On Strength

I’ve been thinking about crying lately. I wrote in my post On Dreams about how often I cry. I’m very sensitive. Caleb used to tease me about this. When sappy commercials would come on the television, he would laugh and yell, “Change it, quick!” I would hide my face in a pillow, trying not to cry.

Sometimes I think about the ways in which he loved me. The ways in which he treated me so tenderly. He laughed at my crying, then pulled me in close, “This is why I love you,” he would say, leaning in to give me a kiss. His eyes smiled at me, even when he wasn’t smiling. His affection felt so real.

And it was also real when he screamed at me. “Stop crying! Stop being a child! Where is my wife? Where is my wife who is an adult?” And I would wonder the same thing myself: Where is that woman? Where is she? 

I drove across the country last week. I drove through nine states in four days. Last year, I did the same drive. The day after I arrived last year, I went to the courthouse for my divorce hearing. We had only one hearing. I compromised on far too many things in order to make that happen. My compromises were so great that the judge stopped the hearing in the middle and asked me “Why are you doing this?” I hadn’t expected that question. 

“Because I wanted an agreement,” I said. 

The judge turned to Caleb. “Is that true?” He asked.

Caleb was flustered. He admitted to the judge that he had agreed not to create a legal battle for me if I gave him what he wanted. He told the judge that I would someday make more money than him. His bitterness over this likelihood was apparent.

The judge was not pleased. He threw down his pen. He raised his voice. I don’t remember everything he said, but the premise was this: You should want your wife to be happy.

And he should have, but he didn’t.

Caleb and I walked outside the courthouse near each other, but not together. My lawyer stayed by my side. She is a lawyer who only represents domestic violence victims. I remember thinking, “Is she scared? Her job is dangerous.” But I wasn’t scared. I had stopped feeling fear long before that. Maybe that absence of fear was part of the problem. The worst had already happened. He could do no more damage to me. 

At least that’s what I thought, but of course, he could have. There was still so much damage that could have been done.

I thought I would cry in the car on the way home from my divorce. I wanted to cry. I even tried to muster up some tears. But they didn’t come. Instead, I felt something in my chest. A weight released. And then, unexpectedly, euphoria. It was a euphoria stronger, even, than the dread I had felt on the eve of my wedding.

The next day, I finished packing a U-haul and moved to Ohio. I left behind the house that Caleb and I had bought together, the kitchen I had designed myself, complete with retro coral boomerang countertops, the lilac tree I had planted in honor of our spring wedding, and a lovable and furry retriever named Hank. I put the keys on the counter, closed the door, and I didn’t cry. 

But I have been crying today, a little over a year later. It started last night. I was trying to hang a shower rod. I could not get the thing to work. I struggled with it for what felt like hours. After finally wedging it into place, I stepped down from the side of the tub, and it fell. And with that, I started crying. And I have been crying off and on since then.

And it feels so good to cry because I’m tired. I’m just tired. I’m tired because I drove for almost forty hours last week. And I’m tired because, when I got home, my house was infested with spiders. And I’m tired because it was also full of mouse droppings. And I’m tired because it wasn’t fully unpacked. And I’m tired because there is a layer of mold from the humidity. And I’m tired because while my love for Reed is boundless, he’s an eight-year-old boy who is never tired. And I’m tired because I have work to do, and grants to write, and editors sending me requests for revisions, and new essays to write, and a syllabus to create, and course schedules to figure out. 

And I’m tired because I’m lonely. I’m tired because I left behind some of my closest friends and my family a week ago. I’m tired because I miss my nightly walks with my friends where the sun set, and we laughed and kept doing laps in the dark because we were having too much fun to go home. I’m tired because I didn’t have the time to go backpacking with my dad. I’m tired because I haven’t been backpacking with my dad since I married Caleb. I’m tired because so many things I loved got shoved to the side when I married Caleb, and I’m just now beginning to get those things back. I’m tired because I miss the stars in the Idaho sky, and I’m tired because I miss my mom. I’m tired because I dipped my toes back into the dating pool this summer, and that was scary, and wonderful, and also, very overwhelming.

So I’m tired, but I’m tired because I’m getting better. I’m tired because my heart is no longer a tight, little fist that can’t even recognize it’s lonely. And that’s a good thing. I don’t want my heart to be a tight, little fist. I want my heart to be an open hand reaching out. 

After I left Caleb, I grew so hard and numb. It was the only way to cope. I remember telling a friend that I would never date again because no one would ever get to love the woman who I was when I met Caleb. That woman was trusting, open, vulnerable, and lovable. I told my friend that I would never be that woman again, that I would only be some worst, possible version of myself. And I know now that’s not true. I know now that the woman I am now may be different, but she is also, in so many ways, better. I know that the woman I am now is a grown-up. The woman I am now is strong.

When I was with Caleb, I thought I wasn’t strong because I was abused. That was hard for me because I ‘m a spunky, opinionated, and assertive woman. People have been calling me “strong” since I was a kid. I was the kid who went to bat for my friends. I was the high schooler who would stick up for the underdog, even if it meant getting picked on myself. I was the twenty-something who always took the path less traveled and never apologized for it. I wasn’t supposed to be the kind of woman who got abused. I thought abuse didn’t happen to strong women.

I’ve written about it before, but I had a significant moment when I was running on the treadmill after I left Caleb. I was trying to create enough physical pain to obliterate the emotional pain. A pop song came on that said “What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.” I wanted to scream. 

I thought, “I am not stronger. I am not stronger because of what he did to me.”

But I am stronger.

And I was strong before I met him.

And I was strong during the abuse.

It was my strength that gave me the courage to love someone so fiercely who was so broken. It was my strength that gave me the integrity to try and do what I thought was best for our child who loved his father, even though I was suffering personally. It was my strength that allowed me to forgive Caleb so many times. It was my strength that told me to draw lines with him, that he would need to get counseling, that he would need to quit drinking, that he would need to go to anger management, that he would need to take medication. It was my strength that made me adaptable enough to survive while he tried these different strategies. It was my strength that made me eventually realize these strategies were not going to work. And it was my ultimate strength when I gave up.

I wasn’t weak because I loved a man who abused me. I was strong enough to love a man who abused me. And now, I’m strong enough to recognize that’s not love. I’m strong enough to learn from my mistakes. I’m strong enough to cry.