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.

4 thoughts on “On Positivity

  1. Kelly, this resonated so strongly with me. One of the things I run into, repeatedly, as a writer, is having (certain) people say, “Why are you writing about those painful things? Why are you dwelling on it? Can't you focus on all the good things you have now?” And it is true. I have many, many good things now. I love my wife;she is my rock, my solid ground. I am living as a writer, something I always dreamed of, but never thought I would do. I am surrounded by good friends. But all of that only means that when I sit down to write, I am more stable, able to open up those old wounds. Because they are still there. I am still fractured, in so many ways, even after all these years. Today I work with other survivors, I write poetry, I pen essays…and the healing is gradual. It may take a lifetime. I know that. That's OK. Some days I feel positive, some days not at all. But I try to let it be my choice, not something pushed on me from outside. That takes a lot of courage, to not let others tell you how “well” you should be, where you should be in your recovery, whatever. Thank you for voicing this. As always, your words matter.


  2. So brilliant and well put- thanks Kelly. I feel the pressure of that positivity too- as if sadness/pain are threatening and must be put away quickly. And Oh, I read so many books too-trying to”fix ” life. I'm trying to stop that and just be in each moment. Thank you for your words and for your spirit. I also love the comments from Michelle- thank you too!


  3. Thank you Kelly. I think it's so important to acknowledge that glossing over pain and putting a “positive face” or spin on it is destructive. It reminds me of the term “spiritual bypass,” which I just posted about on my FB page today. I love this writing because it shows you are doing gut work and undergoing real transformation, not surface change, to claim your true self and power and you are a beautiful example of that. Additionally, as a single mom, your experience speaks to so many who struggle in similar situations. I do know that good will continue to come out of your experience, as it already has for the ways you've touched the lives of others through your writing, including mine. I am a lot older than you, but here I am, still learning some of the lessons of speaking out and up, speaking truth to power. Thank you.


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