On Writing and Recovery

It’s 110 degrees in the shade, and I’m sitting at a little saloon just outside of the Frank Church Wilderness trying to write. I’ve been trying to write for a while now. I don’t mean minutes, or hours, or days. I’ve been trying to write for months. I’ve been trying to write, but the writing is not coming easily. I am blocked. I have writer’s block.

The only time I’ve ever suffered from writer’s block before was when my son was born. At that time, the writer’s block didn’t seem very significant because I wasn’t even claiming to be a writer yet. My ex-husband was the writer. That was the role he wanted to fill in our lives. When we met, he was young and getting his MFA. He had promise—no doubt—but very little discipline. This lack of discipline with his writing continued into our marriage. As far as I know, he is no longer writing. As far as I can tell, he’s not publishing, although I doubt that’s by choice.

While we were married, the dynamic between us changed. I started writing more, and he started writing less. I’m a fairly disciplined person. When I decided to get my own MFA, it was important to me to make the time meaningful. I had disadvantages that he had never had when he got his MFA. I was a mother and a wife. We had financial burdens that a single male doesn’t have. Still, when I completed my MFA, my thesis was over twice the length of his, and it was mostly published. If I sound like I’m competitive with him, it’s probably because I am. Can I just be honest about that? I do feel competitive with him about the writing.

I feel competitive with him because, although I didn’t compete with him when we were married, he competed with me, and I suffered because of that. I stopped submitting. I stopped writing. I stopped trying to get essays published because, although he claimed to be happy for me every time I received an acceptance, I soon discovered that a pattern was in place. I would receive an acceptance, Caleb would hug me and buy a bottle of wine or make dinner to celebrate, he would brag me up on Facebook—making a big show of how proud he was of me—and two days later, he would beat me. He would beat me for something unrelated to my writing, or something that, at least, would seem unrelated, but the truth is that it was always about the writing.

Soon, without realizing it, I quit sending work out for publication. I felt sick when I thought about publishing. One night, after Caleb went to bed, I wept and punched my own fists into the cushions of our couch. I was no longer religious by then, but I tried to bargain with God. I told God that I would gladly give up writing if Caleb could only get a prestigious publication. I believed that, if Caleb could get a prestigious publication, he would finally be happy. He would finally be happy with me. He once told me that he would never be happy if he didn’t publish a book, and I remember my chest expanding with ice as that sunk in. I couldn’t publish a book for him. I had no control over that. I had no control over his happiness. And he would never be happy with Reed and me. We were simply not enough for him.

So writing became something I loved that was also a punishment. Is there a metaphor in there somewhere?

When I left Caleb, I started writing again. Not right away, but a couple of months later. I wrote the first draft of “It Will Look Like a Sunset” in my bed after Reed had gone to bed. And then, I kept writing. I wrote more and more essays. I started my blog. At this point I’ve written so much about the abuse that it is now the writing I’m known for, but the truth is that I have an entire body of work that precedes my writing about abuse, and although I believe that I could continue writing about the abuse for the rest of my life, I find that I am losing interest in this topic.

To put it simply, I am losing interest in defining myself that way. I am losing interest in defining myself as a victim or a survivor. I am both, and I am neither. Honestly, how I define myself depends upon the day. Right now, it’s summer. Reed is spending a fair amount of the summer with Caleb. This means that I don’t have to hear Caleb’s voice in my living room every night when Reed puts him on speaker phone. This means I don’t have to beg Caleb for money to help with snow day care, or see Caleb in a 7-11 parking lot on every other Friday and Sunday while his girlfriend glowers at me from the passenger seat. For eight weeks of summer, Caleb gets to have the hard life, and my life is easy. And frankly, I need the break. I’m blessed that I don’t worry about Caleb abusing Reed. From what I can tell, he is a woman abuser, but not a child abuser. That is a small blessing, I know, but a blessing nonetheless.

During the summer, I don’t consider myself a victim. I don’t even consider myself a survivor. I am back in my hometown. I am simply me. In an essay that I wrote the first draft of two years ago, which was published at PANK, I wrote, “I thought that, if the people in my hometown saw me, they would see my brokenness….They wouldn’t like who I had become.” And maybe that was true at the time, but it’s no longer true now. That girl from before Caleb is back. She is back. I am the woman who survived Caleb’s abuse, but I am also still that girl. I am that girl and more. I refuse to have let him destroy me. He will not own me in that way.

And this all feels great, but I’m not going to lie—it makes it a lot harder to write. After I left Caleb, I accessed great reserves of pain, and I wrote about that pain. It was cathartic, and powerful, and beautiful, but I’m tired now. I’m tired of accessing that pain. I want a break from that pain. So I’ve given myself a break.

Tonight, I drove fifteen minutes to a little saloon on the edge of the Salmon/Challis National Forest so that I could get some shade while I work on my book proposal for my agent. But instead of working on my book proposal, I decided to write this blog post. I decided to write this blog post because the blog writing is always easy, and the book proposal writing is decidedly hard. Because this saloon is the only cool place for miles, I wasn’t the only person who had this idea, and when I walked in the little bar, a friendly drunk said to me “Well, you are just the perfect woman, aren’t you?” And instead of being creeped out or worried that he was objectifying me, I simply said, “Thank you.”

And right now—at this very moment—I am sitting at a picnic table in the shade. The Salmon river is winding below me, and the sun has the special golden glow that it only gets in the American West. To the left of me, the oddball residents of this river road are laughing and talking. To the right of me—about eleven miles down the dirt road—is a little A-frame that I call home in the summer, and in the campground is a river guide who said to me, “Didn’t you leave to get married?” And I said, “Dude, you’re confused. I got divorced.” So he pointed at me and said, “Well, congratulations!”

And I wanted to say “Congratulations is right. Divorce is the best thing that ever happened to me,” but instead, I said, “Come by and have a beer with me later.”

And a few days ago, I was dancing under a nearly full moon with friends I hadn’t seen in years, and one of them—a successful private practice therapist in Seattle—said to me, “Things were so uncertain when we all hung out in Boise.” And I said, “But we all turned out okay, didn’t we?”

And we did.

And I want to write about this and more. There is so much more. My life is so much more. My life is not easy. No one would ever call this life easy, but it is mine, and I feel pretty confident that I can handle whatever comes my way, but I’m not sure how to write about happiness. I only know how to write about sadness.

As summer was approaching, I talked to my therapist on the phone about a summer romance that I was pretty sure was going to happen. I told her that I was worried I might get my heart broken. She said to me, “You might, but if you do, then we can talk about that. I am not worried about you.”

And I believed her. I own my heart. It is all mine. I will never be able to live a life free of heartbreak, but no one else will ever own my heart, and although that may make it sound like I’m closed off, I’m not. I’m freer than I ever was before. I’m freer because I know now that sometimes things come to an end, and at that end, I will still be here, and I will be okay.

My therapist then said, “Kelly, do you remember what I told you when you left Caleb. What I drew on that white board?” She’s a dynamic therapist who likes to illustrate concepts, and on a white board, she had drawn a flower. In one petal, she wrote “Reed.” In another petal, she wrote “Writing.” And then, “Friends.” And then, “Family.” And then, “Work.”

She then drew a seed—all hard and closed up. In that seed, she wrote, “Caleb.” She pointed at the seed and said, “That is who you were. When you were with Caleb, you could only be a seed. Now that you’ve left him, you finally get to blossom.”