Thank you to guest contributor Jane Eaton Hamilton who explores the complexity of fear and love that once characterized her marriage to an abusive woman.
His voice became my voice. We were married for almost a decade, and I don’t know how it happened, but slowly–so slowly–his voice became my voice. And now, I’m almost two years out of the marriage, and he can no longer control me, but how can I escape his voice when it has become my own?
Things are good for me now. They feel so good, and in some ways, this baffles me. Surely, the life of a single mother, graduate student is hard? Surely this life is difficult? Surely this isn’t a life that anyone would desire? Yet, somehow, this life doesn’t feel hard. The practical matters are hard. Paying the bills is hard. Finding child care is hard. Feeding my little boy healthy food is hard. Resisting his pleas to watch just one more television show is hard. But emotionally, this life doesn’t feel hard. I no longer wake up fantasizing about my own death as an escape. Instead, I wake up grateful for the life I have. I wake up wanting this life to be longer, wanting to have all of the happiness that I didn’t have for so long. I wake up grateful for coffee, for NPR, for good books, for the sunlight filtering through the skylights in my ceiling.
My life is good, so why do I still hear his voice? Why do I still think that I don’t deserve any of it?
I’m currently taking a graduate course in Old English. I’m struggling with this course. It’s a lot of memorization, and I don’t have the memory that I did a decade ago. The professor is very kind, a feminist, and she’s familiar with my situation. I was in her office on Wednesday so she could give me some help because I’m going to miss her class two weeks in a row. I was so exhausted. I told her “I think part of my problem is that I’m just really tired. I’m having a hard time retaining things. It’s not just in your class. It’s my daily life too.” She asked me how recent my divorce was, and I said that this is my second year as a single mother. I told her, “I don’t think the divorce is it because, last year, I actually felt really energized.” Then she explained to me that the first year after divorce is energizing, that she had felt there was something really great just around the corner during the first year after her divorce, but the second year was when it became real, when “around the corner” had actually manifested itself.
And that’s where I am. “Around the corner” is now, and while things are good, they are also real, and hard, and his voice is still in my head.
I was recently named the A Room of Her Own Foundation’s Courage fellow. In August of 2015, I will be travelling to New Mexico, to the home of Georgia O’Keefe, where I will participate in a writing retreat with a group of truly stunning women. I had a new essay published in the Wilderness issue of Proximity Magazine, and I had another essay accepted by a fantastic journal. This week, I’m going to New York where I will read at this event at McNally Jackson Books with some famous and established writers. I’m having breakfast with an editor who edits books that I admire tremendously. One of my best friends from my hometown is coming to join me, and we have tickets to see Hedwig and the Angry Inch on Broadway.
This is my life. How can this possibly be my life?
And then, next week, I’m going to Boise, Idaho. Boise was my home for many years, and will, in some respects, always feel like my home. The Idaho Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence is bringing me to Boise to read and speak at a luncheon for about 120 advocates. My work matters. I’m doing something that matters. My art matters. And while I’m in Boise, I’m going to see some of my best friends. One of them is driving from three hours away to see me, and I’m so lucky to have been blessed with so many people in my life who love me. I am loved. In spite of everything, I am still loved. So why do I attach that word still to the following sentence? As though I’m surprised?
Because for so many years, I was married to a man who told me I that I was crazy, horrible, unlovable, unworthy. He had me convinced that no one would ever love me but him. He had me convinced that he was the only person in the world capable of loving someone as awful as me. And now, when these good things happen to me, when my friends reach out to me and tell me how much they care, when I get new essays published, when the director of my creative writing program asks me, “Where did you learn how to write so well?” and means it, when my Post-colonial Literature professor gives me an A+ on a presentation that I thought I had bombed, when my son tells me that he loves me because I hardly ever get mad at him and I’m funny, when my mom tells me that she’s proud of me, when these things happen, it’s never enough. It’s never enough to replace his voice in my head. It’s never enough to convince myself I deserve any of it. When will it be enough? When will I finally be worthy? How much accomplishment/love/reassurance is it going to take?
When the Executive Director from the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence emailed me to ask me to come to Boise, she wrote a personal note at the end of the email. She had known my ex-husband when we lived in Boise. She had been a part of our lives when my son was born, and I remembered her very fondly. I have complicated feelings towards my ex-husband’s friends. Some of them have disbelieved me. Some of them have even victim-blamed me, but this woman wrote me a kind note, and I read it while two of my best friends from Morgantown were visiting. I started sobbing. And I couldn’t tell if my tears were happy tears or sad tears. I simply didn’t know. And I asked my friend Rebecca, the same friend who let Reed and I live with her after I left Caleb, if I could have a hug. And she hugged me, and I sobbed on her shoulder, and it was hard for me because I worried that I was taking advantage of her kindness once again. And when I pulled away, I saw that my friend Jesse, who is one of the toughest women I know, was also teary, and I knew how much these women cared about me. I could feel that. I could believe in that. And I still didn’t know whether my tears were happy or sad. They were both, I guess, but how could they be both? How can sadness and happiness be the same? Maybe it’s because my voice is starting to compete with his voice. My voice is starting to return, but his voice is still there. There is a war going on inside of me.
That director also told me that, if speaking about the abuse and being at this conference is triggering for me, the coalition will gladly pay for any counseling I might need, and when I read that sentence, my whole body relaxed. It meant so much to be taken seriously, to be told that my experience was serious, that the seriousness of my experience was respected. Because some days, I wake up feeling so good that I forget about the life I once lived. And then, that life sneaks up on me in moments like when I cried on Rebecca’s shoulder, and I realize “Oh, that was real. It wasn’t a dream. That was my life.”
But it’s not my life now. My life is good now, but it’s complicated. It’s both happy and sad. But that’s okay. A few years ago, it was only sad. A few years ago, I didn’t believe that I would ever be happy. I wish that the I could go back and tell that woman from a few years ago, that things were going to be okay. I wish I could have spared her all of that hopelessness by telling her that there would be sadness, but there would also be wonder.
|Rebecca, Me, and Jesse on one of the loveliest weekends in recent memory.|