a select few people and sharing my deepest, darkest, most vulnerable secret, I am learning. I am understanding that romantic passion between two people is not supposed to be selfish. It is not supposed to cause you gut-wrenching, incapacitating pain that leaves you unable to walk for a week. It is not supposed to make you feel like you are merely a body—inadequate, disposable. It is not supposed to make you feel like you are just an ant crawling across this great big earth, trying to escape the magnifying glass that taunts you.

I have wanted so much to forget the man who assaulted me. I have wanted to never hear his name or see his face again. On the other hand, I have wanted to stare him hard in the eyes and show him what a strong and capable woman I’ve not only become but have always been.

Sometimes what we want doesn’t really matter. Sometimes it’s what we need that counts, and what I really need is peace in my heart. The only way I know how to do this is with forgiveness.

He doesn’t deserve my forgiveness, but I won’t be doing it for him. I’ll be doing it for me.

Now, when I look in the mirror, I don’t see a woman who feels helpless, unworthy, or ashamed. I see a woman who is confident and self-aware, who is not afraid of men or love but who is learning what it means to be respected and dignified in a relationship and most importantly, within herself.

Too many people put a timeline on someone else’s healing. We often even do it to ourselves. But the truth is, time is irrelevant to matters of the heart. And sometimes, we never fully heal.

Sometimes, fresh wounds become scabs that shrink in size but remain intact, picked at accidentally on rare occasions down the road. But those wounds, those scars, make us human. Those broken pieces of us somehow make us whole.

We cannot change the past. We can wish a thousand times over that the past never happened to us, or we can learn from our unique experiences. We can be open about them so that we invite healing scabs into our wounded hearts, so that we don’t live our lives in fear of love or other people’s reactions, and so that we realize no matter how much it feels like it, we are never truly alone.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: I’ve written and revised these words in an ongoing draft over the past year, knowing that I would only publish this story when I was ready. I am ready. This article isn’t about pointing fingers. It’s about sharing vulnerabilities in an effort to inform, unite, understand, and—ultimately—heal. Thank you for letting me tell my story, and for being there for me on the other side.

**This is a public post. If you feel this story speaks to you or can help someone, feel free to share it.

Hurricanes, Hugs & Humor

The first two weeks of October, I was on the road A LOT, offering my heart and receiving so much heart in return.

When Hurricane Irma hit the Keys, I struggled from afar for half a dozen reasons, part of which involved immense empathy and understanding for my Keys island family, having lived through a CAT 4 storm myself.

As the days ticked by, I found myself becoming increasingly more anxious to step foot in my old stomping grounds. I was antsy out of excitement, nerves, and fear.

Without consciously planning it this way, the timing of my trip proved to be quite serendipitous. I boarded a red eye on September 30, the two-year anniversary of the day a tropical storm was brewing in the Caribbean that might hit the remote Bahamian island I was living on. I landed on October 1, two years to the day I woke up to a CAT 4 historic hurricane on top of me.

But the second I walked out of Miami International Airport and into the arms of my Bahamian island parents who drove from Naples just to see me, my anxiety melted away. My island parents hug like no other–strong, sturdy, genuine. Their embrace needs no words to tell how they feel about you, about life, because their assuring physical touch says it all.

They drove me down to Florida City after a quick jaunt at Cracker Barrel (a restaurant I haven’t seen or visited in years–Amurrica!). I then waited excitedly in a Starbucks to reunite with my friend Kris who left the Keys nearly five years ago. I was SO excited that, in sending a flurry of texts and phone calls sharing my whereabouts and ETA to Keys folk, my palpable joy started putting smiles on faces of the coffee shop’s caffeine-infused customers.

I expected to hold back tears as we entered Key Largo, creeping south toward Marathon in the Middle Keys. Memorable and iconic local hot spots were strewn about; towering piles of debris lined the roads. But mostly, I had a smile on my face, because I knew I was about to see my island family.

In the short week that I spent in the Keys, I had limited time to help: ripping off moldy, sodden baseboards, tearing down dry wall, and digging through sand. My friends are exhausted; cleaning up the aftermath of a hurricane is a daunting task. Many of my friends are now homeless and/or jobless.

But they still have so much love to give.

I spent the evenings attempting to organize gatherings–relief from the hurricane relief. I knew one week wasn’t much time for me to make a dent in the clean-up and construction, but aside from putting my set-building skills to use, I also have my joy, love, and comedy to offer.

Before my trip to the Keys, I was struggling to process it all. I called one of my closest friends who knows the long version of what I’ve been dealing with the past couple years. He asked me to recall the first time I laughed after Hurricane Joaquin.

I really, really had to think about that. Due to my isolated situation following the storm, it was two weeks before I could get out into the community. I had no one to talk to about the fear I’d experienced or the apocalyptic aftermath that kept me awake and inappetent. Two isolated weeks following a traumatic experience is like two years.

But I thought hard, and then I started laughing. I remembered someone lending me some gasoline so I could drive the truck down south and make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to distribute to the now homeless, alongside the hot dogs my friends cooked. (Read more about the incredible perspective I gained from this trip south here.)

Bahamians like their meat, and they don’t eat PBJs. (It’s largely an American thing.) I made somewhere between 50 to 100 PBJs… but I had to practically beg the locals to take the sandwiches from me once we ran out of hot dogs. I remember laughing at my efforts to help and seeing how people can still be opinionated in the hardest of times. It reminded me that no matter what life throws at us, we’re still human.

Even if I am covered in sweat and dirt and my muscles are sore, I am still me. Even if my heart is broken and I can’t imagine tomorrow, I am still me. I will always have the gift of crazy, uninhibited, Energizer-Bunny energy, and I tried my hardest to share that with my island family then and now.

Another aspect of my healing process that was missing post-Joaquin was human contact. Studies show that supportive physical touch–a simple hug–actually results in incredible physiological changes within the body, including decreasing stress.

I hugged often and I hugged hard when I was in the Keys, because I’m a hugger, and I know how much I’ve missed and needed that in my life. My Keys friends are huggers, too, and they have a way of making me feel more loved than I’ve ever felt before.

Mother Nature can turn lives upside down in an instant, but she cannot destroy our human nature, that indelible mortal connection. Laughter and physical touch bring joy and hope that have a healing power all their own.

The Keys will recover just like Long Island, Bahamas recovered, and it happens with love, joy, and a little bit of laughter.

To anyone experiencing hardship: hug & laugh, more & often.