On Affirmation

I saw one of Caleb’s friends at a writer’s conference last week. I had expected that; I almost always run into this man at this conference, and it can be painful for me to think of Caleb’s friends.

Here is what I have received from Caleb’s friends:

It is true that they were Caleb’s friends, but they had also known me. They had known me. They had told me how good I was for Caleb. This was true. Caleb was a mess when I met him. Already, he was a young man full of rage, full of self-contempt, full of hatred. He was also a man of great humor, a man with  kind eyes, a man who knew how to listen to and make someone feel valued. He was complicated. He self-medicated with alcohol and sex and god-knows-what-else. He got into fist fights with his best friends on the edges of snowy cliffs, He rolled a truck in the night, then walked away from the accident, drunk and unharmed.

I knew none of this. I was so naive. I did not know about that fist fight, or all of the others. I did not about the other women he had sex with while we were dating, while I was pregnant even. I did not know that he went to a prostitute, and then came home to me. I did not know any of this. But Caleb’s friends knew this. And, of course, it’s not their fault. Of course not.

But sometimes, in the darkest of moments, I think of those friends–and I want to cry out, You could have saved me. You could have saved me. 

Why didn’t you try to save me?

But I know why they didn’t try to save me. Just like me, they were laboring under the delusion that I could save Caleb.

And I tried. I tried so hard

I had prepared myself to run into this man at this conference. My plan was to ignore him, to pretend that I didn’t know him, but when I saw him walking towards me, all I felt was warmth. He smiled at me. I said his name. I hugged him (or he hugged me). We talked briefly, and there was so much unsaid, but I didn’t feel angry, or hurt, or any of those feelings that I have been nursing. It turns out I hadn’t needed him to try and save me. All along, I had the ability to save myself.

Domestic abuse survivors need a lot of affirmation. We need affirmation that we’re doing the right thing. We don’t know how to trust ourselves. We don’t know how to trust our own voices. When I left Caleb, I had no idea whether or not I was doing the right thing. I had no idea what was waiting for me. I had been in an academic setting for so long that it felt most comfortable to stay in that setting. My best friend has expressed to me that she worries about me because I’ve surrounded myself by a culture of affirmation. During my marriage, when the abuse was at its worst, I got my affirmation from my MFA program. Now, I get it from my PhD program. I frequently get little boosts from faculty members, or my peers. These boosts tell me that I’m worthwhile. Recently, I received some criticism from a faculty member. It sent me into such a downward spiral that I realized I have a problem. I can’t keep seeking extrinsic affirmation. I have to learn how to find it from within.

But I also realized something else. What I’m doing with my writing, what I’m putting on to the page does come from within. These words are all mine. They belong to no one else. In my writing life–if it seems like I’m seeking external affirmation (which I am, of course I am)–at least I’m seeking that affirmation through something I can control.

It may not be much, but my writing is the greatest power I have. It is a way for me to get back my agency, to change my future, to try and help others, and to find forgiveness–for Caleb, for his friends, and for a world that sanctions violence through its silence.

Most of all, my writing is a way for me to try and find forgiveness for myself.

After this conference last year, I was inspired to write my post On Hope. I was finally starting to feel better. I finally had hope that things were going to turn out okay. And they did. I have more, even, than I had hoped for. I often cry out of gratitude. I never could have foreseen what this year would bring me–the opportunities that my writing would create, the people who would come into my life, the healing that my broken heart and broken body would find. Sometimes, it is too much. I am afraid to let myself enjoy it. I am afraid to hold it tenderly. I want to shove it away. I want to say “This much goodness is not for people like me. People like me only get to suffer. We do not get to be happy.”

Yet, I am. I am happy. I still suffer, but I also feel such happiness. And I hold it all with tenderness. When I was with Caleb, I felt very little. Feeling nothing was the only way to survive. Now, I feel it all, and I cradle my pain with the same care with which I cradle my happiness. I welcome the pain for the healing it will eventually bring.

At this conference, I was surrounded by some of my favorite people in the world. People who I hold dearly and closely to my heart, people who love writing as much as I do. I also had at least a dozen people stop me and ask, “Are you Kelly Sundberg?” I had women tell me that my writing about domestic violence had inspired them to write their own difficult truths. I spoke at a panel with writers who are more established in their careers than I am, and I spoke with confidence and authority because I know I’ve earned it. I read my writing to a sold-out theater, and I saw one the professors from my MFA program sitting in the audience. After the reading, I hugged him, and he said, “We’re so proud of you. You’re a success story.”

And yes, the affirmation felt good.

A couple of weeks ago, I met Dorothy Allison who is one of my literary and personal heroes. My PhD program brings these wonderful people into my life. Dorothy was as powerful, as truth-telling, and as beautiful as I had imagined. During her craft talk, she said to the audience “You probably need someone to tell you you’re worth it.”

Dinty W. Moore, my graduate advisor, was sitting next to me. He leaned over and said, “You’re worth it.” In that moment, I felt completely open, completely exposed to the world. I thought, “I cannot let one little tear escape, or I will start weeping.”

I had needed someone to tell me I was worth it, and that’s okay because I am worth it.

Dorothy Allison and Me