On What I Didn’t Write

In that Christmas letter.

I didn’t write about the rack of lamb I made with port wine glaze, risotto cakes, and roasted Brussels sprouts. I didn’t write about how the meal cooled while Caleb screamed at me in the kitchen. I didn’t write about how that Christmas Eve was the first night that Caleb hit me–fist connected with scalp–and as his fist punched into my head, I felt no pain. I felt only relief. I thought that he would finally stop.

But he didn’t stop. He never stopped.


I didn’t write about how we finally ate that rack of lamb. My face swollen, from tears and fist, but I ate that lamb. I said, “Isn’t this good?” I said, “Merry Christmas.” I said, “Thank you.”

On this past Friday, I saw scars on a friend’s arms. The summer sun had made them brighter. I hugged her, but I couldn’t take away her scars. I saw another woman write on Twitter late at night, “help me.” I thought of those scars, I thought of my own scars, I thought of this woman on Twitter begging for help from faceless people on the other end of the screen. I composed my own plea for help. In my own way, I said, “help me.” I posted it on Facebook.

A stranger writes to me that I am a “bad ass and unfuckwithable,” and all I can think is, “I am just asking for help.”

help me.

Living with Caleb’s cruelty brought out my own hardness in ways that have been difficult to lose.
I am either hard or soft.
I don’t want to be either.

Okay, I want to be hard. Given the choice, I want to be hard.

But I am more often soft.

My son says to me, “I know that Dad used to hit you. I could hear it.” My son says to me, “I was scared.” My son says to me, “Dad still yells at me, but not as much as he used to.” My son says to me, “I don’t think dad’s girlfriend would let him hit me.” My son says to me, “What if I don’t want to go to my dad’s anymore?”

My son says to me, But is it wrong that Dad hit you? 

My son does not know that it is wrong that his dad hit me.

There is a rupture in the writing world, and people are in pain. I witness. All I can do is witness. To my own pain, and to others. I would like to rewrite these stories. I would like to rewrite the beginnings and the ends. I would like to rewrite my own story. Mostly, I would like to rewrite the middle. The middle is where the wound comes from. The middle still peels. The middle doesn’t heal. The end was okay. That part was fine. The beginning was okay too.


But that goddamn middle still stings.

A man I cared about, a river guide, said, “Relationships never last.” He said this while I was in his arms. I wanted it to last with him. It didn’t last. Three weeks later, we sat across from each other in a Mediterranean restaurant. He took the onions off of his salad. I scraped most of the lamb out of my moussaka. I told him he was a pessimist. He said, “I’m not a pessimist. I try really hard to be positive. Give me an example of my pessimism.”

I gave him the side eye instead.

I thought, “You are not positive. You are pain avoidant.”

I didn’t say that to him. I’m saying it here instead. He won’t read this because he is pain avoidant. Do you see how this works?

And I was sad to say goodbye to him, but I’m not very good at saying goodbye so I didn’t even really say goodbye. Hell, I heard from him this Friday.

I suck at saying goodbye.

I wanted to keep saying hello to him. I wanted to say hello all over the place with this guy.

And that end was sad, but it wasn’t traumatic. I am learning that there is a difference between sadness and trauma. I am learning to let myself feel my sadness. I am learning that feeling my sadness is part of what keeps it from turning into trauma.

I kissed another man this summer. (It was a wild summer for this single mom.) He was a man who reminded me of Caleb. Maybe that was why I was attracted to him, but I don’t want another Caleb. I don’t want another man with a red beard and a Hunter S. Thompson book on his coffee table.

That isn’t fair. He doesn’t even know Caleb. I said to him later, “I’m sorry that didn’t work out the way you wanted.” He was kind in return, so he’s probably nothing like Caleb. He’s only thirty; he’ll outgrow Hunter S. Thompson. But he looks like Caleb, and Caleb, who I used to find so attractive, is pure ugliness to me now. When I see Caleb, when he gets out of the car, I think to myself “You are so ugly.” I enjoy this feeling.

But sometimes I still dream of kissing him. Sometimes, those dreams are pleasant, and I don’t want to wake up from them.

I thought the river guide was the opposite of Caleb, but river guide has the exact same birthday as Caleb.

River guide said to me, “I don’t even believe in that stuff, but that is fucking creepy.”

River guide is a Gemini. Caleb is a Gemini.

Gemini is the twin, and I am trapped in between them.

After that final dinner with river guide, I got in my car and drove to New Mexico. On my drive, this song came on, and I wept. I wept to a cheesy pop song while the desert rushed by. When she sings, “You won’t see me fall apart.” Well, damn. I was falling apart.

 


I would like to rewrite my story. There was so much I didn’t write, but I’m writing it now. I would like to go back and write Caleb right out of my story. I would like to keep Reed (the love of my life) but write Caleb out of it. I would like to rewrite the part where the borders dissolve, the part where I say, “I no longer know where you end, and I begin.”

I would like to rewrite that as, “You end.”

I would like to rewrite that as, “I begin.”
.


On Connection

At a writer’s retreat in Ghost Ranch, New Mexico last week, I sat by a bonfire surrounded by tough, and sassy, and beautiful women writers while a poet read my astrological chart. Regardless of how you feel about astrology, this poet* possessed an eerie insight. At one point, she looked up at me and said “This part of your chart indicates that you spend a lot of your life trying to convince yourself that you’re not terrible. You hide parts of yourself because you worry that, if people see the real you, they’ll think you’re terrible. Your challenge is to open up to others, so that you can see that they’ll still care for you as you are.”


So, I’m doing that now. I’m saying it: I think I’m terrible. 

Caleb told me I was terrible. When he ran out of insults–when he ran out of ways to hurt me–he dug deep and said, “Everything bad that you think about yourself–it’s all true.”

How could I not be terrible when the person who loved me the most said such things to me?

When I left him, I turned to my female friends. I opened up to them about the terrible things that had been happening to me. I opened up to them about how terrible I had acted in return. I opened up about how lost, how lonely, how devastated, and how isolated I was. I opened up to them, and without fault, they said, “You are not terrible, and you are not alone.”

Nothing else could have kept me away from him. The only thing that saved me was my connection with those women and their words. And now, every day, I look for connection in this world. If isolation is what causes abuse, then connection is what heals it. This blog is one way of looking for connection, of attempting to say to other survivors–“You are not terrible, and you are not alone.”

There was Rebecca D. who took Reed and me in when I left Caleb. While I wept on a mattress on the floor in the guest room upstairs, Rebecca played Connect 4 downstairs with Reed. She held his hand and walked him to the bus in the mornings when I had to work. She gave him a sense of normalcy, showed him that he was loved, even as his world was falling apart. Christmas was coming–my birthday–and I hadn’t decided if I would take Caleb home with me for the holidays. Our plane tickets had been purchased months before, and my parents didn’t want us to divorce. Reed was so little. It was his favorite holiday. I bought a table top tree at the grocery store. Rebecca decorated it with us. It was crooked and shabby. There were no presents underneath it. That tree was a symbol of all that Reed and I had lost, but we had also gained something. For that period, Rebecca, Reed, and I became a family. We were a real family, and Rebecca loved us as much as anyone ever had, and Reed and I learned that we didn’t need to have a man in the home to be a family, that we could do it on our own. And finally, I told Caleb that no, he couldn’t go home with me for Christmas. And that was the end. That was when it was really over, and I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: I looked back. I looked back so many times, but I didn’t go back. 
I never went back.

Then there were my best friends, Megan and Kelly. Kelly, who I Skyped with in the middle of the night when I was still living with Caleb, who I broke down crying in front of, and didn’t yet admit to her that he was abusing me physically, but admitted to her how cruel he was, how utterly broken I was. She looked at me through that computer screen, her face so soft and kind, and she said, “Oh sweetie, that isn’t right. You deserve so much better.” And Megan, the sweetest most non-confrontational person I know, who called my parents (who are like family to her) and told them that I needed to leave Caleb, that he was dangerous, that these weren’t “normal” marital troubles, and that I couldn’t do it without their support.

Or Sarah, Rebecca S., and Heather, my writing group from my MFA who read my writing about the abuse when I was ready, but who were also available at all times via FB chat if I needed to say, “I miss him. Tell me I’m doing the right thing.” And Sarah always knows the right thing to say, and Heather has a way of conveying absolute acceptance, and Rebecca has a wickedly mean sense of humor, so Sarah would say, “You are doing exactly what you need to be doing,” and Heather would say, “You are lovely,” and Rebecca would say, “I wish I could kick Caleb in the balls.” And the combination of all of those things would bring me back to sanity.

Or other unexpected connections–the lawyer for West Virginia Legal Aid who represented me in my divorce for free, or my therapist who said, “You don’t need to pay me for a while. I don’t want you to stop seeing me because you can’t afford it,” or the woman from work who was going through her own difficult divorce and who became an unexpected friend and who shared her story with me in a way that made me feel that I wasn’t alone. All of these women–these connections–saved me.

I’ve been writing articles lately for the Sexual Assault/Domestic Violence page at ESME, and almost every article I’ve written has had a common element–ask for help and build community. Build connections.

This past week, at Ghost Ranch, I presented during the Waves Discussion Series about writing about abuse. I spoke about how to know when you’re ready to write about it. I said that the opposite of shame is voice. I said, “I stand before you and tell you that I was in an abusive marriage for nine years. I thought that made me broken, but do I look broken?” And these women–so many of them survivors themselves–shouted out a resounding NO. 

Because I am not broken. He is the broken one.

And after my presentation, women found me, in the bathroom, in the cafeteria, by the side of the bonfire, and they shared their stories with me. And I shared my story with them. And none of us are terrible. We may be survivors, but we are not terrible, and we are not alone.

So thank you for being here with me. Thank you for being a part of this journey, and know always that you are not terrible, and you are not alone.

Photo Credit: LiYun Alvarado (my awesome roommate from Ghost Ranch)

*For your own amazing astrological reading, you can contact Luke Dani Blue here.

On Taking Sides

I had coffee yesterday with my high school English teacher, Helen. She’s so special to me. She’s a thoughtful, intelligent, critical, and examining person, and I don’t think I can possibly convey how much of a formative effect she had on who I became as a person and writer. I started studying with her in the 9th grade when I worked for the high school newspaper, which she advised. She had special relationships with many of our students, but I like to believe that ours was especially close. I have great parents, but they are not particularly interested in intellectual pursuits. They were always a little baffled and worried because I constantly had my nose in a book. In contrast, Helen encouraged that. I had never thought of myself as being particularly “smart.” I had always found school easy, but I hadn’t really pushed myself or seen myself as a student with any special talents. I was content to be a B student. Helen was the first teacher who saw something unique in me. She made me feel that I had talent, that I was smart, and that I could achieve things in my lifetime. She made me feel special. It’s such a cliche, but I can’t describe it any other way. When I started college, I actually struggled with the realization that I wasn’t special. I was in a competitive Honors College, and everyone was smart. Many of them were much more driven than me. I’m not a particularly competitive person, and in competitive programs, that can put me at a disadvantage. I struggled with feelings of inadequacy, but I continued to learn, and grow, and now, I’m blessed to be surrounded by an entire population of smart, acccomplished, and talented people, and I’m no longer threatened by their intelligence. Instead, I’m attracted to it. I’m stimulated by it. I adore it. I love smart people. I love thoughtful people. I love ambitious people. I love kind people. I love humanitarian people. I love people who are unafraid to speak their mind. To me, Helen is all of those things, and I try to be those things too.

Yesterday, Helen told me that, while she enjoys reading my blog, there are parts of it that she feels she can’t understand–that it is not always accessible to people who haven’t suffered gender violence themselves. She mentioned, in particular, that she doesn’t understand why I’m so passionate that people should take sides in situations of abuse. She said that she feels that puts people on the outside in a moral quandary, that she doesn’t understand why someone cannot support both the victim and the abuser. I tried to explain myself to her, and I think she understands more now where I’m coming from, but I realized that maybe I need to explore this subject more fully.


I am going to try and keep this as simple as possible, so I’ll just make a list of points.


1. If you support an abuser, then you cannot also support their victim. If I found out that someone had been beating their wife, I would have no problem cutting that person out of my life. I have no desire to be friends with someone who beats their wife. I don’t understand why that is a difficult choice to make, but no one can be forced to abandon their friendship with an abuser. We all make our own choices, but those choices have consequences. I don’t know a single domestic violence survivor (and I know many at this point) who would have any desire to remain friends with someone who remains friends with their abuser. This is not something that is particular to me. Almost all survivors desire to have their friends’ unequivocal support, and unequivocal support means abandoning contact with the abuser. None of my close friends struggled at all with cutting ties with Caleb. They wanted to cut ties with Caleb. They hate Caleb. Caleb makes them sick.


Obviously, It is more complicated for his friends. Some of his friends had also become my friends over the years. Most of those people struggled with cutting ties with Caleb, but when I expressed a need for them to cut ties with him, they did that for me. They recognized and respected that–if they were to remain my friend–they could not remain friends with Caleb. Others chose to remain friends with Caleb. They might have been happy to remain friends with me (given the opportunity) but I had to cut those people out of my life. Life is a series of choices, and they chose Caleb. They may think that I’m ungracious, or that Caleb is the bigger person because he didn’t ask them to make that kind of choice, but Caleb didn’t need to ask them to make that kind of choice. Caleb was the abuser. He wasn’t healing from trauma. He wasn’t trying to survive. He wasn’t trying to fight his way back into a life that had meaning, and hope, and wonder. Caleb had issues, for sure, but those issues were of his own making.


2. Abuse and break-ups are not the same thing. It’s often a wise choice to remain neutral when friends break up. No one really knows what happens behind closed doors, and it usually takes two to end a relationship. In typical break-ups, neutrality is the mature stance to take. However, in abuse it only takes one. When Caleb’s friend told me that–in time–I might learn to identify my own triggers, she was focusing on my behavior. She said nothing about Caleb’s behavior. That is victim blaming. She was treating me like a participant in my own abuse, but I was not a participant. I was a victim. I tried desperately to stop the abuse. I did everything that I could. I tried to change myself in every way possible. I tried to change him. I tried to learn to live with  it. I tried to forgive. I tried not to be angry. I tried not to be sad. I took my marriage seriously. I do not love lightly, and because I’m a loving person, a loyal person, and a forgiving person, I tried to work out a relationship well beyond when I should have given up. This was not because I had  “triggers.” This was because I believe in supporting those I love. If it makes her feel better to justify her continuing relationship with Caleb by trying to assign partial blame to me, then that’s her decision, but she shouldn’t be surprised then that I’m defensive, angry, and no longer respect her or feel any affection for her.


3. Supporting the abuser is enabling the abuser. Abusers very rarely change. If they are changing, the first person who will notice is the victim. If the victim is not telling you that he is changing, then he is not changing. This same woman who told me to identify my triggers also told me that she thought Caleb would change. I can’t tell you how incredibly insulting it was to be told by someone who hasn’t seen Caleb in a decade–someone who never really knew him or spent much time with him in the first place–that he would change. I was married to him for almost a third of our lives. I loved him. I raised a child with him. I know all of his darkest secrets, and he knows all of mine. No one in this world knows Caleb better than I do, so she shouldn’t tell me that he “can and will” change. I’m the only person who can make that kind of judgment.


As an outsider, it is an incredibly entitled and presumptuous stance for someone to take when they assume that they have access to wisdom/knowledge that the victim, herself, doesn’t have access to. Continuing a friendship with the abuser in the face of his behavior enables him. It tells him that he can get away with anything. It tells him that he will always have fans, even when he has behaved his worst. It tells him precisely the opposite of what this woman claimed. It tells him that he doesn’t have to change.


In his pivotal text , Why Does He Do That?, Lundy Bancroft, the founder of the first Batterer’s Intervention program, writes, “It is not possible to be truly balanced in one’s views of an abuser and an abused woman. As Dr. Judith Herman explains eloquently in her masterwork Trauma and Recovery, ‘neutrality’ actually serves the interests of the perpetrator much more than the interests of his victim and so is not neutral. Although an abuser prefers to have you wholeheartedly on his side, he will settled contentedly for your decision to take a middle stance. To him, that means you see the problems as partly his fault and partly her fault, which isn’t abuse.”


4. Abusers choose to be abusers. I’ll just use Lundy Bancroft’s words here:

One of the obstacles to recognizing chronic mistreatment in relationships is that most abusive men simply don’t seem like abusers. They have many good qualities, including times of kindness, warmth, and humor, especially in the early period of a relationship. An abuser’s friends may think the world of him. He may have a successful work life and have no problems with drugs or alcohol. He may simply not fit anyone’s image of a cruel or intimidating person. So when a woman feels her relationship spinning out of control, it is unlikely to occur to her that her partner is an abuser.”

As long as we see abusers as victims, or as out-of-control monsters, they will continue getting away with ruining lives. If we want abusers to change, we will have to require them to give up the luxury of exploitation”


If you are aware of chronic or severe mistreatment and do not speak out against it, your silence communicates implicitly that you see nothing unacceptable taking place. Abusers interpret silence as approval, or at least as forgiveness. To abused women, meanwhile, the silence means that no one will help—just what her partner wants her to believe. Anyone who chooses to quietly look the other way therefore unwittingly becomes the abuser’s ally.”


5. The process of abuse is an erosion of self for the victim. Abuse changes self-perception in ways that are traumatic and damaging. Leaving abuse doesn’t just reinstate a sense of self-worth or value. It’s a long and painful process, and some people never fully recover. Part of recovering from abuse means learning how to express our anger, how to stop blaming ourselves (and start blaming the abuser), and how to ask for what we need. If what we need is for our friends to take our side and cut ties with the abuser, than that is a necessary part of our process. For me, cutting my mutual ties to Caleb was one of my biggest steps in healing, and I haven’t regretted the loss of a single one of those people. Nearly all of the other survivors I’ve spoken to have said the same thing. Because of the years of abuse, and the consequent erosion of my self, I look to others for a lot of validation. I need validation that what I’m doing is right. I stopped learning how to listen to my inner voice when Caleb’s voice overpowered my own. When other survivors tell me that they have the same feelings, then I know that I am not crazy, or overly demanding, or immature. I am merely expressing what I need when I ask for people to cut ties with Caleb.


6. Recovery from abuse is often disappointing and demoralizing. I’ll be honest, recovery from abuse is also one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve ever had. I experience gratitude now in ways that I’ve never experienced gratitude before. I know what rock bottom feels like, and I’m no longer there. I know that I’m tough. I know that I’m strong. I know that I’m a survivor. All of this is a wonderful byproduct of recovering from abuse.


Still, I have been disappointed by many people in my life. This woman I mentioned earlier (Caleb’s friend who victim blamed me) was someone I used to really admire, but I’m completely disillusioned by her now. One of Caleb’s childhood friends is a counselor at a college, and she has completely bought into Caleb’s stories. She thinks that I’m crazy. I find it disturbing that there is a mental health professional out there who is counseling college-aged females, and at the same times, she disbelieves an entirely credible account of gender violence. I wonder how that will affect her perception of the young women who come to her with their own accounts of violence.


Another of Caleb’s friends, an author, told a mutual friend “Well, we don’t really have proof that Caleb abused Kelly.”

Here’s my response to him:
1. There is obviously plenty of proof.
2. Why do I need to have proof?
3. Every time someone mentions your book in my Facebook feed, I feel completely disgusted by your name.
4. I will never read your book.

People get to choose who they believe, but as a victim, I can’t describe the devastation that accompanies being disbelieved. It’s incredibly hurtful, and for me, it has contributed to my feelings of entrapment by the abuse.

*

With all of this that I’ve said about victim blaming and taking sides, I want to finish on a note of gratitude. I’ve been so lucky. I have so many  people in my corner. I know that I am surrounded by people who love and support me. Sometimes women write me and ask what they can do to heal. I don’t know what to say. I want to tell them, “Surround yourself with people who love you just the way you are. Maybe then, you’ll learn to love yourself.”

When I had coffee yesterday with Helen, she told me that, at my wedding, Caleb and I were standing outside the church, and I introduced her to him. She took his hand and said, “Take care of her. You have a very special person here.”

She said that what she really wanted to say was “Take care of her because I have a terrible feeling that you’re not going to.”

And he didn’t. He didn’t take care of me.

But Helen did. And all of you have taken care of me. You know who you are. You’ve taught me how to love myself  again.