Still here too.
Just to show she did not care
And the new dead leaves
They made the trees
Look like children with grey hair
But I'll push myself up through the dirt
And shake my petals free
I'm resolved to being born
And so resigned to bravery
-- Dar Williams, "Spring Street"
Sometimes the hardest thing to do is just to show up.
The facilitator of my first survivor's group told me that once, when I was about 19 and first coming to grips with the abuse that had happened in my childhood. I told her that I hadn't thought I would be able to even get out of my dorm room that day, let alone walk across the campus and share with my groupmates. She told me that I had done the most difficult thing, which was to get myself to that room. That I should give myself credit for that. That I should recognize it as the radical act of bravery it was. That I hadn't shown up for the other group members, that I hadn't shown up for her, but that I had instead shown up for myself, for my own healing, for my own recovery. I had shown up for myself in a way that the adults in my life had not shown up for me when I was an abused child. And I should thank myself for that. For just showing up.
If you had told 19 year old me, who was barely able to drag herself out of her dorm room (and who would sit largely in silence for the rest of that session) that, 20 years later, I'd regularly show up before a blank page and a group of strangers, and put my most personal, most painful, and most important stories, experiences, and memories onto that page and into their keeping, she'd have laughed at you. That young woman was locked up tight, wrapped around her pain, dedicated to keeping the secrets she'd held for so much of her young life deep inside her. To speak the words would make what had happened real, would mark her out as someone who'd been victimized and violated, would begin to crack the thick protective shell she'd built around herself simply to survive the world she found herself in.
As a farmgirl, however, she should have been smarter about shells.
Because when shells are broken by an outside force, they shatter, and often the vulnerable growing bird inside doesn't survive. It's not yet ready to navigate the world. It's too fragile.
But when that vulnerable creature is allowed to develop inside its shell, to grow strong and resilient, something else entirely happens. The bird begins to strain against the walls of the shell, to stretch and move, to realize that what has protected it for so long has now turned into restriction, restraint, prison. And so the bird begins to peck, to move, to create tiny cracks in the shell.
When a shell is broken from the inside, by the force of will and growth and expansion, it falls away in pieces that pose no danger to the emerging new life.
When she began to show up -- when I began to show up for myself, for the child I had been and the young woman I was and the adult woman I wanted to be -- the tiniest of cracks began to appear in that shell. Subtly, imperceptibly, layer by layer, that shell began to fall away.
I began to be open.
I began to open.
Today, that's probably the word most people would use to describe me -- open. My life is, literally, an open book -- or, perhaps more fitting, an un-friends-locked blog post. What I have learned is that shame is toxic, and that secrets can be poison -- and that we don't have to internalize either. That when we choose to be open about ourselves, about our lives, about even our darkest and most painful moments, we are able to grow beyond that which has constrained us.
When we begin to open, when we begin to stretch and breathe and push against the walls, we grow past what we have been and into what we might be.
We need the time in the shell to grow, the time beneath the earth to germinate. We need to be able to be protected, to be able to put down roots.
But there comes a day when we have to push against the walls of that shell. When we must push ourselves up through the dirt, toward the light. Always toward the light.
Monsters live in the dark.
When we turn on the light, when we open the windows, when we throw open our hearts, the monsters of our secrets cannot live.
It's tryin' to push right through my skin
I won't see you anymore
I guess that's finally sinkin' in
-- Patty Griffin, "Goodbye"
The thing people don't get is that it wasn't always bad.
There were days, weeks, months even where he was funny, charming, attentive, and loving. Long stretches of time with no yelling, no screaming, no gaslighting.
There were plenty of times where we were like any other couple. There were plenty of times where we had fun together, dreamed together, were truly and deeply in love.
He was often funny, thoughtful, creative, and even kind.
In those periods, the other times -- the times when his anger would break like a thunderstorm over a midsummer prairie, seemingly out of a clear blue sky, the times when he would bellow like an angry bull, the times when his rage would not be satisfied until I was sobbing so hard I was on my knees in the bathroom, vomiting mucus and bile and helplessness -- seemed so distant. Like they happened to someone else. Like they were just an unpleasant detour on an otherwise smooth and scenic road.
I don't have to tell you that eventually that storm would always break again.
I don't have to tell you that I could never predict when the thunder would clap and the lightning would strike.
I don't have to tell you that I always ended up back on that tile floor.
And I don't have to tell you that the sun would always come out again, and I would turn my face to its warmth and forget, at least for a time, the darkness and the tearing winds.
When people say they don't understand why women stay with abusers for years, decades, this is what they're not getting.
If it had been bad all the time, if the violence had been daily, or if it had turned physical, I like to think I would have left long before I did. I like to think I would have seen things for what they were.
But we all suffer from recency bias. We're all most likely to remember the last thing we heard, the last thing we saw.
So in the dark times, the violent times, we're too afraid to make a move.
And in the sunny times, the honeymoon times, the apologetic "I'll never do it again times," we want so desperately to believe that we don't make a move.
We always hope that this time was the last time, and that from now on the sun will shine and our homes and our hearts will be calm.
Even today there are times when what I remember most are those times when he made me laugh. When he took care of me when I was sick. When he held me after my father died.
I remember those times with as much frequency as I remember the worst times, the times on the bathroom floor.
The day I finally realized that I hadn't seen that kind man for a long time, that I wasn't going to see him again, was the day I knew I had to leave. That was the day that even my recency bias couldn't spin me a fairy tale anymore.
Were stumbling on their last mile
In a self-inflicted exile
You'd wish for them a humble friend..."
-- Dar Williams, "The Mercy of the Fallen"
People tell me their stories -- students, friends, strangers on airplanes and train platforms, sometimes people whose names I never get. Stories of pain, of violation, of horror, sometimes tinged with humor, sometimes with a distant quality that gives me the sense that they aren't so much telling me their story, but instead just letting it out into the ether.
The 70-something woman on the train platform who told me about witnessing a botched back-alley abortion in the 50s.
The young woman who tells me about the date rape two years earlier.
The man who tells me about watching his father beat his mother and being unable to stop it.
The student who comes out of the closet to me, and only me.
The mother of three who tells me about last year's sexual assault -- one that even her husband doesn't know about.
I don't know why they choose me. I don't know what makes someone look at me and say "Today is the day" and then let out the secret they've been keeping inside them, sometimes for decades.
One of my dearest friends, a midwife and doula, describes me as a storycatcher. "You catch stories like I catch babies," she told me. "You make it safe for people to birth their stories, and then you help them come out into the world."
I've often described myself as a radical witness. The only thing I can do for people in those moments is to listen, to witness their story and their humanity, with all of me. All I can do is create a space and a moment that is safe enough for them to bring that story out of the dark. All I can do is look into their eyes, hold the space, and for at least those few moments let them not be alone.
For a long time I felt guilty that this was all I could do. That I could not fix things, could not take away the pain and the horror, could not offer up some wise words that would magickally heal these wounded souls.
What I have come to realize through this work, this calling -- for it truly is a calling -- is that people don't want me to fix it. What they want is to be heard. What they want is to know they are not alone. What they want is someone to witness them -- to truly see them, to truly hear them. They want someone to support them in birthing these stories, these words, and to help them find the strength to keep pushing them toward the light even when they think they are too exhausted to go on.
The revelation that it is not my job to "help" has been profound. And it is often exponentially harder to sit and witness, to hold space, to listen deeply, than it is to offer solutions and resources and advice. To simply sit, and trust that the person in front of me holds the reserves of strength to bring to life what they are struggling to birth. To not intervene, not interfere, but to let the story unfold.
Because so often their stories are my story.
And every time I hear someone's story, witness someone's process, it helps me understand my own story and my own process better. Every time a survivor speaks up, they speak up for all of us. Every time someone shatters the wall of silence around abuse, around violence, around misogyny, it makes it easier for the next person to claim their voice.
Knowing you are not alone is perhaps the most powerful feeling in the world. When these people tell me their stories, they remind me that I am not alone. And when I act as witness to them, whether I tell them my own story or not, I let them know they are not alone.
My job is not to help.
My job is not to fix.
My liberation is bound up with the liberation of every person who's ever let me catch their story.
If you have come here to help me, you are wasting our time.
But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, let us work together.
You work in the system
You see possibilities and your glistening
Eyes show the hell you're gonna give 'em
When they back off the mic for once and give it to a woman
-- The Indigo Girls, "Pendulum Swinger"
My father used to have a saying: "Monsters live in the dark." What he meant, of course, is that the monster in your closet is often just a mass of tangled laundry on the floor when you get up the courage to turn on the light. When we become brave enough to face our fears down and approach them directly, most times the thing we were so scared of turns out to be not so bad after all. It's the lying in the dark, in anticipation of whatever horrors lurk, that is where the real terror lies.
I have learned, through a hard apprenticeship, that monsters also live in silence. That it is in darkness and silence -- and the darkness created by silence -- that the greatest horrors live. When we cannot or do not give voice to that which terrifies us, to that which harms us, to that which paralyzes us, it continues to grow. It thrives on the fear and the darkness and the shame.
It is by telling our stories that we turn on the light, throw open the shades, illuminate the dark corners and drive the evil, the pain, the shame away.
Where there is light, no darkness can live.
People ask me all the time why I "insist" on telling my story. Why I continue showing up -- at open mics, in classrooms, at support groups and protests and lobby days, on the blank page and the pixelated screen of LJ -- and baring my wounds and scars, shining my light into the dark corners of my self and my past, dredging up the painful past. "Why can't you just keep calm? Why can't you just move on? Why can't you keep quiet, now that it's all over?" They ask this, all. the. time.
And all I can tell them is, every time I tell my story, someone hears the most important sentence in the English language: "You are not alone."
Every time I tell my story, someone comes up to me afterwards, leaves me a comment, sends me a private message: "Me too. Thank you."
I know what it meant for me to hear the stories of people who survived what I did, and the hope it gave me as I lay there in the dark, too terrified to move. I know that it gave me the courage to throw the switch and turn on the light.
I know that stories saved my life.
I know -- because I've been told -- that my story saves lives.
So, no, I won't keep calm. I won't keep quiet.
You keep calm and carry on.
I'm going to keep speaking up and change the world.
- Current Mood: optimistic
And when I chose to live
It was no joy,
It's just a line I crossed..."
Dar Williams, "After All"
Curled on the couch, under my Winnie the Pooh quilt, willing my body to stop breathing. Too exhausted and too numb to even cry anymore. Just wanting to lie there and die. Knowing that there is 30 days worth of my medication and a full glass of water on the coffee table. Knowing that I could make it stop, finally stop, if I wanted.
"Please, just leave me here to die." My own voice, strange in my ears.
"Is that what you want?" Her eyes are flinty.
"Do you want to leave? Do you want me to take you out of here?"
And my life changed, in one word.
"Are you coming home?" My ex's voice on the other end of the phone, both pitiful and hostile.
"It's over then?"
And my life changed, with the push of the End Call button.
"I'm leaving for Houston this morning. Are you coming with me or not?" She doesn't even look up from the box she's packing.
"No." The word's out of my mouth before I know it.
"We're done then?"
And my life changed, with the slamming of a door and the roar of a truck engine.
"Are you busy tomorrow after work?" I stare at the words on the screen, a message from OK Cupid.
"No." I type, shakily.
"Would you like to have coffee?"
And my life changed, with a soft smile and a Mexican mocha.
"I think I want to kiss you. Is that OK?" Somehow a couple shots trump my shyness.
And my life changed, in the touch of skin on skin.
"So, do you ever regret it -- the leaving, the divorce, any of it?" I get that question a lot.
"So it was worth it?"
And my life's never been the same.
One of the hardest things for people who are survivors of abuse to learn is that it's OK for us to say "No." We learn early on, especially if we are abused as children, that we have no right to our autonomy and no right to set boundaries. We are taught that if we do say no, it will not be respected -- our boundaries will be breached, our bodies violated. We learn to say yes when we mean no, because it gives us a fragile sense of control -- that whatever happens, we in some way let it happen. Which of course gives rise to the cycle of shame and self-blame that is also the hallmark of the survivor.
I've spent most of the last two decades in therapy, and have spent much of that time reclaiming my ability to say no. To say no to things that insult my soul, that compromise my bodily integrity, that give me bad vibes, that I just plain do not want.
I've gotten pretty good at saying no, though there are days when I still shrink at the idea of making someone angry or disappointing someone with a no.
What no one told me is that learning to say no to things you don't want isn't the hardest part.
Learning to say yes to the things you do want is exponentially harder.
Maybe it's because learning early on that your nos will be disregarded teaches you that your yesses, your desires, your wants, don't matter either. That it's not worth wanting something, dreaming about something, because ultimately no one cares.
Saying no is only half of claiming your power. Learning to say yes is the other half.
When I finally learned to say no -- to emotional battery, to poverty, to manipulation and sexual humiliation and shame and putting myself always last -- I crossed a line into who I could be.
But it wasn't until I started to say yes that I found myself standing in my own power, in my own country, in my own worth.
That's what you said when you left town
But I fear that on my worst days
I might go myself
And I will burn that fucker down..."
---- Lauren O'Connell, "I Will Burn You Down"
It is a curious feature of North Texas geography that nearly every home eventually ends up with cracks in the walls. I'm told it's a function of our propensity for drought, coupled with the dry sandy soil and the extreme summer heat. Even the finest homes have tiny spiderweb cracks in their walls. These are most often hidden behind layers of spackle, of wallpaper, of stucco, of paint. People spend a lot of time and money patching these fissures, trying to stop them before they spread from baseboard to ceiling molding, before they yawn wide and truly disfigure their homes.
What they fail to realize is that this is ultimately a losing battle. The cracks in the walls are actually a function of damage to the foundation of the house itself -- the integrity of the concrete, of the piers and beams that underpin the whole structure, is compromised. The tiny cracks spiderwebbing up the walls are only a symptom of a much deeper problem, and if it's not addressed, eventually the whole house will start to lean to one side, doors will no longer close, walls will separate from floors. With enough time, the house becomes uninhabitable.
People don't want to admit this to themselves, admit that they have given years of their lives, countless numbers of dollars, their precious energy and labor, to something that is fundamentally a lost cause. They don't want to admit that all they've been doing is staying one step ahead of the decay, patching and making cosmetic repairs while the foundation crumbles beneath them. They don't want to admit that all they've been doing is attempting to keep up appearances, that the deeper problem maybe invisible but is ultimately irreparable.
I understand this. It's hard to admit to yourself, let alone to anyone else, that you've devoted a significant portion of your life and your resources to a lost cause.
It's hard to admit that none of your care, none of your artistry, none of your labor with spackle and paint and paper and plaster can remedy the deeper damage.
It's hard to admit that, no matter how pretty you're able to make things on the surface, sometimes they're rotten at the core.
It's hard to admit that you didn't realize that the home you built was all this time caving in around you, buckling under your feet.
We cover the cracks, plaster over the crevices, polish and paint and paper the broken places, so that no one will see the imperfections. So that no one will ask us whether we've gone down into the basement, into the cellar, into the deep and dark places, and examined the foundation. So that no one will know that what we're standing on isn't solid anymore (or perhaps never was), so that no one will question why we're exhausting ourselves trying to save something that's so clearly collapsing around us.
We do it because sometimes the home we know, no matter how damaged or dangerous, can be preferable to starting over.
But there comes a day when the cracks are too large and too numerous, when the shakiness of the foundation becomes apparent to us. When there's not enough putty and sandpaper in the world to repair the wounds.
It's then that we have to make a decision -- to try once more to patch and repair, or to take a sledgehammer and smash through what's left of the wall, to take it back to the studs, to rebuild from the bottom up. To lay a new foundation and start fresh.
Anyone who's lived through a remodel knows that it's messy, to say the least -- the disorganization, the chaos, the dust and the dirt and the half-finished walls and the plastic sheeting. There's a sense that it will never end, that you'll be living in this disaster for the rest of your days.
And then one day it's over, and you look around at the clean, new, beautiful home you've created for yourself, and all that doesn't matter so much anymore.
The hardest thing I have ever done in my life is to shine a light into the dark corners of the cellar of my marriage. To put down the paintbrush and the putty knife. To pick up the sledgehammer. To admit to myself that those cracks couldn't be repaired, that they would reappear over and over. To take the first mighty swing and let that life begin to crash down around me.
But I took a deep breath, trusted in the strength of my arms and my heart and my spirit, and I tore that fucker down.
I don't have to live with those crevices, step on those cracks anymore.
But I bless them every day, because they're what finally let the light in.
There's a shortage in the switch
I can't stay on your morphine
Cuz it's makin' me itch
-- Pink, "Just Like a Pill"
Mice are curious creatures. As Bill Bryson notes in At Home, his fascinating history of domestic life, they are easily taught to navigate mazes in psychological experiments, yet they are dispatched with brutal efficiency by the everyday spring-loaded mousetrap -- a device so nearly perfect that it's scarcely been improved upon in the 150 years since its invention. Mice learn complex patterns, remember where the electrified panels are, push trap doors, and remember often elaborate routes, all in pursuit of the cheese. And yet, as Bryson observes, somehow they never seem to realize that "a wooden platform, no matter how sumptuously baited, is a temptation worth resisting."
Then again, mice aren't the only animals so easily fooled by the tempting, the delicious, or the beautiful. And mice aren't the only creatures quickly dispatched with a vicious metal snap to the neck when they lean in for just a taste of something that seems too good to be true. It's not just mice that approach the apparent windfall, the seeming mana from heaven, the perfect, only to realize a moment too late that their hunger (and their gullibility) will be their undoing. Some mice are lucky -- they are able to sneak a dab of the forbidden peanut butter and yet pull back before the metal bar turns their snack into a fatal event. But even the brightest most calculating mouse can only avoid the Little Nipper for so long -- eventually, her luck runs out.
Occasionally, very occasionally, a mouse is smart enough to make the connection -- and to give those traps a wide berth. One near miss is enough to teach her that nothing, nothing, nothing in this world is worth risking her neck for -- no matter how sweet, how rich, how savory, how tempting. It's a rare mouse that can learn this lesson permanently, and most of the time she's got the battle scars to show that the learning didn't come easy. That mouse knows she's one of the lucky ones, and that luck -- like that sweetly beckoning square of Muenster cheese -- is a rare commodity.
I like to think I'm a smart mouse, but deep in my heart I know I'm also a lucky mouse. As dazzled as I was by the bait, at the last minute I heard the creak of the spring and the low whistle of the bar as it headed for the vulnerable spot at the back of my neck. In that moment I was able to tear my gaze from the illusion with which that trap had been baited, pull my neck back, and scurry away.
I got lucky.
I also got smart.
Every mouse has the one thing it can't resist. For this mouse, it's not peanut butter or smelly cheese. Nope, the bait that lured me into that trap, that nearly cost me my neck, is love. Love that promised to keep me safe, to make me real, to take care of me. Love that told me I was more than just a mouse. Love that would nourish me. Love that only someone else could give me.
Love that I would have risked my very life to try to taste, just for a moment.
Love that, much like any other mousetrap baits, stinks when you get close enough to catch a whiff.
It took me 33 years, but this mouse recognizes a trap when she sees one now.
So don't come around here with your savior promises, your forever-love lies. Baby, you're going to have to build a better mousetrap than that if you want to catch me.
Because no matter how tasty the bait, how sweet the promises, how thrilling the ride, a trap's a trap.
This mouse is smarter than that now.
Underneath this burden
When my back is sturdy and strong?
---- Ten Thousand Maniacs, "Trouble Me"
It is 2 in the morning.
We are sitting on the couch, facing each other, an empty bottle of port on the coffee table.
I have been crying. Or, more correctly, my eyes are sore and my chest tight with the effort it is taking me not to burst into tears, to dissolve into a puddle, to drown in my misery here in the living room of one of my oldest friend's homes. I know that if that dam bursts, the powerful current will carry me away, dash me on the rocks, finish me.
All the things that are unsaid hang thick in the air, like smoke, like mist.
I have just hung up the phone after a tirade from my husband -- the man I will leave within the year, though I do not know it yet. I am holding the phone in my hand, waiting for the panic in my chest and the bile in my throat to subside.
I am exhausted to the core of my soul from pretending to be all right. This man sitting across the couch from me, this man who has known me since we were both insecure 18 year olds away from home for the first time, who has seen me at my worst -- drunk, devastated from break-ups, sick, stressed from finals week and days of no sleep -- looks me full in the eyes. He takes my hands gently in his own. And he says,
"What the fuck?"
"No, Susan, seriously, what the fuck? You're the bravest woman I know. You're a fucking Amazon. I've never seen you afraid of anything. Until you picked up that phone. Until you heard his voice. That woman who took that phone call isn't the warrior I know. So, what the fuck?"
I want to tell him to go to hell.
But he's right.
"I don't know," I manage to get out, right before the first tears break over my eyelids. "I don't know. I know I'm scared. I know I can't leave. I know I have to leave" -- that's the first time I've said these words out loud -- "but I can't. What will happen to me? What will people say? What will I do? What if I can't take care of myself?" The questions are pouring, fast and thick as the hot water flowing over my cheeks. I hear myself wail, "What will happen to me?"
He takes my hands firmly in his and pulls me to my feet. He leans in close to me, so close that if it were anyone else I'd think he was about to kiss me.
"You know what you have to do." His voice is firm. "Your marriage has gone septic. You have to amputate. Or you'll die."
I look down. "I know. But I'm scared."
"Look at me." I do. "If you jump, I'll catch you. I promise." He squeezes my hands and pulls me into his chest for an encompassing, brotherly hug.
For the first time in months I feel safe.
Jump, and I'll catch you. I promise.
Those are the words I'll cling to as I pack my bags in a breakneck rush a few weeks later, as I drive out of the parking lot of my apartment complex for the last time. I'll repeat them over and over, like a mantra, on the days when the harassing phone calls are too much, on the days when my sisters refuse to take my calls at all, on the nights I can't sleep because I'm clutching the knife under the covers afraid my ex will come bursting through the doors.
Jump, and I'll catch you. I promise.
Those are the words I'll repeat to my friend, my soul-brother, when he calls me on an August afternoon five years later to tell me his own marriage is in shambles, but that he is too afraid to leave.
Jump, and I'll catch you. I promise.
They say no one can ride your back if your back's not bent. And that's true. But what they forget to tell you is that sometimes the people you love need to be helped up from the floor, need to lean on someone, need to be carried. And you can't help them up, can't give them support, can't lend them the strength of your own broad back when their stamina fails, if you don't bend down. Sometimes our backs have to bend under the burden of love, not because we are sacrificing or compromising ourselves, but because in that moment we have the strength to give. And we carry those we love a little way, until they heal, until they regain their strength, until they are ready to walk under their own power again.
I will always bend in the name of love, welcome the weary traveler onto the broad and muscular expanse of my back, because I know what it meant to me to have someone to carry me.
If your sister or your brother
Were stumbling on their last mile
In a self-inflicted exile
You'd wish for them a humble friend
--- Dar Williams, "The Mercy of the Fallen"