It Gets Better

Maybe I don’t say that enough. Maybe posts like my last one don’t fully express how much better it gets, but it does. It gets so much better.

I had some dark days when Caleb got married, but I curled into myself and embraced the darkness, and now, I’m out of it. One thing I’ve learned since leaving Caleb is that, if I love myself and take care of myself, there will always be an end to the darkness.

When I was with Caleb, there was no light.

Now, there is more light than darkness, but there is still darkness. The darkness doesn’t ever fully go away, but, as long as I welcome it as a necessary part of my healing, I am okay.

Because I know now that it gets better.

Sometimes I think that Caleb is my shadow side. Sometimes I think that Caleb was a manifestation of my own darkness, but this is just what he wants me to believe.

When we were married, the intimacy was such that I couldn’t tell where his darkness ended, and my own began.

Sometimes I think about Caleb’s new wife, and I hope that he never becomes her shadow side. That they never live in darkness like he and I did.

But then I think of her in the car when we hand off my son. I think of how she glares at me. I think of what he must have told her about me in order for her to hate me like that. I think of how I have never been hated like that before. I am not someone that people typically hate.

River Guide said to me, “You are so sweet.”

“I am not sweet,” I said. “You just think that because you like me.”

“No,” he replied. “I am not the only person who thinks that you’re kind. I know that you’re kind. I see how you are with other people. I see how they are around you.”

Caleb called me crazy. He called me a “cunt.”

“Don’t say that word,” I begged. “I don’t like it.” I never should have begged. My begging gave him power.

“You fucking cunt,” was his reply.

And soon, that was all that I knew. I knew that I was a cunt. I was a cunt. I was a cunt. I was a cunt.

At what point did his darkness become my darkness?

I think of his wife glaring at me. Still, I believe that she is kind. Reed tells me “She is like you, mom. She is more calm like you.” And I know, from her glare, that she is already living in Caleb’s darkness, that he may not be abusing her, but his darkness is now her shadow.

I can’t change her future, but someday, if she needs me, I’ll be there for her. That is as much as I can do.

Caleb called me a cunt, but River Guide calls me kind.

I’m going to trust River Guide on this one.

I don’t often talk to my parents about what I’m going through because, when I needed them, they weren’t there for me. When I needed them to tell me to leave Caleb, they told me to stay instead.

My best friend, Megan, is like a part of our family. Megan and I have been friends since we were toddlers. She grew up just down the street from me. We have lived through the death of her mother, my divorce, and the birth of three children between the two of us. My parents love her like a daughter.

And when my parents wanted me to stay with Caleb, Megan, who is by nature very non-confrontational, called them. She explained to them how significant Caleb’s abuse must have been in order for him to have been arrested. She explained to them that, if Reed had been present, he would have been taken into child protective custody. She explained to them that my relationship fell into the exact same pattern of abuse that other domestic violence relationships fall into (she is a counselor).

She told them that they were going to lose me.

When I next spoke to my parents, my father cried. My mother later told me that he hadn’t even cried when his mother died.

I remembered when I was  a little girl–only four–and my mom received the phone call that my father’s father had died. I remember my mother crumpling on to the kitchen floor in tears. I remember climbing into her lap. I remember asking, “What happened, mommy? What happened?”

I don’t remember my father crying then, but I will never forget the way he cried when he apologized to me on the phone after I left Caleb.

I forgave him.

Still, on the day of my divorce (which was after that phone call), he questioned if the abuse was really as bad as I said it was. All of my anger resurfaced. I called him a coward. I have never seen him so angry. He pointed at me. His hand shook. His voice shook. “I am not a coward,” he said. “I am not a coward.”

I stared at him. I have never been that cold in my life. I felt nothing. I was moving to Athens the next day. I had the boxes packed. I told him to leave. I told him, I don’t need you. 

I meant it. He knew it was true. When I left Caleb, I did it without their help. I did it on my own.

Still, he and my mother returned the next day. They helped me move to Athens, but once the boxes were in my apartment, I asked them to leave. I told them that I needed some time to myself.

I got what I wanted. I have so much time to myself.

The other day, Megan told me that she’s still upset that my parents didn’t come to Morgantown when I left Caleb. She told me that, at the time, she had sat down with her husband and asked how she could get to me, but he had pointed out (rightly so) that, because she had a new baby, she wasn’t in a position to help.

I told Megan that I’m now kind of glad that my parents didn’t come when I left Caleb because I learned that I could do it on my own.

I learned what I was capable of.

We talked about how my parents had always been there for me–through all of my moves–through everything that I had ever needed, but when I left Caleb, they weren’t there for me.

And even though they have been there for me since (in every possible way that I could have needed, they have been there for me), I still struggle with forgiveness.

Forgiveness is elusive, and I want so badly to forgive.

The other day, I received an email from my department about that awful Title IX situation. I was sitting at the kitchen table, and my mother was nearby. I wanted to tell her about it, but I realized that I had never told her about the situation. I had never told her about the meeting because I don’t talk to my parents, you see?

But I wanted to talk to someone, so I told her about it. I told her how hard that meeting was for me, how it had triggered my PTSD, how I was transported back to the time when Caleb was arrested in the dorm, and WVU kicked us both out of our then-home. I told her how hard it was for me to leave him in the first place, but knowing that I was homeless made it so much harder.  I told her that I know now that the university should have treated me better. They should have offered me alternate housing, or kicked him out, but let me stay. They should have offered me support, but they didn’t. I told my mom how alone and scared I was at that time.

I told my mom how that Title IX meeting, and the situation at work, had put me into such a state of PTSD that I had struggled for a week, but I had gotten through it.

And my mom was kind. She listened to me.

After we finished our conversation, I went into the next room to fold some laundry. My mom came in suddenly. She hugged me and said, “We know how much you have been through, and we’re proud of how far you’ve come, and what you’ve done with your life.”

I was stunned. For the first time, it felt like forgiveness was within reach.

The next day, Megan and I took our kids to the pool. It was absolutely joyful. Reed played so well with her younger children. He is such a kind child, and he loves Megan. At one point, Megan told her son that I was going to go to take the boys to the deep end while she stayed in the shallow end with the baby.

“I like Kelly!” he said.

Megan laughed. “I do too,” she said.

In the car, I told Megan what my mom had said to me. Her face registered shock, then she smiled and said, “Wow. People really can change.”

She’s right. I know that she’s right. Caleb may not have changed, but I have changed. My parents have changed.

Caleb may still be dark, but he is no longer my shadow side. I have shed that shadow.

My dad’s first love is the outdoors. When I was in my twenties, we started backpacking regularly. It was the closest that I have ever been with him. He is an introvert–not much of a talker–but on those trips, he would talk to me. Those hikes, and lakes, and mountains were one of the few things that we shared.

The other day, my mom, dad, and I took Reed for his first hike into a mountain lake. He is blessed to have my parents as his grandparents, and I think he knows that.


I know that too.

Last night, I called a man who I used to date before I met Caleb. “What are you doing?” I asked. “I’m coming over,” I said.

“I’m kind of seeing someone,” he said.

“So am I,” was my reply.

It was a booty call, of sorts, but it was not a booty call for sex; it was a booty call for companionship. I just wanted someone to sit next to me on the couch.

I am ready for someone to sit next to me on the couch.

After Caleb’s wedding, I talked to my therapist. We talked via Skype. She has a newborn baby, but she still makes time for me. Her baby was sleeping on her chest. I told her how sad I had been. “What do you think was the source of your sadness?” she asked.

I told her that I didn’t know, that I have no love for Caleb. “I don’t think it was about Caleb,” she said.

And then, I talked about how I feel like I’m ready to have love in my own life, and I apologized for that. The truth is that I don’t feel like a good feminist if I don’t wholeheartedly embrace my single status, but I am ready for someone to sit next to me on the couch.

She said, “Kelly, it is okay for you to be sad that you’re single. That is completely normal and okay. In fact, I would be more worried about you if you weren’t sad about that.”

I needed that permission. I needed permission to be sad.

At the end of our conversation, she said, “The past few times that I have spoken with you, I haven’t had to do any work. I will be here for you as long as you need, but I don’t think that you need me anymore.”

I guess I’ve gotten better.

River Guide came through town unexpectedly this morning. He had cut a trip short because of some sad news that he had received, and although he didn’t have time to stay, I met him for breakfast where I met one of his best friends. I saw then what River Guide has seen about me. I saw the way his friend respects him. I saw River Guide’s kindness reflected in his friendship with this man.

My heart felt very open.

River Guide’s friend left, and we came back to my house for a bit. He kept rationalizing his feelings about the situation that he’s dealing with. “I thought that I had come to terms with this,” he said.

Finally, I held his face between my hands. “It’s okay to feel sad,” I said.

“I know,” he said, but his eyes got damp.

He needed permission to feel sad.

Last night, as I sat with my former lover and visited, it occurred to both of us that we could renew our connection. I thought about River Guide. I said, “I am not in a monogamous relationship with River Guide. I can do what I want.”

But, in the end, I didn’t really want to be with that former lover in that way. Still, I felt a connection with him. I felt such warmth.

And then, this morning, River Guide appeared very suddenly. With him, all bets are off. What I feel for him is more than what I want to feel, and sometimes, those feelings cause me pain. Sometimes, they create joy.

But today, I thought of both of those men, of how I have so much love inside of me, and of how that love is available to both of them. I am not in love with either of them, and I may not be getting what I want in return, but I am grateful for the presence of love in my life–love for those two men, love for all of my friends, love (especially) for Megan, love for Megan’s children, love for my child, love for my parents.

I am grateful that people can change. I am grateful that I have changed. I am grateful for gratitude.

And it is okay if I still feel sad sometimes.

It is okay to feel sad. It is okay if I’m sad because I don’t have someone to sit next to me on the couch.

But it still gets better.

I may have to sit alone on the couch, but it is still so much better than what I had with Caleb. When Reed and I moved into the house that we live in now, we laid side by side in the hammock. “Everything is better now,” he said.

And he was right. Everything is better.

On Being Erased

I have a playlist on Spotify titled “Writing,” and tonight, when I started writing this blog, this song came on:

Although I haven’t felt very alive this week, the song seemed fitting. A few days ago, I posted on Facebook that I was thinking of taking a social media break until I finished my book. I have never done that before. I like social media. I don’t see social media as platform. I see it as the way that I keep in touch with friends. For me, to cut off social media would be out of character, but I wanted to cut the plug this week. What I realized later is that my desire to cut the plug to Facebook wasn’t a desire to finish my book; it was more of a desire to disappear.

I wanted to disappear without anyone being able to hold me accountable for my disappearance.

What I mean by “disappearance” is that I would like to be absent from my body for just a short period of time. 

Most writers would say that writing is like an out-of-body experience, and that is the root of the joy. It’s in the transcendence, you see?

But as a memoirist, my recent writing has been too close to my lived experience for me to transcend the reality of my life.

I need a break. Not from social media, but from myself.

I told a friend today that people think that women like me are tough because of what we’ve endured, and then, because of how openly we talk about what we’ve experienced, but for me, my toughness is only armor. I’ve built a steel carriage on the outside that protects the tenderest part of me.

My wounds still beat inside my chest. Always.

I went to a coffee shop last week, and I wrote the chapter of Reed’s birth. I hadn’t realized how resistant I had been to writing about Reed. That resistance does not come from me worrying about Reed’s feelings (Reed knows what his dad did, he lived through it, and he knows that I’m writing a book). My resistance comes from my guilt and sadness.

I birthed him with so much hope. I wanted to do everything right for him, but I did everything wrong.

Then, the chapter evolved. I wrote about my mother-in-law, and how, she told me that she loved me on the phone before she had ever even met me. I couldn’t say the words back, even though I knew that I should have.

Soon, I was writing about my relationship with the words “I love you,” and how those words had both been withheld from me, and how I had withheld them from others. I wrote about how Caleb was the first man I had ever dated who I felt safe with emotionally. He had so many problems, but he also seemed more in love with me than anyone ever had. No one before had ever looked at me in the way that he looked at me.

I know now that this is a huge red flag of abuse, but obviously, I didn’t know it then. All I knew was that I felt so swept up in his love for me. I had never felt so adored.

And as I was writing all of this in my book (in meticulous, painful detail) I realized that Caleb was getting married. That fact has hardly been lost upon me, but it has also not brought me pain–until that moment.The clash of those feelings–of writing about his love for me, his proposal, and our son’s birth–with my knowledge that he was remarrying undid me.

When I held newborn Reed, I whispered to him that I loved him, but I should have whispered that I was sorry.

I’m sorry.

I teared up at the coffee shop, and I was sitting in a window, so I didn’t think that anyone could see me. But then, I looked over, and one of the employees was hovering kindly. He looked as though he wanted to check on me. I packed up my bag and left. I thanked him on my way out.

I texted my therapist and asked if she could talk to me.

And here’s the deal: she couldn’t fix it.

All she could do was listen. And validate my feelings. She knows–more than anyone–that I don’t love Caleb anymore. She knows–more than anyone–what Caleb did to me.

She listed to me the litany of his offenses, and god, hearing it come out of the mouth of someone else always puts it into perspective. He is a genuinely sick man (in far more ways than I have described).

But she also told me that, in all her years of practice, the one thing that all abusers have in common is that they are master manipulators. They’re extremely skilled at making themselves look like victims.

And so, when I question why his family, or his wife, or his friends, don’t believe me, I have to remind myself that–as my therapist said–they are simply incapable of believing me. He is that sophisticated of a manipulator.

Of course, I already knew all of this, but it was good to be reminded of it.

Last week, Reed told me that there were going to be 200 people at the wedding. That news stung. We were Skyping, so he could see my expression, and I saw his face register that it stung for me (he is unusually empathetic for a ten-year-old). I wanted to end the conversation. I found some excuse to end the conversation, but he seemed bummed.

“Do you want to keep talking?” I asked.

“Yes, let’s keep talking,” he said. So I hid my hurt feelings, and we kept talking. He told me that he had to stay at his grandparents’ house the night before the wedding because his dad and fiance were going to stay at a hotel with her friends. He was obviously disappointed. He seemed to feel left out, but I didn’t know what to say. I have determined to never badmouth his father, but how do I encourage him to express his frustrations without badmouthing his father?

I remember when I first left Caleb. A man told me, “My dad was abusive to my mom. The important thing is that you never say anything bad about Caleb because Reed will internalize it. That’s what I did when my mom said stuff about my dad. I thought that I must have been shit if men like him were shit.”

I remember a friend–a child of toxic divorce–telling me that the parent should never tell the child that they “miss” them because that’s just a burden on the child. So I didn’t tell Reed that I missed him, but I later grew to realize that he wanted to hear that, and now, I tell him that I miss him.

He misses me too.

I’ve never said anything bad about Caleb to Reed. I’ve always wanted Reed to feel good about himself, and he does. But I can’t erase Reed’s memories. I can’t change the fact that Reed remembers “Daddy yelling, and mommy crying.” I can’t change the fact that Reed knows his dad abused his mom because Reed lived with that abuse.

I’ll never fully know what Reed saw and heard because, when it happened, I wasn’t present.

I was in my cave.

And I’m sorry for that.

I need to be present for Reed now, but it’s hard sometimes. When he told me that 200 people were going to be attending that wedding, that information hurt, but for his sake, I had to pretend as though it didn’t.

But it did. It hurt. It hurt because all of those people celebrating that joyous occasion were going to pretend that I had never existed. They were going to pretend that I had never happened.

It felt as though Caleb had successfully erased me.

It felt as though I had never existed.

I wrote this piece about Amber Heard and victim blaming at Guernica.

I wrote: We need you to open your eyes. We need you to look at us. I tell myself that, when you see us, things will change. I tell myself that, when you see us, you’ll finally believe us.

What hurts most about Caleb’s wedding is not that he’s happy. It’s not my fear for her future. It’s not own my sadness that I am still single. It’s not some kind of misguided grief for a man I once loved, but who hurt me in ways that can never be undone.

All of those things hurt, but what hurts the most is the people who still don’t see me. All of the people who sat at that wedding and cheered for the man who inalterably changed me.

The man who birthed a child from violence.

The man who stole my child’s innocence.

The man who stole my innocence too.

Do I blame him for all of those things? Of course, but he is sick. That’s his excuse. It’s not a good excuse, but it’s an excuse.

But those people at that wedding? Most of whom know my story?

What’s their excuse?

I couldn’t disappear last week, so I slept a lot. I went for long walks. I watched Grace and Frankie. I talked to my best friends on the phone. I wrote, and wrote, and wrote some more.

And then, the day came: the wedding.

I had dinner plans with a poet, Donna, who I had met via social media. I took the subway to Oakland, and she took me out to a fancy restaurant. We talked about writing. We talked about violence. And we also laughed. A lot.

I am never always sad. Not anymore, at least.

After dinner, we walked around Lake Merritt. She picked up a rock that she said would symbolize all of my regrets. She told me to throw it into the lake, and I did. For a moment, I thought that it was going to float, but it sunk into that dark water, and I hope it took my regrets with me.

Earlier, Donna had taken this photograph of me.


She said that I looked happy, and I was happy. I was happy to be alive. I was happy to have so much to live for.

I may want to disappear sometimes, but I do not want to be erased. He doesn’t get to erase me.

I’m still here. I’m still breathing. I’m alive.

On Putting Myself First

Just before I started dating Caleb, a close friend of mine married a man named Caleb. My friend and I had been single together for quite some time, and ours was a good-time friendship. We were both adventurous. We both liked to travel, and skinny dip, and dance late into the night. When she started seeing her Caleb, her life changed. He was a kind man, but more serious than her. Their relationship moved quickly, and soon, they were married.

I remember going to visit her at their new home in a ski town that was near Boise. It was cold and snowy, and a wood stove kept their home toasty warm. My friend and I went snow shoeing. When we returned, she baked bread and made homemade noodles. His friends came over, and they were much older than us. They were medical doctors. We played cards, and I was bored. I was happy for my friend, but her life didn’t appeal to me. Still, I thought that her home was lovely, comfortable, and domestic. In a large window, she had a prism, and it refracted rainbows over the entire great room.

I thought that her life would someday be my life. A life of peace. Quiet.

“When you’re ready, it will happen,” my friend said. And I liked that idea–when I’m ready.

I drove back to my studio apartment in Boise. I was sweaty and sore from snow shoeing. I took a shower, and when I got out, Caleb was there. We went to my bed and tore into each other. My thigh muscles groaned from fatigue as he gripped them, but I didn’t care. The sex was always good between us–from the start of the relationship to the end. When we finished, we dressed and walked to the hipster bar where we had met. We drank, danced, and laughed with the many friends who had joined us. I forgot that I was tired. It was a joyful evening. I was maybe the happiest I had ever been at that point.

Maybe I’m ready, I thought to myself.

A month later, I was pregnant.

I wasn’t ready.

A year or so later, my friend divorced her Caleb, and I had an infant. Our roles were reversed. I remember how shocked I was when she told me that she was leaving him. I thought she was making a mistake. How could she let someone go who was so stable? So responsible?

I thought longingly of how I wished that my Caleb was more like hers. But her Caleb didn’t excite her, she said. He didn’t tell her he loved her.

My Caleb excited me, and he told me he loved me, but he was such a beautiful mess. He needed me to take care of him. He was quicksand, and I was up to my knees.

After my friend told me about her divorce, Caleb and I went to a craft fair and saw a booth full of the same prisms that my friend had. He bought me one for my birthday. We were so poor that it was difficult for us to even afford the most simple version, but I wanted it, and Caleb indulged me, so we bought it.

That prism accompanied us to every home that we lived in. It cast rainbows across rooms that were heavy with sadness. When I left Caleb, I took the prism with me. Reed and I moved into a tiny apartment in a student housing complex. It wasn’t a good place to raise a child (or even to be an adult), but it was clean, safe, and it had good light. Reed and I saw more rainbows in that apartment than we had anywhere else.

The hope that those rainbows foretold was real.

12e78-rainbow2bheartThings got better.

I am writing this post at the kitchen table in my favorite writer’s house. She is an activist, an artist, and a good person,. We met when she spoke at my university, but she meets lots of people. I don’t think that I made much of an impression at that time. Shortly after her visit, I published my most-read essay, and she emailed me. Then, she friended me on Facebook. Then, she came through the Forest Service guard station where I was working, and I caught her with her face buried in a tree. I think it was a white pine. We had so much in common, which is probably why her writing had always resonated with me strongly–her mixture of artistry and activism.

And now, she is a mentor. And a friend. And she offered me her home to write in for two weeks. And what can I say to that?

What I can say is that her home is as beautiful as I had imagined that it would be. It is as beautiful as she is, and it is precisely the home that I would have thought she would live in. For a period, I get to live in this energy, and I am a sentimental person. I could not be happier. In this apartment–where I get to do what I love (which is make a living as a writer)–I am no longer in quicksand.

At the end of my marriage, I was up to my neck in quicksand, but I didn’t let it overtake me. And now, I’m here. I’m free.

I hesitated when she offered me this time in her home. I was in Belgium at a writer’s residency, and the night before I left for Belgium, I reconnected with River Guide, who is no longer river guiding very much. I knew that I wasn’t going to see him very much this summer. I knew that the time in her home would overlap directly with the time that he was going to be in my hometown. I knew that I would likely miss all of my time with him. I chose to come here instead.

I chose to place myself first.

And, when it came down to it, even though the timing wasn’t very convenient, he drove to my hometown to see me before I left.

When I put myself first, he put me first too.

It was magic.

River Guide and I are in a relationship, but it is not a relationship. Last year, I wanted more from him, and he couldn’t give it to me, so I ended things with him. I was sincere in that conclusion, and I’ve written about it before, so I don’t feel that I need to go into more detail.

During the school year, when I have Reed, I am essentially a nun. This is not an exaggeration. Reed is always, always my priority, and that does not leave a lot of time for dating. Still, because I had ended things with River Guide, my emotional space was freed up during this past year, and I was attracted to other men, which was a significant step for me.

I moved on. And so, when River Guide offered to let me stay at his home the night before I left for Belgium, I felt confident in doing so, and if I am being totally honest, then I have to say that I knew exactly what was going to happen.

But he did not. He was surprised. He had taken me at my word when I had ended things with him the summer before (which is very sweet), but, still, he jumped at the opportunity to be involved with me again, and so, here we are.

I don’t have relationships like this, he said. I am not very smooth.

I don’t know what to do, he said. You don’t even know where you’ll be in a year.

At one point, I stood in the river while he sat on the beach facing me. The water came up to my ankles, and I was in a sundress. The water was cold, but the sunshine on my shoulders was warm. I felt as though I glowed. Happy. He looked sad though. He kept sighing and looking away. I wanted to tell him to quit it. I wanted to tell him to–as my friends would say–shit or get off the pot. 

I did not say that. Still, later, when we were at my home, I told him that I had moved on. I told him that our relationship works just fine for me as it is, that I am busy with my own life, with my career, and my travel, and my friends, and that frankly, I don’t want to expend my energy on a man who doesn’t know what he wants. I told him that I am happy to see him when it happens, but that, I am not going to stop looking elsewhere, and if I meet someone else, someone who inspires me to commit to them, then I will end my relationship (but not my friendship) with River Guide.

A friend recently said to me, “You are a relationship person. I don’t think that I had realized that before.”

And I am. I like intimacy. I like deep connections. I orient heavily towards monogamy. I am faithful in committed relationships. I have never cheated on anyone. I have never knowingly been the “other woman” either. I am not saying that this is the right way to live, but it is the way that I live, and I am trying to learn how to live with myself.

So, River Guide is a stretch for me. Things are not black and white with him. They are all kinds of gray. Last summer, that gray unsettled me, but this summer, I can handle it. I told one friend that my relationship with River Guide works for me right now. It allows me to have some intimacy, and someone to care about, without really interfering with my life in other ways. I told her that I don’t really want to stop my relationship with River Guide.

Her response was, “Why would you stop that when you’ve got life by the balls right now?”

And River Guide’s response? He understands. “You’re placing your own needs first,” he said. “I’m glad for that.”

But he didn’t actually sound glad, and he was a bit (a lot) reserved that night and the next day.

Still, the next day, after we had gone on a hike and a drive, we stopped at a campground. He strode up from the river. I smiled at him, and he smiled back. He took my face between both hands and kissed me so tenderly. I felt that kiss all the way into my toes.

Later, when our time came to say goodbye, he said, “I always enjoy spending time with you because you challenge me.”

I may be challenging him, but I am challenging myself more. I am learning. I am growing. I am putting myself first.

His needs are not my concern. He can take care of himself, and I refuse to listen to my toes.

On the weekend before River Guide came to see me, a good friend also came to see me. I have never felt more loved than I do right now . Maybe it is my age–the fact that I’ve had so many years to cultivate friendships–but I feel overwhelmed with loving people in my life, and I mean that in the best possible way.

This friend has known me for many years. She knew me before Caleb. At one point, she said, “I think that you’re the happiest now that I’ve ever seen you. You’re even happier than you were before you met Caleb. You were always pretty happy before you met Caleb, but there was just something missing.”

I thought about her words for a long time because I knew that she was right. Though I have PTSD, a history of trauma, I’m raising a child on my own, and I’m still in school, I am happier than I have ever been; I am complicated.

I am not my trauma; I am the joy that follows.

Still, some days I am only my trauma, and I am allowed to be both. Don’t tell me that I can’t be both.

That night by the river, after River Guide had looked at me sadly, I curled up next to him on the beach, and we talked about sadness. He doesn’t read my writing because he doesn’t want to feel sad. He acknowledged that he avoids sadness as much as possible, and I forgave him for not reading my writing, but I told him that his refusal to read it means I can write about him with impunity (see what I’m doing here?).

He told me that he thinks his avoidance of sadness is healthy. He said, “Maybe that’s selfish of me.” And I responded that I had read some articles that claim that selfish people are actually happier. It was, I am sure, not what he wanted to hear.

I told him that I am more interested in living a meaningful life than a happy life, and he did not even understand what that meant. What was a meaningful life, he wondered? (For reference, he is a scientist).

I wasn’t really sure how to explain it. I told him that I thought a meaningful life was when someone affects change for the better on the world (or people) around them. He then said that he lives a meaningful life because he teaches high school (and he’s quite good at it). I agreed with him, but I knew there was still a disconnect between what we perceived as meaningful. (Let me be clear, though, when I say that he is a good person–an ethical person–and one who makes the world around him better. I care about him deeply, and he has made my own life better in an infinite amount of ways.)

Later, I realized what that disconnect was: To me, meaningful change occurs in intimate relationships. I do value the relationships with my students, but ultimately, those are surface level (and tend to be one-directional) relationships. What I value more (for myself) are the relationships with those who are in the trenches with me, and River Guide doesn’t really want to be in the trenches with me. He is in the trenches with me, but he wants to have a surface level relationship, and that’s completely okay. Still, he doesn’t get to call that relationship meaningful.

My friend–though–the one who drove to see me? Now, that’s a meaningful relationship. She, too, is a scientist, but she reads my writing. She’s told me that it makes her cry, but she reads it anyway because she wants to really know me. She wants to know what happened to me, and to know where I’m coming from.

And you know what? She still thinks I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. It turns out that my life–writing and all–is not so scary.

When my friend and I went to the Farmers’ Market in my town, we saw the prism guy. By then, my own prism had grown kind of dingy with time, and I wanted a new one. As I talked with the prism guy, I realized that I was finally in a position to replace the prism that Caleb had bought for me. I can afford it now, all on my own, and I don’t even have to wince at the cost because I’ve put myself first enough that I can now support myself.

So, I bought a new one.

And you know what? It’s brighter, and it has more facets.

Just like me.