On Alchemy

Almost a year ago, I was diagnosed with the Type A flu one day before I was set to defend my dissertation. There was no way to reschedule my defense and graduate on time, so the next morning, I woke up, put on a nice top and cardigan—added a little lipstick for emphasis—and defended my dissertation via Skype from my upstairs office.

I passed.

Dr. Sundberg.

I went downstairs, called my parents to celebrate, then went back to bed. I felt my fever rise as I slept. That night, the fever crested and waned. At its peak, it was 103.7 degrees.

I thought, “If I die here tonight, Reed will find me in the morning.”

I thought, “I cannot die here tonight.”


Later, when I told my mother of how high my fever was, she said, “If that ever happens again, you need to go to the emergency room.”

I said, “Who would drive me to the emergency room?”

She said, “Call an ambulance.” I knew then that she was serious.

I could have died that night, but I didn’t.

Still, I didn’t wake up the same


Things were hard when I left Caleb, but once I realized that I was moving on, that I was really doing this, my life became imbued with a sense of purpose, a sense of hope. There was always the potential of what was to come, and what was to come looked so, very bright.

First, I got into the PhD program. Then I started publishing essays and receiving awards. Then I got an agent. Then I got a book deal. Then we sold the translation rights. And so on, and so on.

And somehow, in the midst of all of that work, my personal life trudged along with me. I dated some. I had sex with older men. I had sex with younger men. I dated very casually. I tried to date more seriously and failed.

Others congratulated me on my vulnerability. Look at you, they said. You have been through so much, but you are still putting yourself out there.

I congratulated myself on my vulnerability too. Still, I assumed that because I hadn’t found something serious, I had failed.


4 years ago, I fell in love with a man who didn’t love me back. I loved him for two years, but I told myself that I didn’t love him. I told myself that I was in control.

During that time, I wrote on this blog that he had taught me how to not fall in love.

I thought that, because he didn’t destroy me, I must not have loved him.

Because, you see? Love that didn’t destroy wasn’t real to me.


But  I came to realize that I had loved him. Though he wasn’t in love with me, he was kind to me, and he respected me. He taught me what it feels like to be with someone stable and consistent.

He didn’t destroy me. He nourished me, and though I felt heartbreak when we parted, I left him more whole and more loving.

It didn’t have to destroy me to be real.


It has been over six years since my divorce, and I am still single. I often think that something is wrong with me, even though I have loved, I have dated, I have grown, and I am more whole.

When I was home over Christmas, I was out with a friend. She talked of a woman we both know who divorced her long-term husband and was then immediately in another relationship. My friend said, “I keep thinking that, if I divorced my husband, would I be a [insert name here] or a Kelly?”

I was like, “Whoa, I am your example here?”

I told her of the man I had been quietly involved with for months,  and then, while we were talking, I received a text from another man who I had a fling with before. I said, “Just because I haven’t been in something serious doesn’t mean that I am celibate.”

I wanted to say to her: Be a Kelly. Be a Kelly. Be a Kelly.


Be a Kelly. Be a Kelly. Be a Kelly.


I always worry when I see someone rush into dating after a breakup. Where does that need come from? How can someone be happy if they cannot be happy alone?

It is true that I have not met someone who is a good fit for me in the past six years, but I believe with the fullness of my being that is for the best.

Because, you see when I woke up from that flu, I wasn’t the same. My fever dreams had enough pitch and intensity to both scare and excite me. I saw things—not real things—but things, and I woke up from that flu feeling extremely sensitive, heightened, and things—just things—have not been the same since.

My premonitions have returned. My fear of ghosts has returned. My night terrors have returned.

What that fever unearthed for me was my trauma. I had not buried it enough to suffocate it.

I am still deeply wounded—not in my brain, but in my body.

My brain can rationalize with my trauma now, can usually recognize when I’m distorting or overreacting, but my body only knows how to feel from the inside.

At this point, the inside is darker and more unsettling than anything coming from the outside.


Still, there is a certain kind of beauty in the darkness.

I know how dark this world can be, and do you know what a gift that is?

I spent my life fearing the darkness, but it has made me who I am.


I have been speaking to an emotional alchemist lately. A friend gifted me with sessions. It’s like therapy but with a psychic component. Or therapy mixed with reiki. Emotional alchemy is genuinely impossible to describe. It is probably more “woo” than most folks are comfortable with.

The alchemist and I spoke on Sunday, and she said, “Your heart is golden. It is so big and wonderful, but because of that, you feel things on a large scale too. We need to give you some tools for protection.”

I repeated to myself, “My heart is golden.” I believed it.

Still, later, she brought up shame, and I started sobbing. I told her that my abusive marriage had brought out the worst in me, that I had accessed my own cruelty in the process of trying to protect myself, that I worried I was a bad person.

She told me to look in the mirror—to really look at myself—and to say “Thank you. I’m sorry. I love you. Forgive me.”

Forgiveness is alchemy.


I have not found something serious in the past six years because I was not ready, but that doesn’t mean that I have failed. I am alone because I had to learn how to love the woman looking back at me in the mirror. I could not have done that if I had been foisting my love on to a man. Given the choice, I would, again, Be a Kelly.

The truth is that, when I end up in a committed relationship, that person is going to have to be pretty special. They will need to be kind, funny, stable, and emotionally intuitive. And I can’t imagine myself with someone who doesn’t have their own kind of damage. I can only imagine myself with someone whose sore spots don’t rub against mine.

Because—though I like folks who aren’t damaged as much as the rest of us—only a damaged person can understand the beauty in a certain kind of darkness.

I need someone who understands my darkness.

I need someone who understands the need to look in the mirror and say, “Thank you. I’m sorry. I love you. Forgive me.”

On Loss

I had a dream the other night that I was living in a house. A fixer-upper. The dream was very specific. I was making the house into what I wanted it to be. I filled bookshelves upon bookshelves. There were windows that took up an entire wall. I put a red sectional couch in front of the bookshelves. I painted the cabinets. At one point, I needed shelves hung, and then, Caleb was in my dream. He appeared quite casually. We were still married. He hung the shelves for me.

I stood back, surveyed my progress. The living room was stylish and beautiful. My awake self can remember this as well as my dream self. Then, Caleb’s new wife appeared. She was wearing a wedding dress. She looked beautiful. I told her as much. Then Caleb’s ex-girlfriend (the woman he dated before me, but who is now my friend) appeared. She was wearing the same dress, and it looked just as beautiful on her. I commented on how that dress looked beautiful on everyone.

Still in the dream, the ex-girlfriend who is now my friend, came to me, and together, we looked out the window. The house was at the top of a hill above a beautiful forested valley. I said to my friend, “This is everything I’ve wanted, but none of it is mine. It is all hers. I gave it to her.”

Even in my dream I wasn’t sad to lose Caleb, but I was sad to lose the dream of that house on the hill with a valley of greenery stretching out below it.

Even in my dream, Caleb’s new wife wore the wedding dress better than I had.

Book publication was a dream come true, but I didn’t experience a lot of the emotions that I expected to experience.

I had a book launch in NYC. I was on NYC public radio. The perfect friend accompanied me to New York, and we ate a lot of good food and went to The Strand where we took pictures of my book in the aisles. Everything had potential. So much potential.

It could have been that valley of greenery, but it wasn’t.

Writing the book was more beautiful than the release. The anticipation of the book was more beautiful than the release. To be honest, the release of a book is a bit like a wedding. The anticipation is such that the ritual cannot possibly live up to the hype.

I had tea with a friend the other day. She and her husband have a newborn, but her husband received a prestigious fellowship, so he’s away during the week and back on the weekend, which means that she’s single parenting a good portion of the time. She said to me, “How have you done this for so long?”

For a moment, I didn’t even realize that she was referring to single parenting. I thought she was referring to being alone.

Later, I said to her, “Are you lonely?” She looked at me with recognition. She said yes.

Loneliness is the great equalizer.

All of us get lonely.

I cut off contact with one of my best friends a while ago. I couldn’t have made any other decision. I had feelings. She dismissed them. I had more feelings. She dismissed those too, then made the discussion about her feelings. I was never allowed to have feelings, you see? Suddenly, I was left confronting the realization that maybe my tendency towards codependence wasn’t only reflected in my relationship with Caleb.

I still love her. I hope that we can reunite someday, but I know that I need her to come to me for that to happen. I know that I need her to tell me that she was wrong–not about everything necessarily–but at least about some of it. I don’t see that ever happening, so I suspect that she’s going to become part of a painful past rather than part of a peaceful present.

Another friend was visiting me from Seattle recently. She’s a therapist, but that’s not why I listen to her. I listen to her because she’s kind, and wonderful, and wise. She pointed out to me that we all get a little more defensive, a little more angry, when we’ve been pushed on something that we know to have some truth.

It’s rare for me at this point to experience hurt without anger, but I’m not angry with the friend I cut off contact with. She hasn’t pushed up against any of my raw spots. I believe, unequivocally, that she was wrong in how she treated me and in what she said to me. If I thought there had been some truth to what she’d said, I’d probably feel angry, but I don’t.

I’m just done.

There’s this other thing. There has been so much.

In July, after my book came out, Caleb put out a statement on Tumblr where he said that I abused him. It was an ill-written and ill-thought-out attempt to discredit me. It backfired on him greatly, but that wasn’t before it caused me a lot of hurt.

I went to a friend’s house–a man–and I said to him, “I think that I have only now acknowledged that he is never going to accept responsibility for what he did.” I broke into sobs, and my friend gave me an awkward hug.

Caleb is never going to acknowledge that he hurt me.

I cared about that male friend deeply. I let him into my home and my life. Later, I slept with a man younger than me, and I told my friend when he dropped off his dog for me to watch for the night. My friend said, “Well, you’re not going to see him again, are you?” I said that I thought that I might.

I did see that younger man again. And my friend grew petulant.

My friend didn’t want to date me, but he still wanted to have unlimited access to me. I walked on eggshells around him. One night, I cancelled plans with my friend to see the younger man, but I scrambled to make it up to my friend in the next day. Our friendship had been intense. It wasn’t romantic love, but I loved him. Looking back, I know that my codependence was rearing its ugly head.

My friend came to my house grumpy. He ate in silence. He didn’t express any gratitude for the meal that I had given him. And then he exploded.

Another friend who had dated him had cautioned me that he was angry. I had sidelined that caution, but she was right.

I haven’t spoken to him since that night.

Loneliness is also the great magnifier.

Take the consonants out of the word “loneliness” and it’s just “loss.”

Even now, I grapple with what I’ve lost. In his Tumblr post where he claimed that I abused him, Caleb also claimed to have left me. This is such a laughable claim, but there are obviously people who believe it or he wouldn’t be able to write it. His current wife must believe it, but more remarkably, his own family must believe it, though they were obviously present for the end of our marriage. What are his parents telling themselves in order to make this farce palatable?

My acknowledgment in my writing that I still loved Caleb must make him feel powerful. He can say “I left her” with confidence because he knows that I still loved him when I left him.

Abusive men are master manipulators.

Tonight, my son was washing dishes. He said, “Mom, can I make a joke that you probably won’t like?” I gave him the okay. He held up the bowl and said, “There’s a chip in this bowl. Did my dad do this?”

I started laughing, then said, “TOO FAR, DUDE.”

He said, “My dad would never let me make a joke like that, even if it didn’t have anything to do with you. He would say it’s too dark.”

I remembered how Caleb used dark jokes to charm me at the end. His dark jokes often disarmed me.

It doesn’t surprise me that he doesn’t let his own child make dark jokes. Dark jokes are best deployed when all hope has been lost.

I still have hope.

There was a rainstorm today. A gullywasher.

We all watch rain dump from a gutter on to a car. We all know how that feels.

All of us get lonely.

My Letter to Cindy Scott

[From an email that I sent on 1/26/2014 to the prosecutor in my ex-husband’s domestic battery case.]

Dear Cindy,

I am writing to let you know how disappointed I am in the handling of my ex-husband, Joshua Caleb Winters, Domestic Battery case.
Caleb would have killed me if I had stayed with him.  He punched me in the head repeatedly, he strangled me, and he threatened to kill me.  I lived my life in terror of him, and I didn’t call 911 until things had gotten so bad, and he had broken so many phones when I wanted to call for help in the past, that I panicked.
I tried to reach out to you, and I tried to make contact with you, and you never acknowledged my emails or my contacts.  I called the Victims Assistance Program, and I called RDVIC, and still, you never contacted me.
The only thing I asked was that my ex-husband be mandated to take Batterer’s Intervention classes. If you had called me, then I could have told you that the counselor who he went to Anger Management with, Charles Cotrill, was someone he started seeing before his abuse escalated. He got worse after he started seeing “Charlie.” Caleb started seeing Charlie as a way of trying to keep me, not as a measure of genuine reform.  He had been seeing a counselor, Dr. Ed Jacobs, who had been helping him, but Ed told him hard truths about his behavior, so he quit seeing Ed and started seeing Charlie instead. Even then, Caleb never admitted to Ed or Charlie the extent of his behavior.  I went with Caleb to see Ed, but I was too scared to tell him how much Caleb was abusing me.  I believed that Caleb was telling his counselors the truth, and that was part of the reason I stayed married to him for so long after his abuse got extremely violent–because I thought he was getting treatment–but after I left Caleb, I spoke with Ed who told me that he had no idea how much Caleb was abusing me, that Caleb had lied to him completely.
Charlie, in contrast to Ed, told Caleb that he was the victim. He made Caleb feel even more powerful. After Caleb started seeing Charlie, his abuse got so bad and so frequent that I started missing work and lunch dates with friends because I could no longer hide the bruises. I asked Caleb why he had gotten worse after seeing Charlie, and his answer was “Charlie makes me feel good about myself so I don’t need to take your shit anymore.”  This was before he held me down and spit in my face, before he punched me in the spine so hard that I stopped breathing, before he held me down by my neck and cut my lip open  with a pill bottle of Ambien while he was trying to make me swallow the entire bottle, before he told me that he was going to commit himself to Chestnut Ridge because he couldn’t stop fantasizing about killing me, before he chased me into the street in his bare feet in front of the RAs at the dorm while I tried to escape and begged them to call the police.
Charlie made Caleb worse.  I tried to tell you that in my first email that I sent to you.  I tried to call you and tell you that in person, but you never spoke to me.
 I am just so devastated.  I realize that, in your position, you become desensitized to the plight of others.  I realize that, when you are dealing with abuse situations that have multiple stab wounds, someone throwing a bowl at another person might not seem like that big of a deal, but I am a person.  I am a person who feared for my life, who had to hide bruises and lie to friends and family, who got evicted from her home after her husband was arrested, who had to live on the floor of a friend’s house with her child for a month, who had to live in three different states in one year while she tried to escape, who has Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, who has been blamed and manipulated by the person who abused her for years, and who was ignored by the system that was supposed to protect her.
The only thing I wanted was for him to take Batterer’s Intervention courses, and on Friday, when I spoke with Sharon from the Victim’s Assistance Program, she told me that he had taken Batterer’s Intervention courses.  If I had known that he hadn’t, I would have insisted upon a trial.  I would have taken my chances at 50/50 because someone like him should not be let go with no consequence.
I realize that you have asked him to write a letter of apology to me, and I appreciate that–and I do want that letter–but that letter will not be sincere.  He is not sorry.  If he was sorry, he would have apologized to me long ago. The letter will probably say things like “I didn’t mean to hurt you” or “I’m sorry if I hurt you.”  Because he has not taken the Batterer’s Intervention classes, he still does not understand that what he does was wrong.
And he will do this to another woman, and now, he will be smarter about it.  He will choose a better victim. He will keep her more isolated.  He will call the police first.  He will not admit to what he’s done when the police come.  He will have her arrested too. When the police arrested him, they asked him “Did she hit you too?”  Caleb said no, then the police officer said “Because we can arrest her too.” That was after Caleb had already said no.  The police officer was basically offering to help him.  The police officer also asked me to describe what happened, and I said that I was walking away from Caleb and he threw the bowl at me.  The other police officer then said “Did he just knock the bowl off the counter and it hit your foot?”  I was confused because I had just told the story, so I said “No, he threw the bowl at me.”  Later, Caleb told me that the police officer wrote in his statement that Caleb knocked the bowl off of the counter, even though Caleb had written in his own statement that he threw it.  I have no way of knowing if this is true because I have not seen the police report, but if it is true, then the police officer was again, trying to help Caleb.  I didn’t want Caleb arrested.  I loved him.  I only wanted him to change, so I begged the police officers not to arrest him.  Maybe that is why they tried to help him.  Maybe they thought they were helping me too.
But those police officers, and your dismissal of his charges, have turned him into the perfect abuser.  He won’t do it to me again, but he will do it to another woman, and she won’t be able to get away because he will be too smart and understand the system too well to let her escape.  My heart breaks for that woman, just as my heart is broken for all of the senseless suffering that my child and I have gone through.
 I don’t know why I’m sending this email. I have received no response from you to my other emails. I can call, but you won’t answer.  Maybe I should send a letter.  Maybe I should send a letter to the judge.  I don’t know.  All I know is that my husband abused me for years, and I thought the legal system was designed to protect me, but all the legal system did was to show him (and me) how untouchable he truly is.

A Legacy of Tenderness for My Son

Reed dancing

The other day, my twelve-year-old son, Reed, burst into my bedroom. “Mom, look what I found” he said. It was his stuffed Curious George animal—tattered and loved. “George the monkey” had been my son’s favorite doll when he was a toddler. I remember carrying Reed up the stairs to bed, his head on my shoulder, his thumb in his cheek, George the monkey hanging from one hand.

In my bedroom that day, I took the stuffed Curious George from Reed. He hesitated as he handed it to me—some part of him wasn’t ready to let go—but I told him that I’d keep George safe for him. I took George to my office where I propped him up on a bookshelf next to another stuffed monkey, a colorful monkey I had purchased at a shop in Hanoi. As I looked at the two monkeys next to each other, they told very different stories. One monkey told the story of my son’s childhood. The other monkey told the story of my decision to leave my son’s father, as well as the story of why I have a difficult time trusting men.

I had gone to Vietnam for my best friend’s wedding, and as I stood at the front of the ceremony next to a wide, blue expanse of water and read a bell hooks quote about love being a verb, it struck me that my own marriage was not going to last, that, in my marriage, love was used as a weapon.

Love was used to control.

My love for my husband was used to hurt me because my then-husband was emotionally and physically abusive, and I was only beginning to realize that I would never be safe while he was in my life. It was another year or two before I left. My then-husband was arrested for domestic battery, and I let him come home for two days of terror before I realized that I needed to leave. I rushed around the home gathering as many things as I could for my escape. That night, Reed and I slept on the floor of a friend’s house, and I wrapped my arms around Reed while he wrapped his arms around George. For the first time, we were a family of two.

After I left my husband, I struggled with so many feelings of caution. I had grown up with a father and brother who were never anything but kind to me, but it had only taken the one man to teach me how to fear. When I turned on my television and tried to watch Game of Thrones, I shuddered at the depictions of rape. I think that I’m the only one of my friends who turned off the show and never returned to it (I chose to watch reruns of Gilmore Girls instead). My skin crawled if a man sat next to me on a bench. I shook when a man slammed his palm down on a table for emphasis. I stopped locking my doors because my ex-husband, too often, had blocked me from leaving when he was abusing me. I knew rationally that it wasn’t safe for me to leave my doors unlocked, but in my bones, I had grown to believe that the menace was everywhere—both inside and outside of my home.

My ex-husband had never been abusive towards our son, and my therapist theorized that that my ex-husband only hated women. My ex-husband still had partial custody, and every other weekend, I would drive my son to a 7-11 in rural Richie County, West Virginia that was halfway between the town my ex-husband lived in and the town in Ohio where I had moved to get my PhD. This 7-11 was busy on Friday evenings when the men from the oil fields were getting off work. I would take my son to his father’s car, where we would not make eye contact, then I’d go into the 7-11 to use the restroom. Every other Friday, as I walked by the workers milling around, I felt their eyes on me. I imagined, probably inaccurately, what they were thinking.

Once, a man with a to-go cup and two travel-sized bottles of White Zinfandel asked me if I “went there often” in the way that someone would try to pick up a date at the bar. I was unnerved, but I responded to him politely. Like all good women, I had been taught to be polite. He told me how much money he was making working for the fracking companies. He seemed to assume that I would be impressed. I made a mental note that he was going to be driving drunk on the same highway as me. I was aware of how he seemed to assume that he was entitled to my attention. When he paid for his wine and left, he turned to me and said, “Burn baby burn!” and as I made the drive back to Ohio, gas tankers drove by me in streams, their lights twinkling in the darkness, while I wept at the way my life had turned out.

I was, it seemed, surrounded by men, and I was distrustful and afraid of them.

But I loved my tender-hearted, creative, and witty son. I loved him with a ferocity that only a single mother can understand. He and I were a team, and I would have done anything for him. What I needed to do for him, I knew, was to create a world where he was safe to be himself. I knew that my son was not destined to become his father, and I didn’t want his father’s abuse of me to become his legacy. I wanted my love for him to be his legacy.

In time I realized that, if I was going to love the man that my boy would become, I had to learn how to trust men again. I wasn’t ready to date yet, but for the first time in my life, I made friends who were men. They didn’t want anything from me but my friendship, and I saw that kindness was not solely a feminine virtue. I developed a close mentorship with my male dissertation advisor who has always been supportive and kind to me, and I worked to be closer with my father who I had grown apart from after my divorce. I needed my son to see that I could be close to men, so that he would know that, when the time comes for him to be a man, I will be capable of loving and accepting him, just the way he is.

In the first year that my son and I lived away from his father, we often went for walks in a nearby nature preserve. Once, in the spring sunlight, I captured a photo of him dancing in the mist. His entire body was joyful. And then, we took a picture of the two of us together. When I look at that picture, I see nothing but tenderness in both of our eyes. There is no anger, no resentment. There is none of what I experienced from his father because my son is his own person.

So, when my now-twelve-year old (who has just started to shave) handed me his Curious George doll with hesitance, I understood why. He didn’t want to let go of that child-like part of himself, and that’s why I told him that I would keep George safe for him. I will always nurture my son’s most tender parts because if he is going to be safe, and I am going to be safe, then our safety has to be in a world that we have created together.

Reed and Mom


On Boundaries

I struggle with boundaries. Most abuse survivors do.

Which is why it might not be surprising that I haven’t spoken to my best friend in three months.

We had a conflict that could have been a normal conflict, but I am not good at conflict so I first lashed out, then retreated, thus making it worse. But as I was stewing on this conflict, I remembered the past conflicts that we’ve had. I remembered how I never felt that any of those conflicts were fully resolved, or that she had taken any responsibility for anything, though many, many times during the course of our very long friendship, she had not been a good friend to me.

And then, it occurred to me suddenly that, as I was seeing our friendship in a new light, I didn’t know that I could ever again see it in the old light.

My boundaries had changed.

My other best friend, Megan, who is a therapist said, “When you change the rules of a friendship, it’s painful. She will have to decide if she is okay with the new rules.”

My actual therapist said, “I like Megan. Megan is right.”

All I know is that I don’t want to lose my best friend who has been as close to me as any sister could have been, but I am not a stubborn person.

Quite the opposite.

So if I have not spoken to her or made overtures for that to happen in three months, then something very fundamental in me has shifted.

I am not the same person I was twenty years ago when this woman and I became friends.

The rules have changed.

A friend came to visit me this weekend. She is young, and her husband died less than a year ago. We were talking about dating, and being vulnerable, and I told her that I feel like I’ve put myself out there, that I’ve been vulnerable, but as I was articulating that, I realized that I haven’t.

Not really.

I have put myself out there, but I don’t know that I have been vulnerable. Vulnerability would have involved putting myself out there for men who might have been actual dating material.

With the exception of River Guide, I have only put myself out there for men who I knew were never going to be what I wanted long-term.

I also told my friend today that I’m inherently monogamous, and I loved being married, but I cannot conceive of ever again being happy with the thought of only having sex with one person.

What it comes down to is that I cannot conceive of ever again trusting someone enough to pledge my entire life to them.

Maybe I have consigned myself to a lifetime of being alone.

I put myself out there for a few guys in the past year. None of them took the bait. Meanwhile, there were other guys putting themselves out there for me, but I was not taking their bait.

All of us were just shooting fireworks off into the darkness.

Recently, I let a friendship cross into territory that I shouldn’t have. This guy and I have a very slight history together, and his crush on me was obvious. I have had a few guys in my lifetime who have had hopeless crushes on me, but, outside of trying to be kind, I have never encouraged them. I do not need the attention of men and am actually usually made uncomfortable by it.

But this guy was different. He and I had hooked up before becoming friends, so I already knew that we were compatible. I couldn’t and wouldn’t have dated him because of life circumstances, but I enjoyed his flirtation.

But here’s the catch: he is in a long-term relationship.

I have never cheated on or with someone. I have pretty black and white ethics about that stuff. I don’t think that monogamy is a foregone conclusion, but if that’s where a relationship is at, then I respect that.

But we ended up crossing some boundaries (nothing in person). He told me that he was going to break up with his girlfriend, but he didn’t, so I ended our friendship.

And then, he assumed that I had wanted a relationship with him (that’s not what I had said, but in my efforts to be kind, it might have appeared that way).

And I was like, “Hell, naw.”

Why would I want to be in a relationship with a dude who treated the relationship that he was already in with such disregard?

But then I questioned myself. I felt I was being too harsh. After all, I wasn’t speaking to my best friend either.

Maybe the problem was with me?

I texted the dude I had been flirting with and asked him if we could be friends but without the flirting. He didn’t respond.

I guess that friends without flirting was not what he wanted.

I have made this new friend at the gym. He’s 63 and very kind. I feel a kinship with him. He’s a faculty member in another department, and he’s not a creep (like so many male faculty members are). He read my essay a while ago, and then, the other day, we ran into each other at the bakery where we both tend to work. We ended up having a really long conversation about my writing, and abuse, and #metoo, and the job market. He expressed that he could understand how disorienting abuse must be, that there must be so many voices in a survivor’s head, and I said that it took me two years after the marriage’s end to fully come to reality.

I said, “I still loved him.”

And my new friend said, “I know. That was obvious from the essay.” He said it with such kindness and sadness that my eyes started to water because the compassion of other people is almost always the thing that brings my suffering into the most acute focus.

You see, I still don’t trust myself enough to believe that my suffering is ever warranted.

I spent too many years with people who told me that I was overreacting, that I had it so good, or, at its worst, that I was the problem.

Is it any surprise now that I have a difficult time recognizing my own worth?

Is it any surprise now that I have a difficult time establishing boundaries?

I was interviewed for a magazine yesterday, and she brought up how I’d written about how much Caleb and I had connected sexually. I told her, quite honestly, that I don’t think I’ll ever repeat that kind of connection.

I told her of how, when Caleb and I were at the end of our relationship, I was telling him that I thought I needed to leave, and he said so sadly, “You’ll find someone else.”

I responded with complete honesty and utter heartbreak, “I’ll never love anyone but you, but I still think that I’m better off on my own.”

I was right about one thing. I’m better off on my own.

I hope that I was wrong about the rest, but in my experience, hope is too often like shooting fireworks off into the darkness.

His Apologies in Erasure

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Original Source: My ex-husband’s apologetic emails.

Survivor Stories: It Was Never About the Nail

It Was Never About the Nail

Guest Post By: Anonymous

Gaslighting isn’t a single incident. It’s a pattern of tiny, often barely perceptible instances of erasure, minimizing, confusion, deflection. Nails, beams, boards, tiles, wire—piece by piece, a house is built. The door is closed, and you’re inside, and you hear the construction around you, but somehow, no one sees.

You try to tell him. You point to the ceiling, the walls, the furniture. “Why are you so upset?” he asks. “That’s just a chair.” You try to show him, how the pieces fit together, how they make a house. “So it’s about the beams?” he says. No, it’s not about the beams. You try again. “Oh, so is this really about the tiles? What’s wrong with the tiles? Explain.” Another nail goes in; your ears are sensitive now, from the months of construction around you, and you wince in pain at the noise. You ask him to stop hammering in nails. “I don’t understand,” he says. “It’s just a nail. It’s not even that loud. I think this is just your anxiety.” You wonder if the house is real.

The house grows. He invites people in, hands them tubes of caulk and paintbrushes. You try to explain, you don’t want this, they’re hurting you, but they’re confused. Why are you upset about a paintbrush? You try to describe the walls, but you open your mouth and incoherent noises come out. You can see the house, feel it, but when you try to describe it, there’s a hole in your brain. Static. I’m crazy, you think. Maybe they’re right.

He’s a Good Man. He’s trying. He listens. He looks where you point, tries to follow. Words tumble out of your mouth, but he can’t see. He doesn’t know how. Sometimes you think you see a glimmer of recognition, and you think, we’re getting there. And then another nail goes in–it’s what he knows, after all–and you slip.

The Good Man is a teacher. He gives a talk. People like to hear a Good Man speak. He’s a Good Man, and he’s learned that nails hurt, and he wants to own that, to help others. So he describes a nail, talks about what he’s learned about nails. At the end of his speech, he passes out hammers and nails. You ask him why; you’re hurt, you’re angry, you’re afraid. “They wouldn’t understand about the house,” he says. “It’s too hard to explain.” “You didn’t have to give them hammers,” you say. “You don’t need to be so sensitive about nails,” he says. He doesn’t understand. You want to scream. “Why are you so angry?” he asks.

It’s the women who save you. The women who have lived in houses like this. They know the shape of the walls, the corridors, the rooms, the beds, the closets, the basement. They talk with you, help you draw a blueprint. Help you see the outlines. Walk the hallways with you. Locate the doors (did you know there were doors?). Turn on the lights. You see together. “It’s real,” they say. “Yes it’s real. We see it.” They take your hands, place them on the walls so you can feel them. The house is real. You knew the house was real.

It was never about the nail.

On Being a Seed

I was chatting with my friend Megan O. via Messenger, and she’s a therapist. (I have a lot of friends who are therapists, which might say something about me.)

We were chatting about how good things are for me now, and I wrote to her that I feel so wonderful, but also like there must be some terrible, disappointment impending.

And she wrote back, “Uh, don’t forget what happened prior, my friend.”

And I laughed, then wrote, “I know that you understand that it’s hard to believe that anything can ever just be good.”

And she wrote to me that she believes that we build our own paths by our intentions and what we pour our actions into.

She wrote, “You built success and community from wretched abuse. Probably not that long ago, it was a seed you nurtured and focused on, and it grew.”

And I remembered—not so long ago—when I was talking to my therapist Liz for the first time. We were in the basement office of Caleb’s therapist, X. It was the same office where Caleb and I had sat on the couch and talked to X. Where I had cried “He’s just so mean to me!” during our final session with X.

Where X had asked Caleb, “Is that true?”

Where Caleb had slowly nodded, and X had said, “We are out of time, but we are going to have to talk about this next time.”

But there was no next time.

The next time that I was in X’s basement office, I sat on the same couch alone.

Liz sat across from me in X’s chair; X was Liz’s mentor.

I pulled up my sleeves shyly, held out my arms.

This was the first time I had exposed myself in that way. I showed her the bruises.

She moved quickly, sat next to me, took my arms and turned them gently, traced her fingers along the outlines of the bruises. I started to weep, and she hugged me—this stranger—while I wept on her shoulder.

When I finished sobbing, she said, “You needed that, didn’t you?”

I talked to Liz last week. She’s not actively treating clients at this time because she’s in her dissertation year, but she continues to speak with me via Facetime while her toddler crawls around patiently in the background.

She hasn’t charged me any money since I was still with Caleb.

The last time I spoke with her, I held up my book and showed it to her through the screen, and she cried. We both cry pretty regularly now during our sessions, but not because we’re sad. We cry because we’re both so grateful.

She saved my life.

There is no way to understate that.

Liz was the person who got me to leave Caleb. She was the person who helped me not return to him. And she’s the person who helps me keep from recreating that relationship.

She gets me better than I get myself.

When she was crying, she said, “Every counselor has a few clients during their lifetime who change everything, and you’re one of those for me.”

I don’t need Liz very often anymore. I can usually figure things out myself these days, but I had a low point last fall. I reached out to Liz, and she wasn’t available, so I reached out to a friend who Skyped with me in my office and talked to me while I cried.

At the time, I said to him, “I could have cried alone, but I really wanted someone to be with me when I cried.” And he was there, so it was okay.

But later, as I relayed this to Liz, she grew horrified. She said, “I had no idea it was so serious.” And the last time that we talked, she said, “When you text me, I want you to let me know if it’s an emergency.” But even then, it hadn’t been an emergency, and I had reached out to someone else who had comforted me. I guess that’s the role of therapy—to teach us how to self-soothe.

I know that Liz will always be there for me during an emergency, but there simply haven’t been that many emergencies since I really got away from Caleb.

Life has been pretty good.

I left Caleb in the fall. We stayed married for a while. We had initially planned to stay married indefinitely so that I could stay on his health insurance. He didn’t really want our marriage to end, and maybe I didn’t either.

When I was accepted to OU’s PhD program and realized I’d have health insurance, I first called my lawyer and asked her to change our separation papers to divorce papers, then called Caleb and told him that we could just go ahead and get divorced.

He freaked out. Yelled at me. Claimed that he should have custody of Reed.

He didn’t want to divorce. I realize now that he was probably biding his time until he got me back.

At that time, I went to see Liz in X’s office. I was distraught. She drew a picture of a flower with petals on a pad. She asked me what fulfills me. I said, “Reed.” She wrote the word Reed in one of the petals. I said, “my family.” She wrote that in one of the petals. Then, I said, “my friends, my career, artistic fulfillment.”

She filled the petals in.

There was one petal left empty. She looked at me expectantly. I knew that I was supposed to say Caleb, but I couldn’t.

She then drew another flower. She added petals. She said, “What fulfilled you when you were with Caleb?”

I answered honestly, “Caleb.”

She said, “Look at all of those empty petals.”

She drew a seed.

She said, “When you were with Caleb, you were a seed. That’s all you could be.”

She said, “Now you can bloom.”

And reader, I did it.

I divorced that guy.

I bloomed.


If I Could Just Make It Stop: Alternatively Titled “The Hardest Year of My Life, but Not the Worst.”

What is the distinction between “hardest” and “worst”?

Hard often equals some kind of progress that will follow.

Worst equals bottom.

My bottom in my life was Christmas Eve 2009.

Still, even the word bottom implies that an ascent must follow.

We either move in a straight line,  we move downward, or we move upward.

These are the only options available to us.

For a long time, I was moving down, down, down.

I was living this song.

“If I could just make it stop, I could tell the whole world to get out of the way.”

I keep thinking of Roxane Gay’s review of my book. She wrote, “Sundberg’s honesty is astonishing, how she laid so much of herself bare, how she did not demonize a man who deserves to be demonized. Instead, she offers a portrait of a broken man and a broken marriage and an abiding love, what it took to set herself free from it all. In shimmering, open hearted prose, she shows that it took everything.”

I keep thinking of the way she described me as “open hearted.”

My heart is still open.

One of the things that people tell me the most is how stunned they are that I am still so open hearted.

I want to say to them, “Why shouldn’t I be?”

My heart was at its hardest during the most painful parts of my marriage. There is an entire chapter of my book titled “A Hard Heart.” The hardness didn’t save me. It only made me immune to the pain that I would have otherwise fled.

A hard heart stays.

An open heart feels enough pain to know when to leave.


If I could just make it stop. If I could just make it stop. If I could just make it stop.

My dissertation advisor took me out for a drink to celebrate the arrival of my book ARCs.

I told him that during the worst of the book, I could only write at night because I couldn’t bear to articulate the words in daylight. I was constantly fatigued from lack of sleep. He seemed to understand, and I realized how comfortable I am telling him about my life. He has been a stable and consistent male mentor in my life.

If my heart is going to be open to men, I have to be able to trust some of them, and I’m grateful for the friendships with men that I have cultivated in the past few years.

I have had to grapple with a lot of anger in the past year. Anger at our country. Anger at Caleb. Anger at abuse enablers. Anger at myself.

Writing my book was hard. I had to sit in my own anger and try to turn it into beauty.

I was living in darkness.

At night, while Reed slept peacefully downstairs, I wrote, and sobbed, and wrote, then crawled into bed exhausted. I woke up in the mornings-—a shell—drove Reed to school and taught my classes, then came home and fell into deep naps in the afternoons.

In Vermont when I was at my writer’s residency, I wrote in my studio with the Gihon River flowing outside my window in darkness.

I walked back to my room in the dim early, morning light. The silence was such that my heart cracked open at the beauty of it.

I stopped crying so much. I started sleeping again.

And then the book was finished.

I spent some time this past summer outside of Seattle with a friend of mine who is a therapist. She does exposure therapy, and she said, “In a way, you’re doing exposure therapy to yourself with your book.”

Reliving trauma is not the same as living through trauma, but it’s pretty damn close.

If I could just make it stop. If I could just make it stop. If I could just make it stop.

And then I did.

I made it stop.

I hit “send” on the final document, and I cried again, but for a different reason this time.

And my heart cracked open.

I am no longer so angry.

I know that joy, like suffering, is transient, and in some ways, joy is bittersweet because of its inevitable loss.

But for now, I’m just going to sit in this joy. I don’t even have to try and transform it into beauty because it already is.

My heart is open to all of it.




Book Stuff

I’m updating my website in bits and pieces, and I’m planning on writing a more thoughtful post about turning 40 (my birthday was yesterday) while my book publication is on the horizon.

Unfortunately, I spent my 40th birthday sick with food poisoning, but as a friend pointed out, it can only go up from here, right?

And shortly before my 40th birthday, my book received this review from Roxane Gay. I can’t imagine a better way to turn 40 than with receiving an endorsement like this for a project I’ve thrown my entire being into.

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Some other early praise:

“Goodbye, Sweet Girl is a breathtaking gut-punch of a memoir. Real talk: the story is hard. We spend so much time pretending that domestic violence doesn’t exist. We spend so much time doubting women. Enough. Sundberg gives us the truth in all its complexity; fear and hope and fury in gorgeous, near-cinematic prose that made me weep, and cheer, and understand. Here is how we save ourselves. Here is how we survive.”— Megan Stielstra, author of The Wrong Way to Save Your Life

“In her stunning memoir, Kelly Sundberg examines the heart-breaking bonds of love, detailing her near decade-long marriage’s slide into horrific abuse. Sundberg shares her own confusions, fears and empathy for her violent husband, even as she comes to realize he will never change. This is an immensely courageous story that will break your heart, leave you in tears, and, finally, offer hope and redemption. Brava, Kelly Sundberg.”—Rene Denfeld, author of The Child Finder

“A fierce, frightening, soulful reckoning—Goodbye, Sweet Girl is an expertly rendered memoir that investigates why we stay in relationships that hurt us, and how we survive when we leave them. Kelly Sundberg is a force. She has written the rare book that has the power to change lives.”—Christa Parravani, author of Her: A Memoir

As a reminder, the book will be released on June 5, 2018, and is available for pre-order here.


Here is my publisher’s book description copy:

In this brave and beautiful memoir, written with the raw honesty and devastating openness of The Glass Castle and The Liar’s Club, a woman chronicles how her marriage devolved from a love story into a shocking tale of abuse—examining the tenderness and violence entwined in the relationship, why she endured years of physical and emotional pain, and how she eventually broke free.

“You made me hit you in the face,” he said mournfully. “Now everyone is going to know.” “I know,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

Kelly Sundberg’s husband, Caleb, was a funny, warm, supportive man and a wonderful father to their little boy Reed. He was also vengeful and violent. But Sundberg did not know that when she fell in love, and for years told herself he would get better. It took a decade for her to ultimately accept that the partnership she desired could not work with such a broken man. In her remarkable book, she offers an intimate record of the joys and terrors that accompanied her long, difficult awakening, and presents a haunting, heartbreaking glimpse into why women remain too long in dangerous relationships.

To understand herself and her violent marriage, Sundberg looks to her childhood in Salmon, a small, isolated mountain community known as the most redneck town in Idaho. Like her marriage, Salmon is a place of deep contradictions, where Mormon ranchers and hippie back-to-landers live side-by-side; a place of magical beauty riven by secret brutality; a place that takes pride in its individualism and rugged self-sufficiency, yet is beholden to church and communal standards at all costs.

Mesmerizing and poetic, Goodbye, Sweet Girl is a harrowing, cautionary, and ultimately redemptive tale that brilliantly illuminates one woman’s transformation as she gradually rejects the painful reality of her violent life at the hands of the man who is supposed to cherish her, begins to accept responsibility for herself, and learns to believe that she deserves better.

And finally, though I didn’t get to spend my birthday drinking cocktails with umbrellas in them, I was able to suck down a Sprite today, and now, I’m feeling mostly recovered.

I think 40 looks pretty good on me.


39 was the year that I hunkered down and really wrote this book; it was a shadow year.

A period of gestation.

I’m ready to bloom now.

Please join me.