On Positivity

I am tired of being positive. Am I allowed to say that? Am I allowed to say that I am so tired of being positive? We live in a culture that reveres positivity. We live in a culture that reveres silver linings. We live in an “everything happens for a reason” culture. We live an “it will all be worth it in the end” culture. We live in a “the lessons learned from the experience make it worth it” culture.

I have a lot to be grateful for. I have so much to be grateful for. But I am not grateful for his abuse. I am not grateful for those lessons. I am not grateful for knowing true sadness. I am not grateful for knowing the human capacity for cruelty. I am not grateful for losing the love I gave to someone who couldn’t reciprocate. I am not grateful that I offered my love into this world–this marriage–with the belief that love put into the world comes back to the giver. My love did not come back to me. It did not come back to me. That love is gone.

I was in my MFA program when Caleb’s abuse began to escalate. It was the most desperate and heartbreaking period of my life, but it was also a really wonderful time. I have learned that life is complicated in that way. During this time, I became very close with my thesis adviser. I had heard stories of how he made people cry with his criticism in workshop. I had heard that he was blunt and ruthless. Entering the program was terrifying. And then, he was a tough critic. He was. But his criticism was astute. It made my writing better. It made me better. His criticism is his greatest generosity and comes from a place of absolute compassion. He was a light in the midst of all that darkness. And he taught me that men can have integrity, can be calm, can be stable, and can be supportive. I placed a lot of my value in earning his approval. And I did earn his approval.

But I am always placing my value in other people’s approval. It is difficult to find approval from within.

Around the same time that I left Caleb, the brother of two friends, who also went to my MFA, committed suicide. After I left Morgantown, another writer from my program was in an abusive relationship. A friend told me that my mentor had said “It’s another sad story.” By then, he had seen so many of them.

I didn’t want to be a sad story.

I am just another sad story.

And my mentor has been on my mind lately, so I sent him a long email today. I have felt guilty for not visiting Morgantown. I have felt guilty for not finding the time to see him. I explained that Morgantown is full of painful memories for me, that it is very difficult for me to motivate myself to go there, even though people I care about are there. I told him that I was in a Giant Eagle recently, and that once inside, I realized the last time I had been in a Giant Eagle was with Caleb, that the realization nearly brought me to tears in the middle of the grocery store. I told him that I don’t love easily or lightly.

And then I worried that I was being a “sad story.” I felt the need to try and find something “positive” in my circumstances, some kind of silver lining, but I also knew that he would be okay with my sad story. And he responded immediately with a short message that he is in Port Townsend, and he attached a picture of his wife on the beach, and it was lovely. I knew that he was telling me (without telling me) that he had read my sad story, and that he cared, even though he couldn’t respond in the moment.

And those are the relationships I treasure.

I do not treasure the relationships with people who expect me to always be positive. I do not treasure Caleb’s friend who wrote to me that maybe, in time, I would learn to identify “my triggers” as though I had somehow brought the abuse on myself. She is one of those people who is overly attached to the positivity movement. She is one of those people who is always posting inspirational quotes, who is always “love and light” and “blessed.”

Can I be honest? I think the positivity movement enables abusers. The truth is that I am a positive person. I wouldn’t have stayed with a man who beat me if I wasn’t positive, if I couldn’t see silver linings, if I didn’t feel that there would be rewards at the end of hardship. And while I was married to Caleb, I read a lot of self-help books. I read the book Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy that claimed that, by simply choosing to feel good, I could be happier. I read the book Feeling Good Together about how to apply those practices in my marriage. I read the books The Power of Now and A New Earth about living in the moment. I learned lessons from all of those books, but I turned to those books out of desperation. I turned to those books trying to fix something within myself that was not broken. It was Caleb who was broken, but I was trying to fix myself, and that is a classic abuse dynamic.

I cannot always be positive. I am often very positive. There are many days that are full of light, but there is still a lot of darkness.

I recently spoke at West Texas A & M about my story. It was a very moving experience. There was a young woman in the audience who kept crying and taking notes. There were other young women who cried also. I knew that my story was resonating. I am not happy that they cried, but they should cry if they have survived what I have survived. We are allowed to cry. One of the young women asked me how long it had taken me to heal. I didn’t want to mislead her. “Believe me,” I said. “I am not healed. I am still wading through this.”

But I could tell that she needed more than that, so I went on to say that, even though I’m not healed, I’m much better, that I don’t think of him every day, that I don’t hurt every day, and that my life is better than I ever dreamed it could be. None of that was a lie. None of that was forced positivity. I am so grateful for the opportunity to share my story, to make a difference, to feel that I have found purpose that comes from great pain. I am grateful for all of that. But I am not grateful for his abuse. I won’t give him that credit.

On Learning to Love My Body After Abuse

The photo on the top was taken the day that Caleb threw the bowl at my foot. The photo on the bottom was taken three weeks later, just before my foot started to look like a sunset, as the doctor had told me it would. For many days, I stuffed my swollen foot into a shoe. I stuffed my swollen foot into a shoe because I could feel no pain. I felt nothing.

I remember the day I stopped stuffing my foot into a shoe. I met my friend Sarah for lunch. I told her what had been happening. I don’t remember what I told her. I vaguely remember the look in her eyes, but I don’t remember the words that came out of my mouth.

What I remember is this: we ate an appetizer of spinach rounds. I ate almost all of them. I hadn’t been able to eat anything since I had left Caleb. I was starving, and I put one of those spinach rounds in my mouth, and it melted. I was so relieved that I could eat. I don’t remember what I said, but I remember what I ate.

I do remember some of what Sarah said. She said, “You can apply to PhD programs now.” I remember that I needed someone to tell me what to do, so I applied to PhD programs. I did no research. I applied to the only four I knew of. I was accepted to the program that Caleb had always said he had dreamed of attending, and I still feel shame about this. I still worry that his family and friends think I did that out of spite, as though I had control over it.

As though I had control over anything.

I also remember that, after lunch–as an afterthought–I showed Sarah my foot, and her eyes widened. She insisted that I go to the Urgent Care, so I did, and at the Urgent Care, I had x-rays and embarrassment.

I feel like that could be the name of a Lifetime movie about domestic abuse: “X-Rays and Embarrassment.”

The doctor gave me a boot to wear for four weeks, and once that boot went on my foot, the pain started. I was so confused. “It didn’t hurt earlier. It hurts now,” I said. “Why does it hurt now?”

She looked at me with compassion and said, “I think you were numb before.”

I didn’t love my body before I married Caleb. I already had a complicated, often unfriendly, relationship with my body, but I was in a good place when I met Caleb. I had been seeing a counselor and nutritionist. I had worked on my feelings of shame. I carried around bags of nuts. I jogged, and skied, and backpacked. I looked and felt the best I ever had.

Every summer, my father and I went backpacking. I was never thin, but I was strong. My body could do strong things. I could climb mountains.

When I had my baby, the labor was difficult. My mother kept saying, “You can do this. Remember when you and your father climbed into the Bob Marshall Wilderness? You were so strong. You were even stronger than your father thought you could be. Use that strength now.” And I tried, but I lost consciousness. Caleb was holding my hand, and I said, “I feel funny.” I heard my own voice, as if from a distance, and I saw Caleb’s worried face fading. I heard a high-pitched alarm. Then black.

Suddenly, I was awake again. The doctor injected me with Ephedra, and for the rest of my eighteen-hour labor, my heart rate was 170+ from the prescription speed. It was as though I was running a marathon in addition to delivering my child, but I did it. I chose not to have a c-section when the doctor offered. I wanted to stick it out. And the baby was okay. And I was okay. Still, as they wheeled me out of the hospital at the end of my stay–my healthy baby in my arms–I couldn’t stop weeping. I had no control over my tears. They were quiet. No sobs. Just, silent streaky tears. I think a part of me knew. A part of me knew what was coming.

We never see the red flags until they’re too late, do we? A chair thrown at the wall was just that. Until it was a chair thrown at me. A broken laptop was just a broken laptop. Until it was a laptop broken over my back.

I get it. I was stupid. Who would stay with a man who broke a laptop over her back? I was so, so stupid. But it was slow. The build-up was so agonizingly slow. In the meantime, he knew all the right things to say. Abusers, by their very necessity, know just what people want to hear.

He knew what I wanted to hear. He made me feel so good when I wasn’t feeling bad. And when I was feeling bad, he assured me that it was my own fault. And because I am who I am, or because I became who I am when I was with him, I believed it.

Caleb has started bringing his girlfriend to our child hand-offs. She sits in the passenger seat and glowers at me. She looks at me with complete disgust. The first time she did that really rattled me. I had put a handful of peanuts in my mouth just before I saw her. I didn’t know what to do, so I waved. I waved. Why did I wave? I have no idea. I guess I was trying to be polite, but in my entire life, no one has ever looked at me like that.

She thinks I’m the monster, I realized.

He knows what people want to hear. He is a genius at figuring out what people want to hear.

A month after I left Caleb, I went home for Christmas. A friend came to visit me from Montana. She wanted to hike up to some local hot springs. I had to admit to her that my foot wasn’t up to the task. It hurt too much. I was ashamed. I felt as though he still had ownership of my body. I hated my body.

I hated my body because it couldn’t protect me. I hated my body because it wasn’t soft enough to absorb the blows. I hated my body because it wasn’t hard enough to deflect them. I hated my body because it wasn’t strong enough to fight back and win. I hated my body because my emotional distress manifested itself as very real physical ailments–weight gain, high blood pressure, sleep issues, other issues.

This, of course, is overly simplistic, but leaving Caleb was the cure. Almost exactly a month after I left Caleb, I had my first normal blood pressure reading in years. I started jogging as a way of relieving the pain, and I discovered again what my body could do. I stopped obsessing about food and started just eating what made me feel good. I discovered that the food that makes me feel good is mostly healthy. I stopped waking up shaking from fear in the morning. I stopped quivering when I heard loud noises. I have forgotten what the pain in my foot felt like. I have forgotten how it felt when he broke that laptop over my back. I am growing my hair out again because I know that no one will ever pull chunks of it out again.

Here’s the surprise: In some ways, I think I love my body more now than I did before I met Caleb.

My time with Caleb taught me what my body could endure. It taught me what my body could overcome. It taught me that my body could prevail. It taught me that, no matter what Caleb or anyone else does to me, my body is mine. It will always be only mine.

And this year, when my friend from Montana came to visit, we hiked to those hot springs because, no matter how much Caleb may have stripped from me, I can still climb mountains.