On Falling Apart

An acquaintance of mine is going through a tough time. By all accounts, she’s doing the right thing by reaching out to her friends, by asking for their companionship while she breaks down. Still, when I heard from a mutual friend about the companionship this acquaintance has, I felt jealous. 

I didn’t have anyone to come over and take care of me, you see? I had people that I could call on the phone, which I wrote about in this post, but the phone is all I had. 

I divorced Caleb and moved to Ohio the next day. I started my PhD program the week after that. That time period was awful. So awful. I was alone and scared. I had no one to sit there with me while I fell apart. 

So I didn’t fall apart.

I just couldn’t.

I took Reed to the bus stop every morning. I went to my graduate classes. I taught my own classes. I wrote essays. I called my best friends nearly every day, and sometimes, I fell apart to them on the phone, but for the most part, I kept it together.

A professor in my department recently wrote me a letter of recommendation. He was my professor during that first semester. To prepare for writing the letter, he asked me if I could send him the link to my essay that appeared in Best American Essays, which I did. The next day, I ran into him at the gym. He looked at me, and I realized that he hadn’t known. He hadn’t known the entirety of my story. I told him, “I’m sorry. I should have warned you.” He nodded, and I felt the same guilt that I always feel when someone I know has read my writing about abuse. I felt the burden of giving him that kind of access to my pain. 

I spend a lot of time in my daily life trying to protect people from my pain. My pain mostly comes out at night. It mostly comes out when I’m alone.

I saw some old friends recently, and they both told me that, when they read that essay, they sobbed. And oh God, I was so sorry. I am so sorry. I am so sorry for causing pain to the people who care about me.

I don’t know what else to do. I don’t know how to pretend the pain isn’t there. I spent too many years pretending the pain wasn’t there.

The abuse both broke me and made me stronger. I could take a punch, then teach a class. I learned how to put on a happy face. I learned how to ice my eyes after I’d been crying. I learned how to keep from pushing my sleeves up and revealing the bruises. I learned how to sleep next to the man who assaulted me. I learned how to explain away the inexplicable. And those lessons were toxic to my inside. There were so many prices. The lessons ate away at my self-esteem. The lessons ate away at my emotional health. The lessons ate away at my world view. The lessons ate away at my relationships.

I recently called out Sarah Palin for blaming her son’s abusive behavior on PTSD. I discussed how abusive behavior is a choice, regardless of whether someone has PTSD. What I didn’t discuss in detail is that domestic violence victims, like veterans, get PTSD. We live in a war zone, but the war zone is our home, and the enemy is also our lover and protector. 

My own PTSD started before I actually left the relationship. I still remember the first time I became aware of it. Caleb and I had a friend over. He was excited about something. He slapped his hand down on the counter, and the noise startled me into sudden shakes. They were the kind of shakes that came from the inside and radiated outwards. I don’t know how to explain how those shakes feel. I haven’t experienced them in a long time, thank goodness. 

The first time I shook like that was when Caleb unscrewed the heavy iron bed knobs from our bed frame and threw them at the wall above me. I put a pillow over my head to try and protect myself from the impact, and I shook.

I already knew by then that being hit by an object does more damage than being hit by a fist.

Being hit by a fist causes a bruise, maybe a divot, but being hit by an object does the opposite; it cause the body to push outwards, to swell, to grow, to pulse. 

Caleb had played baseball; he had good aim.

His aim gave me PTSD. Caleb gave me so much. I would like to give it back, but I can’t. It’s all mine now.

Today, I gave Reed this little quiz that’s been going around on Facebook. It’s supposed to be a funny quiz. I asked Reed, “What makes me happy?” And he answered,”Eating.” And we both laughed. 

Then, I asked him the next question, “What makes me sad?” and he answered, “When my dad is mean to you.”

And there was nothing funny about that.

But, as sad as this post might seem, here’s the  thing: I did get something from the lessons Caleb gave me. I learned that I could take a punch, then teach a class. 

And that’s something, you know? That’s actually something.

Because if I could do that, I can do anything.

I have never in my life thought that I was a strong person until now. I have always been very sensitive, fiery for sure, but ultimately, extremely tender. 

But I am no longer afraid. I know that, no matter what comes along, I can handle it. 

I have a project that I’m working on, and it’s going to require me to go to some dark places in the next year, but I’ll be fine. I’ve already seen the darkness. I’m prepared.

I had a dream the other night. I dreamed that I was in a war-torn country, and I was trying to escape. I came upon a large lake, and I saw Caleb walking into it. He walked into it and disappeared into the deep water, so I took a deep breath, and I walked into the water too. And I could breathe under that water. I walked  and found a cave. I went into the cave and came out the other side. But then, there was a tunnel, and Caleb was in the tunnel, and he said, “Follow me.” I looked at that tunnel, and I knew there wasn’t room for both of us in it, so I shook my head, no.

There was a time when I would have followed Caleb anywhere. No more. 

When I woke up, my heart was racing, and that fear was a familiar and uncomfortable feeling, but it was also accompanied by a sense of relief because I used to wake up with that fear every morning. No more.

I rarely have symptoms of PTSD now. And I rarely feel the need to fall apart. And now, I’m kind of grateful that I learned how to keep putting one foot in front of the other without falling apart. I’m grateful that I didn’t fall apart. When I look at all that I have accomplished, I know I couldn’t have accomplished it if I was falling apart.

Instead of falling apart, I put myself back together.

On my flight home from Idaho, I spoke with the woman next to me. Like me, she had taken some big risks in changing her life. We discussed the courage it takes to make those changes. I told her that I think it takes faith, but not faith that everything will be okay because there is really no way to know if everything is going to be okay. 

The faith has to be that, even if everything isn’t okay, we will still be okay

After our discussion, I looked out the window of the plane, and I saw a rainbow in the clouds. I couldn’t capture it in my photo, but the shadow of the plane made it look as though we were flying right in the middle of that rainbow. I like to think that we were.

On Sex

I grew up in a family that never discussed sex. When I was a teen, there was no “sex talk.” I don’t think my mom and I ever spoke about birth control until after I had a baby. 

In the later part of my marriage to Caleb, I wrote an essay that had a refrain: “Everything I learned about sex, I learned from afterschool specials. Everything I learned about sex I learned from church.” That essay was about all of the ways I had opened myself up to others. It was also about all of the ways I had closed my self off. There was a lot of sex in it. 

That essay was a litany of shame. 

That essay finished with a moment of supposed redemption. I had portrayed myself as the Queen of Swords. In one hand, she holds a sword, but the other hand is reaching out. 

The final sentences of the essay read, “We had both found a place where our brokenness could fit, not to keep hurting, but to stop. I didn’t want to be the Queen of Swords anymore. I put down my sword for him. I gave him both hands.”

In some ways, the essay was true, but the ending wasn’t redemptive. I had given Caleb both hands, but I should have kept clutching my sword.

Before I started dating Caleb, I tried to take a poetry class from one of his fellow MFA candidates. That poet was handsome and charismatic: a complete ladies man. I had run into the poet one night at the same bar where I later met Caleb. 

It was the Neurolux: a dark, hipster bar with shiny, red booths that were easy to sink into with someone else. The poet sat next to me. I was flattered. He was completely high, but we talked for a while. He kept leaning in closely. He kept saying, “You are so funny. You have such perfect skin.” He reached out and touched my face. “How do you have such flawless skin?” he asked. 

The entire encounter was almost funny. Later, a friend said to me, “He’s married. He always falls apart when she leaves him, but they always get back together.” 

I felt sad for him then. And also angry. I couldn’t help but understand why his wife would keep leaving him. He seemed like such a womanizer.

Still, when a spot opened up in his poetry workshop, I registered for it. It was his workshop or an 8:30 am workshop, and I am not a morning person. I thought that he had been so high he would have forgotten me.

But, he hadn’t forgotten. When I entered the class, he looked flustered. Then, as we did introductions in a circle, my turn came. He said to the class, “The last time I saw Kelly, I think I was this close to her face.” He held up his hand right in front of his face. He was basically admitting that he had hit on me. 

Right there in front of everyone, he looked at me and said, “You really do have nice skin.”

The woman across from me rolled her eyes.

He stared; he smiled. It was all very awkward. I don’t even think he was attracted to me. He just wanted my attention.

Later, he wrote in the margins of my papers, “Bullshit! and “Fuck this!” 

It was classic negging

I told the director of the Writing Center (where I worked as a tutor), and he was appalled. He suggested that I drop the class, even though the drop date had passed. I had to ask for permission, which was embarrassing. I didn’t want to say, “I feel like my teacher is sexually harassing me.” Instead, I just said that the poet was “crude,” that he had made me uncomfortable and written swear words on my papers. The MFA director let me start attending the 8:30 am class as an alternative. Showing up in a new class near midterm was so awkward. Everyone clearly wondered what had happened, but for the most part, I kept my mouth shut.

Still, it was a small community. The poet was friends with Caleb. Soon, Caleb and I started dating. The poet said to Caleb, “She dropped my class because I was crude, but she’s dating you? That makes no sense.”

The poet was right. It made no sense that I had chosen Caleb. I wish I had believed the poet.

The first time that Caleb took me to his cabin in the woods, the other men who lived there treated me like a whore. One of them (a married man with a toddler), said to me, “Does the carpet match the drapes?” 

I hadn’t heard that question since I had been in high school, and the boys would yell “fire crotch” down the hallway at me.

The other man who lived there called me, “Fourgasm” because Caleb had told him we’d had sex four times the first time we were together, which felt like a huge violation of my privacy.

I was uncomfortable by their comments, but I was sassy. 

I was tough. 

I said to the first man, “You will never know whether my carpet matches my drapes.”

I said to the second man, “Caleb is the only one who had four orgasms that night.”

I made them laugh, but I did not make them respect me, and I did not respect myself.

I recently found out that the man who had called me “Fourgasm” had once thrown his girlfriend off of the porch of one of those cabins and broken her arm. This explains why that man, after I left Caleb, was so willing to tell a mutual friend of ours, “Well, I heard that they beat up on each other,” when the friend confronted him about his support for Caleb.

Long before that, Caleb had told me a story about that man and his girlfriend. Caleb had said that the girlfriend was volatile. She was “crazy.” I had only ever found her to be kind and quiet and incredibly subdued, but I chose to believe Caleb. 

Caleb said the girlfriend had driven away while the boyfriend was holding on to her car. Caleb looked at me and said, “Can you believe that?”

Only recently did I look back on that story and think, Why on earth was the boyfriend holding on to the car while his girlfriend was trying to get away?

Such entitlement.

Bros stick together. Bros have each others’ backs.

I will never be one of the bros. I will only ever be one of their bitches.

Caleb has a classic Madonna/Whore complex. He wants women to be either virginal or completely sexual. Caleb sexualized me early on, and I let him because I thought that was what “cool” girls did. I didn’t think highly enough of myself to do otherwise. 

Soon, he realized that I was actually quite innocent, and that I was faithful and trustworthy.

Caleb married me because I could be both his Madonna and his whore.

My friends tease me sometimes because they say I have a high sex drive. It might be true. I enjoy sex quite a bit. Am I even allowed to admit that? Are women allowed to admit that? Of course we can admit it in the company of our friends, but are we allowed to admit it publicly? I no longer care. I enjoy sex, and I don’t think that makes me a bad person. I have left behind the ideals of church and afterschool specials. Those ideals never worked for me. Those ideals put me firmly in my abuser’s path. 

Caleb and I continued to have good–amazing, actually–sex right until the end of our marriage. This is a difficult thing for me to admit. It is a difficult thing for people to understand. A lot of abusive relationships include rape, but mine didn’t. Instead, mine included a lot of great, consensual sex. At the end of our relationship, we were having more sex than ever. 

It was all a manipulation, but I’m not sure whose manipulation it was. It might have been his, but it also might have been mine. The truth was that we didn’t want to leave each other, and we had found a way to ignore the pain. We had sex, then told ourselves it was love. 

You know how people refer to “make-up sex” as the best sex ever? Well, that’s how abuse sex was for me. 

I know that is fucked up. It is so incredibly fucked up. 

But after he hurt me, he held me. And I had never felt so loved.

I do not want to be hurt during sex. That has not become a part of my recovery. It is for some survivors, but it is not for me. 

I only want to feel safe.

I am a survivor of domestic violence who enjoys sex, and I am not quite sure how to reconcile these things. 

Not dating is a foolproof way to avoid abuse; still, I am a woman who wants to be held. 

I am not able to have sex with someone without some kind of emotional connection. This doesn’t mean that I have to be in love with the person. I don’t even have to be in a relationship with them. But I do have to feel something for them. 

I have discovered that being respected by my sexual partner is sexy. Intelligence is sexy. Kindness is sexy. A sense of humor is sexy.

But consent is the sexiest thing.

Safety is the sexiest thing.

I have been with other men since Caleb. Each time has been a decision that I made willingly. I have been in control of my own body. 

I used to worry that, when I would have sex, I would crack wide open; but I am open, and I have not cracked.

I have not been with very many men since Caleb. I am not making that statement as an apology (it would be perfectly acceptable if I had been with many men), but as an observation. For the most part, I have spent any spare energy that I have focusing on my own emotional growth.

But I have been with some men, and I have had to learn that I am rather inexperienced at all of this. Also, that all of the emotional growth I have been focusing on has helped me realize what I want. 

I want to be respected. I want to feel safe. I want to laugh.

I will not rush love because I am confusing it with sex. 

Someday, I would like to be loved again. But until that happens, I’ll focus on being respected. 

I’ll focus on being safe.