On What I Could Have Done Differently

Today was the first day that I’ve felt normal since that Title IX meeting last Friday. This was the worst PTSD break that I’ve had in years, and I’m not sure why I was so affected at this time. Maybe, because it was the end of the semester, and I was already exhausted and overwhelmed. Maybe, because I immediately launched myself into some activism after the meeting rather than taking time to retreat and recuperate. Maybe because I’m trying to work on my book, and the book is an immense blessing, but also, a burden. Maybe because I hate conflict, and I had already scheduled a coffee date with a friend where we were going to talk about some pretty heavy stuff, and she wrote me to say that she thought we should reschedule for some time when I am not feeling so triggered, and although she had good reasons for feeling that way, I couldn’t help but think that the last thing I needed at this point in time was to be treated like a burden because of my trauma.

And then, I felt like a burden.

And then, that triggered me even more.

I don’t want to be a burden.

I have two friends  who I feel like I can be authentic with here in Athens, but we all have very busy lives, so, much of the time, I actually have no friends here who I feel like I can be authentic with.

I am exhausted by having to be on all the time.

After that awful Title IX meeting, my graduate director talked to me in his garden. I have been blessed with wonderful mentors in my life, and I am grateful for that.

At the end of our talk, he said, “Well, you look good, at least.” Meaning, that I did not look like someone in the midst of a PTSD break.

A couple of days later, another faculty member said the same thing.

I appreciated that my suffering wasn’t visible. I am a high-functioning sufferer of PTSD. I haven’t achieved what I’ve achieved by being a low functioning sufferer of PTSD.

Still, yesterday, when I called that childhood friend, the first thing she asked was “Are you okay?” And I responded with, “No,” then tears. She is one of the few people I don’t have to be on for, you see? But she is not here. She is in Mississippi.

I do not ask for help in this town. I reach out online. I reach out via social media. I write these blog posts. And people respond with love and support, but for the most part, they are not people with actual proximity to me.


I have a friend in this town. He is a very handsome man. Also, a bit of a flirt. My friends here ask me what is going on between us? When my parents were here, even my mother said, “Oh, I think I found one of X’s shirts! It’s hanging in Reed’s closet.” And when I told her that there was definitely no way that any of his shirts were in my house, she snickered.

I tell them all that he is just a friend. And he is. But he is also the person who I can call when I need to cry. He is the person who saw me break down after I read a passive aggressive email from Caleb. I cried ugly tears on his shoulder, and he let me use his shirt as a tissue. He is the person who shows up at my house in the afternoon with champagne, apples, white cheddar, baguette, and a blanket for a picnic. In some ways, he is like the best boyfriend I’ve ever had, but he is just a friend.

He is also the only person in this town who I don’t have to be on for. I don’t mind him seeing my brokenness, my messy house, my ugly tears.

And he is a man.

I am learning how to have healthy boundaries with men again. This friend-this man-recently got his Wilderness First Responder certification, and he joked, “This is exactly the kind of thing that you think is hot, but probably not as hot as the Wilderness EMT certification.”

I joked back, “If you became a Wilderness EMT, then I would have to fuck you right now.” And he said, “Ooh, I’d better get that certification.”

And I said, “You’d better not because that would ruin our friendship!”

And it is hard to convey tone here, but all of this was said with good cheer, and yes, it was a flirtation, but also, an establishing of boundaries.

Boundaries have not always been a struggle for me.


Last night, I was chatting online with a long-time friend, someone who was close to me when I met Caleb. I told her that I hadn’t thought of myself as someone who would become a domestic violence victim. She wrote back, “Oh yes. I knew you before and you had very healthy boundaries with most men who were interested in you. I remember several after parties where you shut many a man down for just looking at you wrong.”

And I was relieved to hear this, to learn that I hadn’t had victim written on my forehead.

In my heart, I wasn’t a victim either.


This week, that same friend found a letter that I had written to her when Caleb and I had the “marriage talk.” She wrote me and asked if I wanted to send it, or if I wanted her to burn it? I told her to send it. Then, she sent me a photo of the envelope. She wrote, “Just look at the stamp!”

noel's letter

This is why I write nonfiction. No one would believe this in a fictional story.

—–

I got the letter on Thursday. It was my last teaching day of the semester. I read the letter immediately. I did not prepare myself. I did not do anything ritualistic. I did no self-care. I just read it.

I did not cry. I ate my lunch. I popped on to Facebook. Then, I saw that Prince had died, and I cried a little, but not very much.

Soon, I took a nap.

And I slept so hard, so feverishly. And I dreamed.

I dreamed that I was wearing a wedding dress. My brother was there, and I had received news that Reed had died.

Reed had died from eating too much rice.

When Caleb and I married, the wedding guests threw flower petals because my mother said that birds would eat the rice, which would then expand in their stomachs and kill them.

c0446-003

In this dream, I knew that Reed had died, but I felt nothing. My brother was distracted (looking for whatever it was that he had lost). Suddenly, I remembered something. I went to my brother, desperate, and I said, “Caleb didn’t talk to Reed on the phone last night, and now, he’ll never get to talk to him again. He’s going to be so brokenhearted.”

My brother took me into his arms and said something like, “Well, that’s Caleb’s problem” (which is what people usually say in real life when I express concern for Caleb, which I still often do).

Then, the dream-loss of my child hit me, and I wept. I wept tears that came all the way from my stomach. It was a  combination of weeping/keening, and I cried to my brother, “What am I going to do? I will not be able to go on.”

My brother said to me, “That is how I feel every day.”

And I woke up.

The problem with dreams is that they feel so real.


A friend once told me that, in dream interpretation, every character is some variation of ourselves.

I was the woman in the wedding dress.

I was the woman who only knew how to express her pain through the man she had once loved.

I was the woman who felt such unexpected grief that she didn’t know what to do with it.

I was my brother looking for something that had been lost.

I was my brother trying to comfort his grief-stricken sister. 

I was my brother who, every day, didn’t want to go on anymore.

I was Reed. Gone, forever.

I was also the bird.

I was the rice eater.

I gobbled up the hard, little kernels that would eventually destroy me.


When I read the letter I had sent to my friend, I was surprised by what I found. I had written, I love Caleb, but I don’t know what I want, and I feel more and more isolated from my social circle, just as I’m become more entrenched in Caleb’s, and it’s not making my decisions any easier.

I was shocked by the insight in those words. I was shocked by how much my past self had known. That self certainly hadn’t known what was coming, but she had known a lot.

Shortly after I wrote that letter, I discovered that I was pregnant. I wasn’t ready. I was on birth control, even.

Caleb held me while I wept, and he told me again that he wanted to marry me. I wanted to have an abortion, but he said that he thought our relationship wouldn’t be able to sustain that. I believed him, so I kept the baby.

And that baby became Reed.

And Reed is my greatest joy. The love of my life.

But it would be disingenuous of me to claim that I could have done anything else differently. The thing I could have done differently would have been to have had that abortion and moved on with my life–without Caleb, and without Reed. But, that is not the choice I made.

Given the choice again, I would still choose the years with Caleb because they also gave me Reed, but this is a difficult subject to talk about. How do I balance the needs I had at the time with my current joy in my child? It is not possible.

I will say this: When I see women in relationships that seem potentially abusive, the first thing I think is, “Do not get pregnant.”

I hope these words do not cause my own child suffering someday, but I believe that he knows how loved he is. He tells me that he knows how loved he is. My pregnancy was an accident, but he was never a mistake.


I do not believe there is anything else that I could have done differently. My friend also wrote to me last night that she was so surprised when I told her that I had been abused, that of our entire social circle, she would not have expected it to happen to me. She told me that she believed Caleb had groomed me “big time.”

And he did.

I was not a perfect victim.

He was the perfect perpetrator.

This is not the story of what I could have done differently.

This is the story of what he could have done differently.

It will always be the story of what he could have done differently.

He was the only one who could have changed the end of this story.

On Institutional Silence

Yesterday, I went to a professional development seminar on Title IX. The seminar was being held in response to some recent developments in my department. That is not my story to tell, so I won’t, but as one professor told me today, “There has been a pall over the department.” “Pall” is the right word. In some cases, “palpable grief” might be a better description. Or “anger.” Or “despair.”

I have felt all of those things.

I have wanted to pack my bags and run.

Today, my best friend in town told me that she would support any decision that I make, but that, I should not make any decisions while I am triggered. And she was right. She was right that I should not make any decisions right now.

She was also right that I am triggered

—–

I have PTSD.

PTSD is the legacy that Caleb left me with, and I hate him for it. Do you hear me? I hate him for this legacy. There are things about him that I still love. There are things that he has done that I have forgiven, but I will never forgive him for this legacy.

While he sleeps peacefully at night wrapped around his young fiance’s body (a body that he will most certainly bruise someday), I sleep with demons hovering around the edges of my dreams. I sleep with the memories–so many memories. The memories of his fists. The memories of his words. Worse, the memories of bef0re–what the wheel of violence would label the “tension-building stage”–the memories of that fear, of not knowing what was coming.

The after–the bruises, the tears, the apologies–it was all better than the before. There was sweet relief in the after, but the before was all fear and unknowing.

PTSD is like being in a permanent before.

Most days, I do not have symptoms of my PTSD. I am lucky in that way. Sometimes, I think the PTSD is gone.

Then the demons return.

—–

Yesterday, the demons returned at the Title IX meeting. The meeting was to discuss sexual misconduct, and the rights and responsibilities that we have as graduate students. I’ll admit that, when I walked in and saw who was leading it, I was disappointed. I wasn’t the only one. My friend whispered sarcastically, “It’s nice to see a man here to talk to us about sexual harassment.” I, too, felt uncomfortable that it was a man, but didn’t want to jump to conclusions.

He had a buzz cut. He was wearing khakis. He said to us, “Do you want to be here?” (I did want to be there). Someone answered “no,” but it wasn’t because we didn’t want the discussion. It was because we didn’t want the situation which had prompted it. He said, “Well, maybe that goes both ways.”

I was stunned. Had he really just said that? It was oddly antagonistic. Then, he said, “That was a joke.”

It was a bad joke.

He then started to tell us about the history of Title IX. His enthusiasm was on par with how I feel about large spiders and mayonnaise, meaning nonexistent. He told us that we might remember the previous Title XI coordinator, then said, “We drew straws, and I got the short one, so I ended up with this job.”

Again, I was stunned.

Everyone was silent.

Again, he said, “That was a joke.”

And then, because I am who I am, I felt bad for him. I forced out a fake laugh, but I also felt kind of sick, and I felt the beginnings of a before. I could tell that something bad was coming.

He then discussed Title IX procedures, making sure to tell us that they “don’t take sides,” and that, they have very little authority, and that they can only make recommendations. They cannot fire people. In a sense, it felt like he was telling us, “Don’t even waste your time.”

I started to feel myself tear up. I thought to myself, “It’s okay. I will just disassociate.” Disassociation, as readers of this blog know, is a maladaptive trait that comes with abuse. It is not emotionally healthy, but it allows me to be able to sort of psychologically exit my body. It has been protection when I have needed it. I think I was disassociated for most of the year after I left Caleb, and I didn’t kill myself, so it worked.

But this time was different. I couldn’t disassociate. I decided to doodle. Still, the tears were coming. I could feel them. Psychologically, I was still in that room. I was still in my body. (This is, actually, probably a good thing. It’s probably a sign that I’m healing from the abuse enough to feel again, but I wasn’t happy about it in that moment.)

I thought that I could hide the tears from my peers, but then I felt a single tear roll down my cheek. To wipe or not to wipe? Which would be less conspicuous? So I wiped. Furtively. Quickly.

But then my friend whom I adore so much–Brad–handed me a tissue, and it was over. I could feel sobs coming on.

So I bolted. I ran out of the room. I started sobbing the minute I hit the hallway. I ran to the bathroom. I locked myself in a stall, and I wept. I wept in a way that I have not wept in a long time.

—–

It was the way that man kept saying “relationship violence” as though that phrase meant nothing to him. It was the way he hurried over the words, in the way that someone who has never fully considered the way that “relationship violence” feels.

It was the way he said that they offer the victims “resources.”

And I thought of the “resources” that West Virginia University offered to me when Caleb was arrested in a dormitory on campus for assaulting me. The campus police officer who stayed with me while Caleb was taken to jail gave me a flier. I remember looking at that flier and wondering what to do with it. I remember packing up my stuff later and coming across that flier in the bathroom. It was on the counter. I don’t know why. I don’t even remember what was on it.

I needed something, but a piece of paper was not what I needed.

—–

Caleb was arrested on campus. We lived in a dormitory. He was the Resident Faculty Leader, and I was the Live and Learn Community Coordinator (or some shit title like that, which was code for “wife”). Caleb interviewed for the job first. Then, I had to go in for his second interview with the Assistant Provost. I had just completed my MFA, had teaching experience, was published (already had better publications than Caleb), and was articulate. She later told me that she knew she wanted to hire him when she met me, that she knew she was getting a “team.”

I did not want to move into a dorm, but I was desperate. It was a lot of money (would double our salaries). I thought that I would be safe in the dorm. I also thought that it might give me the opportunity to save up enough money to leave Caleb. I still didn’t want to leave Caleb, but I was beginning to feel that it was inevitable. I wasn’t preparing consciously, but when I look back, I was making decisions that enabled my departure.

After the second interview, the Assistant Provost introduced us to the Hall Coordinator, whom we would be working closely with, and he gave us the thumbs up. In that interview, my elbow was swollen to the size of a grapefruit–purple, yellow, and black. This was July, and I was in a cardigan that didn’t quite cover the bruise. I saw the Hall Coordinator eyeing the bruise, but of course, he didn’t ask.

That was when Caleb told me that I probably wished someone would figure out where the bruises came from, so that they would stop.

As if he had no agency. As if he couldn’t have stopped them.

—–

We lived in a very fancy apartment on the first floor of the dorm. Unfortunately, it was also sound proof. The violence escalated, and instead of being safe, I was trapped.

Caleb began to beat me worse than he ever had before. I had nowhere to go. If I ran, I had to run out into the lobby of the dormitory. How could I do that?

Still, once I did. I ran into the lobby. It was the day of Reed’s seventh birthday party. Most of the students were on Thanksgiving break. I ran past the Resident Assistants. Caleb chased me in his socks. I shouted at one of the Resident Assistants to call the police. He thought I was kidding. Caleb chased me into the street shouting “Come back here, you fucking bitch.”

And then, we were outside.

Our child was by himself in the apartment. It was over.

A few days later, Caleb was arrested.

—–

How do I tell the story of the institutional response? Where do I begin?

Caleb came home to me. The judge had modified his “no contact” order to a “no abusive contact” order. The women at the domestic violence shelter rolled their eyes at that. Monongalia County in West Virginia is not a good place to be a domestic violence victim, but it is a great place to be the perpetrator.

So, there we were, in this apartment together on campus. Thankfully, the students were all gone for break. The Assistant Provost came and sat down with us at the long dining room table. She told us that they have a “zero tolerance” policy on this stuff. She said that we had to move out by Friday (it was Tuesday). She said that we (both) would be suspended with pay.

She never asked if I was okay. She never asked to see me alone. She never treated me like I was worth anything at all.

I was a commodity. I was a lost asset. I was a nobody.

I was also homeless.

—–

And then, I really did it. I left him.

Even I wasn’t that codependent. Even I couldn’t blind myself to what was happening. I humbled myself and asked beautiful Rebecca if Reed and I could stay with her. We slept on the floor of her house (which was really my house, but which Caleb and I had rented to she and her partner). I tried to plan for my future. I was the wife, after all. I was a nobody. 

I had very little income on my own. I was afraid of losing custody of my son because I couldn’t support him. I had a graduate degree, but it was an MFA, which some people call a vanity degree, and they might not be wrong. I know that, when I started my MFA, I didn’t ever plan on being the sole financial support of my family. If I had, I would have chosen a different field.

I thought that I could squirrel away that “with pay” that the Assistant Provost had promised. I could use it as a cushion.

But then, she wrote me. She didn’t want to pay me anymore. She didn’t think I was doing anything that deserved pay. Caleb was full-time faculty, so he had been “Suspended With Pay,” but I was an adjunct (and my contract at the dorm was non-essential), so I didn’t have that right. Essentially, she was asking me to quit.

I needed that money though.

So, I hobbled to her office in my foot boot, and I sat down on the other side of her desk. She was a tremendously tough lady, and I don’t know whether to admire or resent her, but I looked her in the eye, and I said, “I don’t think I’ve done anything for you to fire me, and I don’t want to quit, so we are going to have to figure something out.”

And we stared at each other for a long time. She was definitely trying to intimidate me, but by then, I had nothing left to lose, so I just stared back.

Then, I saw her look down at a piece of paper. On it, she had the number $3,000 scrawled and circled. She said something like, “Okay, I can see where you’re coming from. And actually, because you’re no longer going to have the housing benefit, I feel like I should offer you some kind of raise. You should get more than you’re getting. How about I email you a number and see if you’re comfortable with it?”

She also wanted to come up with some ways that I could “keep working.”

I am not stupid. I knew that her lawyers had advised her to do this.

But I thanked her. I told her that Reed and I were living with a friend, that we needed everything we could get. She then said, “You’re not living with Caleb anymore?” And I told her no. Then, she looked at the boot on my foot, and she said, “Did he do that to you?”

I did not understand how she had not known that. Hadn’t she read the police report? I saw the first emotion I had seen in her face. She looked a little horrified. I think that (maybe) she was realizing this was real.

And I said, “Yes.”

Then, her emotion was gone.

She emailed me an offer. It was $1,000. I accepted it. I didn’t have the energy not to.

—–

The Assistant Provost asked me to propose work that I could continue to do. I proposed that I continue to do a creative writing workshop in the dorm, which I had been doing in conjunction with Rebecca. This was actually rewarding work because I had Rebecca with me (so I felt supported), and I was able to reconnect with so many of the students I had bonded with during my brief time there.

But the Assistant Provost also required that I go to weekly “residence hall” meetings. These meetings happened in the exact apartment that I had been assaulted in. The meetings included the Acting Faculty Leaders (who were the heads of the Honors Program) and the Residence Hall Coordinator. All three of these people were wonderful people who never, ever asked me about what had happened, and who never treated me with anything but respect, but my presence there meant nothing to them. I had no say in the operations of the dorm. It was all ceremonial. And when I was there, I saw the place where he had hurt me, where he had chased me into the hallway, where I had been traumatized.

I saw it again. And again. And again. And a million times again.

That Assistant Provost required that I return to the place of my trauma every Friday. Thankfully, I could still disassociate then. I could feel the shakes coming, but I could exit my body. I could nod my head politely but not really be present..

And why did the Assistant Provost have me attend those meetings? I’m not really sure, but if I’m completely honest, I think they were punitive. She wanted to punish me. She did not like that I had put her in that position. I should have never moved into that dormitory, you see? I should never have let her think that things were okay between Caleb and me, you see?

As always, it was my fault.

—–

And that is why I was triggered at this Title IX meeting. That is why I fled crying.

But then, after the meeting, I had lunch with a group of amazing people, and we all said that we will not be complicit in this kind of silence.

And today, I visited with my graduate adviser who had been working in his garden. His wife gave me a big hug, and I could see the dirt stains on his knees. It was a beautiful day, and I sat there and told him about that meeting, and why I was so triggered. I told him so many other things, and he received them all. He wasn’t like that Assistant Provost. He didn’t treat me like an asset. He treated me like a person.

I realized that, even within institutional silence, there are always people who care.

I hope that, someday, I can be one of those people.

—–

And tonight, I’m writing this from my loft office that I value so much. I have the window open, the birds are singing outside, and I am no longer feeling triggered. I think back to that bathroom stall that I wept in. The stall graffiti said, “Everything will be okay.”

And I believe that it will.

office

On Patterns

A couple of years ago, I sat on a deck in the Idaho sunlight with a man. I had been divorced for exactly one year (separated for six months before that), and this was the first man I had met who I had thought that I could have feelings for. We lived on different ends of the country, and we were discussing whether or not to have a long-distance relationship.

He said, “Don’t you want someone to come home to every night?”

If I had answered, my answer would have been, “No.”

But how was I to say that? How was I to tell this man, who I was hoping to be involved with, that I didn’t want someone to come home to every night? That I only wanted someone to occasionally come home to? That I wanted to hear this man’s voice on the phone, but not in my home? That I mostly wanted to have someone to think about? That I only wanted to see him every month or two? That I wanted to spend some nights with him wrapped around me, but that, on most nights, I wanted to sleep alone? That sleeping alone had brought me the first peace I’d felt in a long time, and that I was not ready to let that peace go?

How was I to tell him that my son complicates things? That I am not looking for a father for my son.? That I am not looking for a man to step into that role until we are all ready? That maybe I will never be ready?

Maybe I could have told him about Caleb, about how Caleb moved so quickly, about how I lived in a tiny apartment, and Caleb would leave things behind as though it was his apartment too, and soon, I gave him a chair to leave those things on, then a drawer, and then, Caleb was just there.

And once he was there, I no longer was.

I fit myself into the space that Caleb left for me, but it wasn’t enough.

Maybe I could have told this man that, for most of my life, I felt as though I had been fitting myself into the shape of other people.

I didn’t tell this man any of that, though–not on that day, at least. A year later, we had the same discussion. This time I was honest. I told him that a long-distance relationship felt safe to me. I told him of how I had collapsed myself into Caleb. I told him that I had only recently found myself again, and that I didn’t want to be lost anymore.

I started to cry, and this man said, “Oh, Kelly,” and drew my head to his chest, held my hair tenderly. This was the first time I had let him see me cry in that way. I think he thought that I was crying over him, but my tears were not for him. My tears were for the version of myself that had been lost, for the version of myself that he would never know.

Later that night, he asked me, “Kelly, are you sad?”

“No,” I said. “I’m annoyed with you.”

He was silent, then, not angry, but he hadn’t expected that answer. Neither of us had expected that answer. I had broken my pattern of helplessness, you see? The discussion itself had been a rupture of my usual patterns.

And in all truth, if I see that man again this summer, I’m likely to slide right back into his embrace. I care about him, I enjoy spending time with him, and he makes me feel safe. During the academic year, I spend my nights alone. It is nice to get a reprieve during the summer, to hear someone else breathing in the darkness. Still, I no longer want a long distance relationship with this man. The time for that has passed.

One thing I have learned about patterns is that I can only change my own.

—–

Last week, I went to the same writer’s conference that I attend every year. It was in Los Angeles this year. The sunshine was so golden, the people so friendly. I think I could move there and be happy.

I ran into a poetry professor from Boise State (where I met Caleb while he was in his MFA). She asked me where I am at with my course work and if I’m going on the job market next year. I told her that I thought I would only apply to dream jobs next year and, instead, focus my energy on finishing my book and taking my comprehensive exams. She said “We’re going to need a nonfiction person at Boise State, but you probably don’t want to come back to Boise.”

And I thought of that because, of course, I want to go back to Boise. I want to be closer to my family, to my friends, and I want to be back in the West. I would love to be in Boise, but how could I return to the place of Caleb’s MFA? How could I do that?

She then told me a story of how two of Caleb’s friends had found out about my book. They were first shocked that my contract is with Harper Collins, then questioned what Caleb must think? I realized that I cannot go back to a community where the default reaction is not how happy they are for me. Instead, the default reaction is to think about Caleb’s feelings.

I’ll never forget how one of Caleb’s friends, a  somewhat prominent writer in Boise, said to me, I shared your essay and helped you, as though I needed his help, as though I didn’t earn the success that has come to me, as though that was the kind of help I wanted from him.

Let me be clear: the kind of help I want from the men in Caleb’s life is for them to cut off contact with Caleb. That man could have helped me by taking a stand, but he did not do that.

I’ll never forget how another one of Caleb’s friends in Boise asked me to try to figure out my triggers, as though the abuse had been my fault, as though I had done something wrong.

I’ll never forget how, the first summer that Caleb and I were apart, he flew with Reed to Boise. The day before they arrived, I drove the streets of Boise. I drove by the homes we had lived in. I sobbed in the car. Later that night, in the hotel, I called Caleb. He answered. I told him that I missed him, that I didn’t want him back, but I missed him.

He said, “I know. I miss you too.” We were quiet for a long time. We still loved each other. Then, he said, “I’m going to go now,” and I said, “I know.”

The next day I picked up Reed at the airport. We went swimming by ourselves in a huge hotel pool. It was cold.

I was so lonely.

That writer–the one who shared my essay and helped me–along with the woman who questioned my triggers–threw a party for Caleb. I was grieving alone in a hotel with the child I was raising on my own, and Caleb was having a party thrown for him.

So the poet was right, I do not want to go back to Boise.

The next day of the conference in L.A., I was invited to a VIP party with important New York industry people. I am shy and do not like to do things alone, particularly things where everyone seems very good-looking, educated, and New York. In the past, I would have avoided the gathering altogether, or tried to pretend like I was having a good time, then left early. But I tried something different–I broke my pattern. I simply said, “I would love to come, but I am really shy.”

The publisher who had invited me took me under her wing. She introduced me to people. She made me feel comfortable, and I had a genuinely great time.

I had already made plans for that night with a friend who I had met while living in Boise (but who now lives in L.A.), so I took that friend with me to the party. This friend is also experiencing a lot of success, and her agent was there. Her agent asked how we had become friends, and my friend said, “Well, we met in Boise. Kelly was married to her abusive ex, and we weren’t really friends at that time, but then, her ex-husband’s friend raped me, and we bonded over having survived those dudes.”

And then, we both laughed.

I know. It’s inappropriate, right? But still, we laughed, and it was funny. Maybe only other abuse survivors can understand the humor in that, but there is something liberating in being able to laugh at exactly how fucked up that kind of connection is.

And then, as my friend and I drank expensive Los Angeles drinks for free while talking to New York publishers and agents, we discussed how neither my abuser, nor her rapist, would ever have the experience that we were having.

There we were, my friend and I–two survivors and feminists–and, in that moment, our lives were fucking awesome. And both of those men–those hateful, violent men–are (and will continue to be) nobodies.

And we cheered to that.

I don’t know her patterns, but mine have been broken.

Neither of us is living in the shape of anyone else.

—–

Tonight was different. My real life. I wasn’t at a VIP party in Los Angeles. I was in a Western Sizzling parking lot in West Virginia. The sky gray, chemical factories sizzling by the side of the highway. I picked up Reed who had spent the weekend with his father.

Reed sat in the backseat and told me how his cousin had gotten into trouble. Reed sometimes has a hard time opening up to me, but this time, he couldn’t stop talking. He told me that his uncle had yelled at his cousin, that he was yelling so loudly that Reed was shivering. Reed wanted to end the argument. He stood with his hand over the light switch. He wondered if he should turn off the lights, so that his uncle would stop yelling. He told me of how his hand shook over that light switch.

He said, “Mom, I was shivering.”

And I know that shiver. It comes from the inside. It comes from the bones. It comes from the little boy who hid in his bed while the dogs climbed in beside him and his father beat his mother in the next room over. It comes from that little boy who will always be a part of Reed, who will always be the source of that shiver.

And Reed said that his uncle finally noticed him, and his uncle said, “Reed, maybe you should go into the other room,” so Reed did.

And I want to scream at his uncle the words that I will never be able to scream at him, which are “Don’t you see how traumatized my little boy has been? How can you scare him like that?”

But this is not a story about my little boy being traumatized. It is a story about another little boy (who my own little boy loves) being traumatized.

Reed then told me that his uncle yelled at his cousin that he was a “brat,” that his uncle used the “sh” word to describe him, and that, his uncle pinched his cousin, and when his cousin cried, his uncle called the cousin (also a 10-year-old) a “wimp.”

Reed told me that he didn’t know what happened when he was in the other room, but when he returned to his cousin’s room, his cousin was hiding under the covers and crying.

Reed told me that he thought his uncle had been too hard on his cousin. But then he said, “I mean, I know that [my uncle] is just preparing [my cousin] to be an adult.”

And so I pulled over. Reed and I went into a diner, and I bought him a cheeseburger. I told him that children do not need that kind of preparation. I told him that I had left his father for exactly that reason. I told him that anger and violence is not okay, and that, I left Reed’s father so that he wouldn’t grow up with that. I told him about a time when I was still married, when Reed’s cousin had gotten in trouble for something which seemed like normal toddler behavior to me. I told him how Reed’s uncle had us all go and play in the backyard, but he left the cousin, who was only four at that time, crying on the couch, for an entire hour. I told Reed how I pretended like I had to go to the bathroom, but went in and sat with my then-nephew. I hugged him and told him what a good boy he was and how much I loved him. He quieted then, and I held him for a long time.

I don’t know if I should have told this story to Reed, but I did.

I told Reed, “The best thing you can do for your cousin is to continue to be a good friend to him.”

Reed then said to me, “I get most of that from you. I don’t get that from my dad.”

And he was right. What else there is to say?

Reed said, “Can I tell [my cousin] that story about you sneaking in to hug him?”

And I said, “Oh, honey. He’s probably forgotten, and I think it might just hurt him more to be reminded of it.”

Then, Reed said, “I just thought he might like to know that he was loved. I don’t think he thinks anyone loves him.”

My heart broke because I no longer get to love my former nephew. I no longer get to advocate for him in the small ways that I could before.

Then, Reed said, “At least [my cousin] will know not to treat his own kids that way  because his dad was like that, right?”

I told him, “Unfortunately, that’s not always how it works. People learn how to behave from their parents. Sometimes they treat their children the same way that they were treated, but your cousin has a kind heart, and I’m sure he’s going to be okay.”

And Reed looked at me and said, “I’m glad that you’re the one raising me. When I have kids I’m going to treat them the way that you treat me. I’m going to be patient and love them. I’m not going to be like [my uncle] or my dad.”

And I knew then that I’m doing the best I can. I can’t save my former nephew. I can’t save Caleb’s childhood self. I can’t save my own childhood self. I can’t save your child. I can’t save any other child, but I can try to save my own.

I broke the pattern, you see? I got out. I treat my sweet boy with loving kindness, while also understanding that there will always be a traumatized little boy inside of him who still shivers when he hears yelling.

Reed asked me, “Do you think I can help [my cousin]?”

And I said, “All that you can do is love him just the way he is.”

Reed is going to break the pattern, you see?

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