In 1984, my family brought me to a small town in Western North Carolina because it was supposed to be a great place to raise a family. Here, you didn’t have to worry about extreme weather in any season or lock your doors. Plus, the nature was lush, magical, and absolutely healing for everyone. Carl Sandburg National Park is still one of my favorite go-to places to find mental freedom when I visit my hometown.

Photography by Amy Kobos

But, lurking on almost every street corner is a church. I didn’t think anything of it growing up. I thought churches were places we learned morals and where we just got together with so-called “nice” people. I wasn’t a big part of the church community. It was just a place where “we were supposed to go.” I went to church pretty regularly until I reached my teenage years.

But, here’s the twist. My family is quirky and set on the philosophy of focusing on being happy and doing whatever it is ethically to stay on that path. So, I was that kid who always tried new and different things just to see if I’d like it. Achieving daily happiness was always the key goal. It would come in the form of just having my own style that I liked that didn’t follow any trends, liking different music than what most people listened to, doing guy stuff even though I was a girl, you get the drift. This often led me on adventures in the forest to try and find those little caterpillar creatures I had seen in the movie, Labyrinth. I sometimes even went “dumpster diving” just to explore some sort of hidden treasure land. There, I found a $5 bill when I was like 10. That was a big deal then! I dabbled in a little bit of this and a little bit of that, never being afraid to try and learn new things. I was always open to that “something else.” I never knocked down an opportunity to explore unless it had actual harmful risks… well most of the time 🙂

Photography by Amy Kobos

I was a good kid; I was always respectful toward others, never wanted to start a fight, and always accepted people for who they were. I didn’t care what color they were, what their sexual orientation was, how much money they had or didn’t have, or what their religion was. I was that kid in school who never belonged to one group of peers. I was even friends with people who had belonged to those “clicks.” If they were nice to me, that’s what mattered the most.

I’ve never cared what people thought of me, and I never had to have anyone else’s approval for having my own emotions. And, I was never afraid of who I was. No one was going to tell me that I had to follow certain rules or belong to a certain church to find my happiness. I wanted to find my own way.

Photography by Amy Kobos

But, all of my life in Hendersonville, my peers and other people in society tried to tell me I “wasn’t right” because I did things differently than them. In other words, I “wasn’t right” because I didn’t follow the same “flawless” scripts they were following. I was also considered “weird” because I would share my creative perspectives and ideas that were considered just “too out there.”

I never wanted  (or tried) to be that “perfect” somebody because I knew that didn’t exist – and I was never trying to impress anyone. I had other things to worry about – like figuring out how I was going to pay for my school lunch! And, actually, I kind of felt sorry for people who wanted to be “perfect.” What does that even mean!!!!???? And, I could never wrap my head around why someone would want to be so stuck on a certain way, a certain routine, or a certain mindset that screamed, “This is the ONLY way you should live your life! And, there’s something wrong with you if you don’t follow OUR way of life!” That could never by my cup of tea. And, hell if I was going to drink that Kool-Aid!

Photography by Amy Kobos

Often, when I did pop in a few times to church as an adult (to search for my own spiritual belonging), I would often hear, “We’re going to pray for you, Amy,” implying that I was “lost” and “misguided.” Wait a second… I didn’t need their prayers! There was nothing wrong with me and nothing wrong with the way I was living. I wasn’t misguided. I wasn’t lost. And, I certainly wasn’t trying to cleanse myself of my “sins.” Well, one thing was for certain – those churches (and people) weren’t for me.

I’m now in my mid-30s, and I’m still being bullied. I’m bullied because I’m happily divorced. I’m bullied because I’m in the “dad’s girlfriend” spot and “can’t possibly be a parent” because I don’t have biological kids of my own. I’m bullied because I don’t go to church. I’m bullied because I’m not “perfect” like them. I’m bullied for having a tattoo because “God said your body is a temple.” These perpetrators are from my hometown.

Thirty-plus years of being put down led me to feel like I was always having to walk on eggshells around these “perfect people.” It seems like they’re always judging one another or constantly criticizing one another for doing something differently or “against the rules” – and these are rules that don’t even matter. I’m not talking about breaking the law or going against work policies. I’m talking about these “rules” that society has brainwashed them to adopt, such as “You’re going to Hell if you say a curse word,” or “You’re not right with the Lord because you dyed your hair pink.”

This isn’t in my head either. I have been told this – a lot – from friends’ parents, from boyfriend’s children and their mother, from people I had worked with, from schoolmates, from people literally sitting across from me in a restaurant, from gym mates, etc. I’ve even had Bible verses thrown at me, too many to count, to validate their unhealthy judgmental opinions of me! I don’t see myself as having done anything morally wrong or lawfully wrong. It’s just that I live differently than them, and I’m perfectly happy doing so.

Photography by Amy Kobos

And, I know it isn’t just me they do this to – they act this way toward anyone else who doesn’t follow the rigid script they abide by (and their own interpretations of it). I guess it’s their way of showing that their “high class.” Excuse me… class is defined if you’re nice to one another regardless of your socioeconomic status. Well, this is how I define class anyways.

So, I’m bullied because I’m a nice person who has found happiness in her own way. And, I’ve done this through being respectful, accepting, caring, and open-minded toward others – along with possessing a strong work ethic and very positive attitude.

Hendersonville, NC used to be my happy place (the majestic fairyland) until I moved and traveled around the world more to see how different societies acted. I recently moved to Fayetteville, NC (where a lot of military families live). And, holy crap, I never realized that I was being so religiously abused until I left my hometown! I finally experienced authentically nice people who didn’t even care about my marital status or how much schooling or money I had or didn’t have, and they especially didn’t care if I went to church or not. People’s focus here isn’t how “perfect” they’re trying to be – it’s about survival.

Photography by Amy Kobos. Location: Cape Fear Botanical Gardens, Fayetteville, NC

The people here are the least judgmental people I’ve ever met, and guess what – the ones who are nicest to me and welcome me in like family don’t go to church. In Fayetteville, people care more about making friends with people they’ve never met before because getting along with people is a key to survival. I can’t tell you how many times people have randomly come up to me in the grocery store wanting to be friends or just wanting to make small talk about recipes or sharing a glass of wine together at the wine sample booth.

People like this AREN’T afraid to talk to people because they aren’t exhibiting preconceived assumptions or judgments. And, they definitely aren’t close minded. Here, most everybody waves to you, and they expect you to wave back regardless if you know them or not. If you don’t wave back, people will assume you missed the boat in life about learning how to get along or that maybe you’re an A-hole.

After living in Fayetteville for a couple of years and having to revisit Hendersonville from time to time (family still lives there), I never realized how unhealthy my hometown was. You’d think a town where I was familiar with all of its settings and surroundings and people would be the place I’d be most mentally comfortable with. But, nopie! It’s not a place where free-minded spirits, like me, belong.

I also finally realized there wasn’t “something wrong with me” (even though I was told hundreds of times). There’s nothing wrong with me; there’s something wrong with them!

Photography by Amy Kobos

I can say I am truly blessed to finally figure out what is needed for me to find my sense of belonging. I will choose to travel or live in places that help me grow vs. bring me down. It will include being around positive people and positive energy who will always have an open heart, and an open script in life who practice the philosophy that there’s no one specific way we HAVE to live to be happy (as long as we are practicing kindness to one another).

You know, I did meet a lot of amazingly wonderful accepting people in Hendersonville (even a handful of true Christians) – I love my friends – but the general tone of its society just didn’t jive with me. It was actually quite damaging. The only thing absolutely wonderful about the Hendersonville area was the rain forest setting. Now, if I can just find a rain forest setting with ultimately nice people…

Can you relate to this? What’s a healthy society look like to you? And, where do you belong that’s good for your mind, body, and spirit? What’s it going to take for you to get to this place of belonging? Sometimes our place of belonging isn’t the place that we know the most. Up Your Ability.

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