On Connection

At a writer’s retreat in Ghost Ranch, New Mexico last week, I sat by a bonfire surrounded by tough, and sassy, and beautiful women writers while a poet read my astrological chart. Regardless of how you feel about astrology, this poet* possessed an eerie insight. At one point, she looked up at me and said “This part of your chart indicates that you spend a lot of your life trying to convince yourself that you’re not terrible. You hide parts of yourself because you worry that, if people see the real you, they’ll think you’re terrible. Your challenge is to open up to others, so that you can see that they’ll still care for you as you are.”

So, I’m doing that now. I’m saying it: I think I’m terrible. 

Caleb told me I was terrible. When he ran out of insults–when he ran out of ways to hurt me–he dug deep and said, “Everything bad that you think about yourself–it’s all true.”

How could I not be terrible when the person who loved me the most said such things to me?

When I left him, I turned to my female friends. I opened up to them about the terrible things that had been happening to me. I opened up to them about how terrible I had acted in return. I opened up about how lost, how lonely, how devastated, and how isolated I was. I opened up to them, and without fault, they said, “You are not terrible, and you are not alone.”

Nothing else could have kept me away from him. The only thing that saved me was my connection with those women and their words. And now, every day, I look for connection in this world. If isolation is what causes abuse, then connection is what heals it. This blog is one way of looking for connection, of attempting to say to other survivors–“You are not terrible, and you are not alone.”

There was Rebecca D. who took Reed and me in when I left Caleb. While I wept on a mattress on the floor in the guest room upstairs, Rebecca played Connect 4 downstairs with Reed. She held his hand and walked him to the bus in the mornings when I had to work. She gave him a sense of normalcy, showed him that he was loved, even as his world was falling apart. Christmas was coming–my birthday–and I hadn’t decided if I would take Caleb home with me for the holidays. Our plane tickets had been purchased months before, and my parents didn’t want us to divorce. Reed was so little. It was his favorite holiday. I bought a table top tree at the grocery store. Rebecca decorated it with us. It was crooked and shabby. There were no presents underneath it. That tree was a symbol of all that Reed and I had lost, but we had also gained something. For that period, Rebecca, Reed, and I became a family. We were a real family, and Rebecca loved us as much as anyone ever had, and Reed and I learned that we didn’t need to have a man in the home to be a family, that we could do it on our own. And finally, I told Caleb that no, he couldn’t go home with me for Christmas. And that was the end. That was when it was really over, and I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: I looked back. I looked back so many times, but I didn’t go back. 
I never went back.

Then there were my best friends, Megan and Kelly. Kelly, who I Skyped with in the middle of the night when I was still living with Caleb, who I broke down crying in front of, and didn’t yet admit to her that he was abusing me physically, but admitted to her how cruel he was, how utterly broken I was. She looked at me through that computer screen, her face so soft and kind, and she said, “Oh sweetie, that isn’t right. You deserve so much better.” And Megan, the sweetest most non-confrontational person I know, who called my parents (who are like family to her) and told them that I needed to leave Caleb, that he was dangerous, that these weren’t “normal” marital troubles, and that I couldn’t do it without their support.

Or Sarah, Rebecca S., and Heather, my writing group from my MFA who read my writing about the abuse when I was ready, but who were also available at all times via FB chat if I needed to say, “I miss him. Tell me I’m doing the right thing.” And Sarah always knows the right thing to say, and Heather has a way of conveying absolute acceptance, and Rebecca has a wickedly mean sense of humor, so Sarah would say, “You are doing exactly what you need to be doing,” and Heather would say, “You are lovely,” and Rebecca would say, “I wish I could kick Caleb in the balls.” And the combination of all of those things would bring me back to sanity.

Or other unexpected connections–the lawyer for West Virginia Legal Aid who represented me in my divorce for free, or my therapist who said, “You don’t need to pay me for a while. I don’t want you to stop seeing me because you can’t afford it,” or the woman from work who was going through her own difficult divorce and who became an unexpected friend and who shared her story with me in a way that made me feel that I wasn’t alone. All of these women–these connections–saved me.

I’ve been writing articles lately for the Sexual Assault/Domestic Violence page at ESME, and almost every article I’ve written has had a common element–ask for help and build community. Build connections.

This past week, at Ghost Ranch, I presented during the Waves Discussion Series about writing about abuse. I spoke about how to know when you’re ready to write about it. I said that the opposite of shame is voice. I said, “I stand before you and tell you that I was in an abusive marriage for nine years. I thought that made me broken, but do I look broken?” And these women–so many of them survivors themselves–shouted out a resounding NO. 

Because I am not broken. He is the broken one.

And after my presentation, women found me, in the bathroom, in the cafeteria, by the side of the bonfire, and they shared their stories with me. And I shared my story with them. And none of us are terrible. We may be survivors, but we are not terrible, and we are not alone.

So thank you for being here with me. Thank you for being a part of this journey, and know always that you are not terrible, and you are not alone.

Photo Credit: LiYun Alvarado (my awesome roommate from Ghost Ranch)

*For your own amazing astrological reading, you can contact Luke Dani Blue here.