On Freedom

“All art is a kind of confession, more or less oblique. All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story, to vomit the anguish up.” 
–James Baldwin

Freedom is a tricky term when it comes to abuse. The word freedom can be used to minimize or dismiss. People can say, “But you’re free now.” as a way of indirectly dismissing the lasting effects of the abuse. Breaking free begins with the initial separation, the hard, terrible ripping of the wound. Freedom begins then, but it’s not freedom yet. There is so much more. There is so much brainwashing involved in abuse, and the diminishing of one’s own voice to the point that it feels like the abuser lives in the survivor’s bones. My abuser was my exoskeleton for too many years. When I first left him, he was a ghost in my bones. I felt him in my joints. I heard his voice coming out of my mouth. Now, over two years later, he is only sometimes a ghost in my bones. I only sometimes hear his voice. 

So, am I free? Have I survived? When do I finally get to declare to the world that I’m free.


This is the day that I declare that I’m free. That he has no more power over me. This is that day. Maybe tomorrow I’ll feel differently, but today, I’m free.

This morning, I was bone tired. The first days of summer always feel that way for me, as though all of the intensity of the previous semester has left my body drained. So, after Reed went to school, I went back to bed. I slept until after 10. I had feverish dreams, so vivid. I was back in the home that I had shared with Caleb, but it was no longer my home. In the background–vaguely–I knew that I had a home somewhere else, a home that was terrible, dark, moldy, and awful. A slum. But in that moment, I was in Caleb’s home, the home we had purchased together, and I went to his office. I found a box of his writings. It had a lock on it, but I was able to open it. I saw piles of letters. I knew they were written to me. I tried to read them, but the words moved in front of my eyes. I realized I would never knew what those letters said. 

And then, I woke up. I didn’t recognize where I was. I saw the chocolate colored walls of my bedroom, the white of my bed frame, my dog curled up at my feet. This is neither the home I shared with Caleb, nor is it a slum, I thought. Where am I? It took a full minute for me to realize that I was in neither of the places from the dream. I was somewhere entirely different. I was in a home full of love and happiness. A home that I had created for myself. A home I didn’t know could exist on the day that I walked out on my marriage.

I will never be able to read those letters. Caleb told me of letters that he had written to me. He told me of apologies–sincere ones. In the beginning of our separation, he read one to me over the phone while I wept. It felt like a sincere apology, at least. And then, his lawyer told him to not to send the letters, not to read them to me, not to apologize even, so the apologies stopped. And that was probably for the best–that was what motivated me to switch the initial separation papers to divorce papers. And when the divorce papers were filed, his apologies turned to blame. And I wasn’t yet free enough to sift through that blame, to realize that it wasn’t real. I wasn’t yet free enough not to blame myself. So I accepted the burden of his blame, just as I had accepted the burden of my own shame. I even sent him a long email apologizing to him. I believed him when he said it was all my fault.

The other day, DHL was going to drop off a package for me. I was leaving the house, and I had to write a note to the driver. I went into a drawer and pulled out a notebook. I found this contract that Caleb had written in the back of the notebook.
It says:

It is okay to leave if you take a phone.

It is not okay to harass the person who leaves, but you can ask them to come home.

It is okay to ask for timeouts.

It is okay to feel emotions. It is okay to let the other feel emotions and not fix it.

It is not okay to use physical intimidation.

It is not okay to break the other’s things.

It is not okay to call names.

It is not okay to expose Reed to any damaging behavior.

Signed: J. Caleb Winters 11/18/12

I hadn’t known this contract existed. Who was this contract for? Was it for me? Was it for Caleb himself? 

Here is what I do know: This contract was written the day before Caleb was arrested. On the day that Caleb was arrested, he violated every single one of these terms. 

Here is also what I know: When Caleb and I were married, I would have accepted a contract like this. I would have said, okay. I would have held out my arms. I would have let him cry on my shoulder. I would have said, I forgive you. I will not leave you. You are sick. You are not well. I will not leave you to be unwell alone.

Here is also what I know: The person I am now can see that contract and think, Either he was insane or completely calculating, and it does not matter. I am just so glad not to have him messing with my head anymore.

I can recognize all of this because I’m free. I’m finally free. I’m not free every moment of every day. I’m not even free every moment of any single day. I still hear his voice, but now, when I hear his voice, I know it’s full of lies. I know that it is calculated, controlling, manipulative, and sadly, very, very sane.

Being free doesn’t mean I don’t struggle with all of the hallmarks of abuse. I don’t know how to deal with anger. I either repress it or get overwhelmed by it. I don’t always know how to communicate from a rational space rather than an emotional space. I don’t always know how to access my own voice, and when I do, I sometimes access a voice that doesn’t feel like my own. It is a voice that feels angry, and irrational, and full of despair. I don’t know how to repair some of the relationships that were damaged during the years of abuse. I don’t know how to fix everything. I don’t know how to stop wanting to fix everything. But I don’t have to. I’m doing the best I can, and it turns out the best I can do is pretty damn great sometimes. 

Not always, but sometimes, at least.

My essay, “It Will Look Like a Sunset,” was accepted for Best American Essays 2015. This is the biggest award there is for a single essay. I am early in my career to be earning this award. I feel tremendously grateful and overwhelmed with something that feels like joy. One of my favorite writers, Rebecca Solnit wrote a comment on Facebook that she was so excited to be in that book with me. Can I just say that I almost swooned from delight? To be admired and in the company of one of my all-time heroes? These are the kinds of dreams that I never even let myself dream, and yet, they’re coming true. Rebecca described the transformation as “pure alchemy,” and that’s the only way I can think of describing it. I turned my greatest shame–my biggest weakness–into my strength. 

Pure alchemy.

I hosted a party on Saturday night. It was a picnic/kickball tournament. I live on three beautiful acres. About 30 of the smartest, wittiest, funniest, most wonderful people I know showed up. Some of us watched, and some of us played kickball, and many of us bravely admitted that we were frequently the last picked for the team in middle school, but this was a safe space. We reclaimed that game. We made it our own, and it was complete joy. 

Pure alchemy.

It was 91 degrees though. At one point, I apologized. I said, “I’m sorry I planned this on a night when it was going to be so hot.” My friend Brad said, “Kelly Sundberg, are you apologizing for the weather?” He made me laugh, and it was okay. Because every one in that space knew that I will probably always be the kind of person to apologize for the weather, but they will also always gently remind me that it’s not my fault.

Because people are good. Most people are not like Caleb. Caleb is an exception. A terrible, terrible exception, but an exception. For a while I thought he was the norm, but I know now that he’s not. Most people are good.

After the tournament, we made a huge bonfire, and everyone relaxed in that quiet night air, and I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else. 
The fire was pretty large, so I grabbed my fire extinguisher, and my friend snapped this picture of me:
I posted this picture on Facebook, and one of my friends–a wonderful survivor who I met online after publishing “It Will Look Like a Sunset” sent me the most thoughtful message. 

She wrote: 
“Still struck by your beauty and the sense of freedom in your grin tonight. So glad you did the bravest thing so you could have that genuine grin tonight.”

Her words meant so much to me. She was right. There was freedom in my grin. She inspired me to write this blog post. 

She inspired me to write back, “Freedom feels so good.”