Heather: Live from Wisconsin, it’s Monday Night!
Megan: We are just as exciting as SNL. So I’m not sure if you had told five year old me that twenty plus years later we would be doing this, if I would have believed you or just been like “yeah, that seems right”. Can you just share a little bit about your general background and history?
Heather: So we weren’t a typical ATI family. My father in law recently asked me why I was homeschooled, and now I think it was because my mom had separation anxiety. I saw a family video where I was three, and she was talking about getting a job at the school cafeteria, or driving the bus so she wouldn’t have to leave me. Then she discovered homeschooling, and her separation anxiety just got to flourish.
I was homeschooled since the beginning, and we went to a normal church, like one I would probably be ok going to now. But they weren’t strict enough and we got kicked out. Then we found the church where your parents went, which was all families enrolled in the Advanced Training Institute, the homeschool program run by Bill Gothard. So my parents were like “Oooh we can be addicted to a new thing! Let’s do this!” So we started going there when I was seven. When they found ATI they realized they didn’t have to teach evolution, or anything else. It was like “oh, this one has a vagina, we don’t have to teach her anything!”
I was really involved with ATI for a while. I did a lot of their different programs, but I was always the “willful” one. Being told “Oh, God will figure out what to do with you.” I was the strong willed one. I had been going to Children’s Institute since I was seven, and went to at least two a year. When I was old enough I started teaching them. I taught eight or nine from the time I was fourteen to eighteen and not once was I a leader, I was always an assistant. I was like, your paperwork doesn’t add up somewhere, because, I got this, and I’m just the one with the paperwork signing kids in and out. I have all of this down.
But I was told “no no, it’s really important since you have this drive to teach so much that you be humbled and assist.” So I was done with that. I decided they needed to notice me because I wasn’t giving this up. I heard through the grapevine that the way to get discovered by ATI “talent scouts” was at Character First. So I went to Oklahoma City to train for Character First. I was going to make it big, and get on the traveling team. I was gonna show them all!
Out there I got in a lot of trouble, I got locked in my room a lot because I would be paired up to go into classrooms and do lessons plans with guys. I got in trouble because I approached a guy to review lesson plans instead of waiting for him to approach me. He wasn’t doing anything or planning anything, but his sister came to talk to me to tell me “he has everything planned, so you don’t really need to talk to him about it, you just need to show up and do what he says.”
I said “That’s not what team means, so no, and why isn’t he telling me this?” She responded “It’s inappropriate”. So I learned eventually that I could spend more time in my room if I just made them angry.
I started just making them angry, and sitting in my room and eating chocolate. I gained fifty pounds while I was out there. They did not discover me, because I did not have a “humble spirit”. I taught some of the people there the songs from the movie “Chicago” (and the kitchen staff already knew them, along with the dance routines, they were just better at not getting caught) which they also didn’t appreciate. I was like well, you never let me pick hymns at hymn sing night, so this is what we’re doing.
I didn’t get discovered, so I was done with ATI. I thought “you all wear jeans in your free time, you’re a bunch of hypocrites.” I saw the pictures.
Megan: Right, those sketchy traveling teams in their jeans and T shirts.
Heather: Yeah. I was so perfect in my blue and white, with my neckbow straight, and they were just wearing jeans. I didn’t. I was committed and they still didn’t want me. Before I left, we were doing a large group, and they were telling the story of “the frisbee chasin’ dog”. I thought, I’m really good at that story. All I wanted to do was be a storyteller. But I was told “no, the women do the songs, and the men tell the stories because it’s like being a pastor.” I said “well that’s ridiculous because I’m good at this, and I’ve practiced this.” My delivery is on point, and you are all just not recognizing it. They didn’t let me tell “the frisbee chasin’ dog” so I left.
When I have time that’s going to be my next chapter, how my whole life fallout was over “The Frisbee Chasin’ Dog” story.
Megan: How old were you?
Heather: 18. That’s when I was just done. So then I was going to go to Hyles Anderson College, it wasn’t ATI, but there was a lot of overlap. I was planning on being a preacher’s wife since I couldn’t be a pastor. I couldn’t afford college, but I got my EMT license when I was 16, and there was an ambulance station right next to the college. I put in an application there, and got accepted. It would have been perfect since I didn’t need transportation. However, the college told me I couldn’t work there because they would require me to wear pants for work. It’s immodest. They had a list of approved jobs for women while you went to school there. So I said “No Thank you” and went to paramedic school instead.
And I guess here we are.
Megan: So you were working as an EMT and then Paramedic.
Heather: Right, I didn’t go to Bible college, I went to Paramedic school instead.
Megan: But now you have twins though. So tell us a little bit about how that came about.
Heather: That wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t go to paramedic school. So my name is Heather Heath. My husband is Joe Heath, and we got hired the same day. He was like “Hey, my name fits in your name” and then a few years later I was like “Hey, your twins fit in my uterus”.
Megan: *laughs* It was a tight fit but they made it work.
Heather: Yeah it was a little tight.
Megan: So you touched on this but maybe you can go into more detail. Something I love about you is that you’ve always known exactly what you wanted. You’ve worked really hard to get what you want and never been afraid of obstacles or putting in effort. You’re such a fantastic leader on so many levels. I want you to share a little bit about how it was for you growing up with those leadership skills in faith communities. It sounds like from what we’ve talked about already that you felt shut down. How did you come through that, and also, what do you think the difference would have been if you had been given spaces to lead and encouraged?
Heather: So if I was allowed to tell the story of “The Frisbee Chasin’ Dog” I probably would still be all about ATI.
Megan: Well that’s a little scary.
Heather: It is scary looking back. But if you just let me do a little bit of what I want, I’m pretty happy. I just don’t want to be stifled. I feel like I was stifled for so long and then it kind of took me over. I didn’t realize how much it had brainwashed me, and made me susceptible to the entire patriarchy. In medic school I would just kinda stand there. It would be time for me to run a scene, and tell these ten big firefighters what to do. I would be like “hey, I’m Heather, could you just not stand there?” One of my big things was scene management, and I thought I would be great at it. I wasn’t.
So, the fire department goes on a lot of our medical calls and they like to tell us what to do. Very often they are wrong. It took a long time for me not to listen to them, and to realize that if I continued to listen to them my patients may die. I had to learn how to say “No, you need to do THIS.” They also don’t want to listen to a little five foot five squeaky voiced girl. This is why I decided I needed to get stronger. If you’re not going to like me, you’re not going to pick things up for me so I’m going to do it myself. Now I can.
I think I overcompensate now because I fought so hard to get the job I have now. I applied a couple times, did OK on the test, and then they said they didn’t hire me because I cried on the call. I cried after the call. They said they didn’t know if I could handle it. Since then I’ve been called in a couple times and they’ve been surprised at how well I did and how far I’ve come. I tried a couple times for a couple years to get that job. Joe walked in and got the same job with no EMS experience, when I had five years and it drove me nuts. He walked in with his charming personality and broad shoulders.
Megan: And you know, not being a woman. Also there’s another whole conversation we can have about how crying doesn’t mean that you’re weak or can’t handle something.
Heather: I was crying because they were shooting while I was on scene.
Megan: I can see that being a little stressful.
Heather: I put my finger through his arm *pantomimes*
Heather: I overcompensate now because I’ve had to prove myself for so long.
Megan: Your story about school reminds me a little bit of when I started taking martial arts, and we were instructed to yell at an advancing attacker. It felt really weird, and I couldn’t at the beginning. It was so hard for me to use my voice in that way. There are several really good reasons why you need to. Number one it tells everyone around you what’s going on, that you’re not the attacker. Number two it makes you use your breath. There are a lot of good reasons why you need to yell at a person attacking you, but it was so hard for me to do.
Heather: I’m on board with yelling at people
Megan: Well now I have no problem *laughs*
Heather: I’m going to get a welcome mat that says “Welcome to the Heaths’ that’s not what we’re doing.” Surprisingly, Joe helped me come out of a lot of patriarchal stuff. It’s weird that a man is helping me out of the patriarchy.
Megan: Well, Chris was actually the first person that I met who had really excellent boundaries. Like he would just say “I don’t wanna do that” without feeling guilty about it. I was amazed.
Heather:This is like a new revelation!
Megan: It frustrated him that I didn’t know what I wanted. As my partner he wanted to take into consideration my needs, but I couldn’t tell him what they were. So that took a lot of therapy.
Heather: Yeah. My therapist was excited that I moved because she could finally watch Kimmy Schmidt without feeling like she took work home.
Heather: I was watching season four (of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) and had to turn it off. At first it was funny because oh yeah, your friends dressed like that and such, but then in season four she gets suspended from work for HR violations and not knowing how to interact. That happened to me. I didn’t know that you couldn’t just tell your boss that you didn’t get along with a coworker, or say whatever you want to coworkers. I got in a lot of trouble because I didn’t learn to socialize until I was 22.
Megan: I only got through season one, I haven’t watched the rest of them.
Heather: Yeah they get rough.
Megan: I’m not sure at this point it’s something I want to do with my life.
Heather: I have to watch it with a xanax. That’s my idea of a Saturday night.
Megan: Was there anyone who confirmed your identity and spoke into your life during you childhood and adolescence? Or did that really just come later for you?
Heather: Huh. I feel like that came a lot later. I didn’t know any empowering people. Everyone that I could think of was just submissive. I didn’t have any heroes. I just knew it wasn’t what I wanted to do. There wasn’t anyone I wanted to be like, just a lot of warning signs.
Megan: That’s kind of how I felt too. Part of why I started doing this work is as I’ve gotten older I’ve realized we can’t be what we can’t see. I had a lot of examples of what I didn’t want for my life, but not a lot of examples of what I might want to try. My mom was very encouraging as far as the arts and such, but past things that were similar to her specific interests, there wasn’t a lot of leeway.
Heather: Oh yeah. I can make you a quilt in a few hours, but I have no idea what’s inside an atom. In medic school, my teacher had to pull me aside and tell me “You have to stop writing “because God made it that way” on your tests.” I told him “I’m not trying to be a jerk, I really don’t know.” He ended up being an offender and it devastated me that the person who basically saved me from the cult could do that.
Megan: It’s so hard. I found out that someone who was not creepy to me had issues. It was someone I had lifted with, and done really well with. It was really hard.
Heather: My whole family has generations of molestation and rape victims. It was assumed that molestation and rape was just what guys did. My grandfather died when I was nine. I mentioned it to my therapist because I was really sad when he died. He spoiled me. He bought me everything I wanted, brought me to restaurants, whatever I wanted I got. My therapist told me I was probably lucky he died when I was nine, because he was grooming me. I had no idea what that was. I broke for a couple weeks. I had no idea. There is so much more that I can’t even share right now.
Megan: Well know this, part of why I wanted to include you on this project was because I know the stories you can share, and already have shared on your blog resonate with a lot of people. From a very general standpoint, what role do you feel like patriarchy played in your experience and life? How do you feel like it affected your identity and how do you separate yourself from it now?
Heather: I fight it hard. I’d like to say I’m better now. Now I’m trying to be more aware of if I’m fighting something because it’s necessary or because I wanted control of my past and didn’t have it. Now that I’m the one with children I feel like I have the control. My father spends time with them, but he knows that if he screws up I will take them away. The tables have turned and I have the control now. But now I spend all of my time fighting, and it’s tiring.
Megan: It is. Something I’ve realized recently is that I fully and fundamentally associate being female with feeling unsafe. That probably shouldn’t be a thing, and also is probably patriarchy.
Heather: I don’t necessarily always feel unsafe, because I feel like I can get away. Maybe it is feeling unsafe because I always have an exit strategy.
Megan: For me it’s always being on code yellow. Always being aware if someone is walking behind me, or how steps sound in the stairwell of my parking garage. It’s just constant. I only recently realized how rarely I turn that off, even at home. There was once Chris came up behind me and I didn’t know he was there. I headbutted him and we both had headaches the rest of the day.
Heather: It’s kinda a safety thing and also a boundaries thing. At work I’m very friendly and physical, but all my partners know that’s only at the ambulance bay. When we’re in the ambulance don’t ever touch me. I am comfortable in big settings but don’t ever touch me when we’re alone. When I would go on dates, I would always make sure the location was turned on on my phone, and that I told a few friends where I was going, and then check in again with them when I left, and shared my location if we changed locations. I feel like guys don’t do that.
Megan: No, I don’t think they do.
Heather: It didn’t dawn on me that doing those things meant I felt unsafe until you mentioned it.
Megan: What role do you feel like shame played in your family dynamic? I feel like ATI was very shame based and it was one of the main tenets I had a really hard time with.
Heather: Well salvation is based in us not being good enough, but ATI took it to a whole new level. When I got divorced, my father said “Well I hope you’re happy being single for the rest of your life because no good Christian man is going to marry you.” It’s constant shame. You’re not good enough if you’ve ever kissed a guy, or looked at a guy. It’s just repeating, you’re not worthy, you’re not worthy, you’re not worthy. It took a long time for me to go from not being worthy to deciding anyone didn’t deserve me. That didn’t happen until a few months ago.
I didn’t think I would ever get married again after I got divorced, but with Joe, we got married because I was pregnant. I still didn’t feel worthy to be his wife. I felt like he did me a favor because I was pregnant. I didn’t feel I had the right to want anything, or disagree. Finally a few months ago I decided to stop that and I don’t think he knew what to do.
I decided that if he was going to treat our marriage like he was doing me a favor, I didn’t want to continue. I actually am worth something and if people don’t want to be with me they don’t have to be. I told him “if you want to be my husband, be my husband otherwise don’t do me any favors.” It shocked me to say that but it took me until I was almost thirty to figure that out. Now we are better than ever because I finally have some self respect.
Megan: What you just described is a huge reason why we have such an abuse issue in faith circles. There’s almost a fear of teaching consent in strong terms. I don’t think the church will ever be safe until we get rid of that.
Heather: I am trying really hard with my girls to combat that. Every time we get a new babysitter I’m very specific. This is Goldie, she’s going to watch you, she’s allowed to change your diaper, she’s allowed to take your diaper off, Mommy said that’s ok. They know nobody can change them unless Mommy says it’s ok. They’ve told my father “You can’t take off my diaper”. They’re two. I’m hoping that sticks.
Megan: I think it will. That’s something I love about watching you parent. It shows me these things are ingrained in us one way or another from the time we’re babies. We know what is and isn’t ok, and what we do and don’t have control over.
Heather: People subconsciously embrace that. If they say “oh stop tickling me” we are done. Then they say “tickle me again” and I say “well you said no, and we stopped.” As soon as that no happens, we are done. They will tickle each other and say “Oh I want to keep tickling you” but then I say no, we don’t do something that makes someone else uncomfortable no matter how much we want to do it. They’re learning that. There’s a children’s book that I refused to read to the kids I nannied. It’s about this duck and this goose and the whole book the duck wants to give the goose kisses, and at the end of the book the goose accepts them because the duck is just trying to show him love. I am like NO.
Megan: I think sometimes it’s hard for our generation coming into this place of dealing with a lot of personal trauma but also how to not pass it on to our kids. I know we’ve talked about therapy in the past, what kind of role did that play in your healing?
Heather: I didn’t go to therapy until Joe encouraged me to go. I thought therapy was bad and sinful. Eventually I went. The first therapist I had was awful, but I didn’t know she was. When I moved to Maine, I realized that I could pick, and I found one that I loved. She fixed a lot for me, and although I’m still pretty broken, I graduated therapy. She showed me how to fix things myself instead of just listening to me talk. She helped me cope a lot. Therapy was rough. I would have to not do anything else on a therapy day. Now I miss it. I still read a lot of the books. But now I know how to stop a thinking error and fix it. When everything came out about Josh Duggar, my friends from Oklahoma and I weren’t shocked.
Megan: Yeah, I was not surprised. I called it like, when it went on TV.
Heather: There were people who watched it and would say “Oh, they’re so genuine.” They aren’t genuine at all! I watched it for a while, and now I just can’t. That came on about when I went to therapy.
Megan: I never watched it, but I threatened to make my husband watch to prove that it could have been so much worse.
Heather: Like, you think I’m broken?
Megan: Exactly, let me show you how bad it could have been!
Heather: I’ve learned simple things, like, Joe really doesn’t love when I wear makeup. He prefers me without it. But I like makeup. For a while I felt like I shouldn’t wear it because he didn’t like it, but now I wear it because I want to.
Megan: Chris and I have come close to fighting about about makeup, specifically matte lipstick. You know how it dries, and you see the creases in your lips. So he made a comment about it, and I told him I wore it because I liked it, not for you.
Heather: I legitimately don’t go to work without my eyebrows done now because it makes me look more assertive. No guy thinks about this *deeper dude like voice* “Oh I’m not going to go to work until I make my eyebrows look bossy.”
Megan: *laughs* Bossy brows
Heather: It’s funny how much the twins know, and how much they’ll tell people. They know the proper terms for everything. I’ll tell them “I need to change your diaper” and they’ll say “You don’t need to change my diaper I didn’t poop” and I’ll say “Well nobody likes vaginal yeast, so tough.” So they told the babysitter “It’s time to change my diaper” and she said “I think you’re ok” and they told her “Nobody likes vaginal yeast!”
It’s amazing how much they get. They are exhausted because everyone asks them “Oh are you twins?!” Now they say *sassy voice* “Ya, we twins.”
Megan: I didn’t feel comfortable or at home in my body, or that my inner life was embodied and authentic for a long time. So I feel like within the last year or two I’ve come to a point where I’ve done somethings physically that have brought about healing for me and I’ve gotten a lot more vocal. I feel like myself if that makes sense but it took me a long time to get there. I know a lot of this is recent for you. Do you feel like there was a point in time where you came home to yourself and chose yourself?
Heather: For a long time I mirrored what other people in my life were saying, and only recently have I considered what I really want. I tried to go to nursing school because that’s what medics do, and hated it.
Megan: Yeah I have no interest in being a nurse.
Heather: It’s great, but I don’t like it. I’m just so tired of wiping butts, I don’t want to wipe more butts. My mom says “well nurses don’t wipe that many” and I told her “Nutritionists wipe zero.” I love those odds. That’s not a thing that anybody I wanted to do had done. Deciding what books I wanted to read. Like in Runaway Bride, where she doesn’t know how she likes her eggs, and sits down with all the different kinds in front of her to figure out what she likes. That’s what I feel like my life is like. I feel like this with music, I have no idea what I actually like. I do like a Broadway soundtracks though.
That’s another thing, it’s so against feminists, but I love Disney princesses.
Megan: Hey, Mulan is a feminist.
Heather: She’s not a princess, she’s a warrior. I feel very strongly about this.
Megan: Meridia may be a princess, but she’s also a warrior.
Heather: Yes. *shakes out red curly hair* she may be my favorite. But she doesn’t have any songs.
Megan: Yes, that’s a problem. That movie triggered me so bad. The whole mom story.
Heather: Yes that was a big mom one. Rapunzel is my favorite, because she is like “you can be here, but I’ve got stuff to do. I need to find these lanterns.” Growing up, we were allowed to watch disney movies, and they were the only things that told me I could get out. Although when I was little it was Beauty and the Beast, so it was like “You can marry a different kind of terrible!” “Stockholm syndrome? No, it’s totally cool.”
Megan: Disney was one of the few things you were given.
Heather: Now they’ve gotten better, with Elsa and Anna. Joe was so anti disney princess, and that’s something I still really like. When we were picking names for the girls, Aurora is the perfect combination of us, I told him the name is scientific, like Aurora Borealis and the northern lights. He said “I know that’s a princess.” She’s the worst princess, but still. She doesn’t do anything but sleep. That’s our combination name. Science and princess.
Megan: How do you see this going for the girls as you get older? How do you see them growing into a more comprehensive understanding of autonomy?
Heather: I feel like they’ll be ok with autonomy, but we’re working on them being individual instead of being the twins. They’re good with understanding their bodies are theirs and saying no, but the individual thing is more of a challenge. I think it’s going to be really difficult when they get older to explain religion. All of their grandparents go to church. I’m not opposed to going to church, I actually miss church. Joe and I have talked about it, and of course they’d be allowed to go to church, but they’re not allowed to go to my parents church. They can go to his parents church. He’s an atheist because religion was shoved down his throat, but we aren’t going to stifle that with the girls. He said he would go with them. I think that’s healthy.
Megan: A big motivation I’ve had speaking into spaces of faith is that it’s one thing for me to go and be a part of community now, but how would I feel about this if I had a daughter? Like, how would I feel about looking at spaces of leadership available if I had a daughter? It’s a different ballgame. So I don’t have kids, but what kind of spaces of leadership are we offering our girls? Are we encouraging those gifts in them? Are we noticing those gifts in them? Because they have them. If we aren’t noticing them, we are missing out, and they are missing out.
Heather: like they would separate out sports teams for the boys while the girls have a quilting party. Well, are the boys having a quilting party?
Megan: Right. So earlier in this chapter I shared a couple of graphs. The point of them being that Patriarchy is a spectrum. There is everything from outright abuse and harassment, to the lack of celebration of women. This is where a lot of faith communities fall. So you say patriarchy, and they think you’re accusing them of something on the other end of the spectrum. But in reality, are you celebrating women? Are you using your influence to celebrate women? Are you boosting the signals of women? In reality, if you want equity, we have work to do.
As we’ve discussed, a big motivation for me is creating resources for girls and women who have similar backgrounds and struggles. I know you’ve dealt with really hard things that you’ve written about which we didn’t even discuss here.
Heather: Something we talked about in therapy was it seemed like all the girls I knew were molested by their brothers or other men. They would tell me to be glad I didn’t have a brother. As I got older, I associated molestation and abuse with being something that happened to pretty girls. When it happened to people close to me, I started wondering what was wrong with me. At work I was 22 or 23, and my supervisor had sexual harassment claims against him from every other girl there except me. I was asked why I didn’t report him, and it was because he never did anything. So I had feelings of shame and worthlessness, because I thought I wasn’t even pretty enough to get harassed. I actually still know him, and I finally got the courage to say, I have no interest in you, and don’t come near me, but why not me? And he said “I knew you would talk.” So that made me feel so much better. That was big for me, I had such a complex.
Megan: It sucks that this was the worthiness complex. That abuse is how you’re known to be desirable.
Megan: What advice, mindset, comfort, or encouragement do you wish you could have given your past self?
Heather: To break out and realize I could have told the Frisbee Chasin’ Dog story. I was capable of that. I could have just done it and broken free. But I tried so hard to get what I wanted on everyone else’s terms, when I needed to get what I wanted, on my terms. Which took 30 years, and I’m still working on it. I would have just said “You don’t have to do this. You don’t have to do any of this.” I don’t wanna cry in my interview.
Megan: No, that’s ok!
Heather: I would have kept more friends. Like I wasn’t your friend for a whole bunch of years. I thought “well she’s bossy” and I was bossy. I would have told my past self that you can both be bossy and still be friends, bossy’s good.
Megan: I feel like that’s why we came back around too. We went to therapy and figured out being bossy is an awesome thing.
Heather: Right, like, good for her! But also, good for me! She writes a blog, and I write a blog, we can both write a blog.
Megan: Maybe we can even collaborate and be bossy together.