Pain is Pain

What I know to be true: discovering your partner is unfaithful is a painful experience. In addition, living in an abusive relationship can be like hell on earth. I have written on this blog rather openly about discovering my ex-husband’s infidelity, as well as experiencing domestic violence, in posts like The Cave or Weak is the New Strong.

But in the last year, I have mentioned my former marriage more peripherally as opposed to writing about the experience of it. I will explain why in a moment, but first, I want to explain why I wrote about it to begin with.

I started this blog in 2014. Writing about my past experiences I had worked hard to heal from, seemed to help me to find my voice. It also helped me to process the past, look back on what I had learned, and more importantly, to maybe even help someone who was going through difficulties similar to mine.

I feel so thankful, to this day, for the painful experiences that have been a part of my life. Those experiences shaped me into a woman with an empathetic heart, and a spirit that seeks peace. I have a different view of the world, and a deeper understanding of human behavior, due to experiencing darkness. I learned that the pain was only pain–that it wouldn’t kill me, and in fact, pain is just a reminder that we are alive. Pain is our most powerful teacher, if we have the courage to sit with it and let us teach us what we need to know.

As a result of sitting with that pain, one of the universal truths I now know is this: humans are neither completely evil nor completely good. We are complex people with layers to us. We hurt people when we’ve been hurt, unless we dig deeper to understand what’s behind our feelings.

And no one has life figured out. I don’t care if you’re the smartest person in the room–you still don’t. Life has this very interesting way of breaking us in two when we cling to things or people not meant for us. And then we have to learn all this crap, all over again.

And now, here I am, eight years post leaving my marriage, processing these universal truths, and remembering some things I’ve never said before.

Amy Schumer, when speaking publicly about her own experiences in an abusive relationship, said, “You don’t choose to fall in love with someone that hurts you.”

And yet we do. Why do we do that? I don’t know, because each one of us has our own particular true reasons, but what I do know is this: most abusers are not always abusive. Sometimes they are the kindest, most loving people you will ever meet. And yet, the next moment, they are not. And that is sometimes what hooks us–grappling with the confusion of it all.

In 2010, my therapist I saw right after my divorce, invited me to attend a women’s therapy group. We listened to each other talk about experiences from the past. The therapist would look at people’s faces around the room and stop and ask us things like, “Jane, what emotions does this bring up for you when Teresa talks about relapsing on alcohol?” And even though Jane had no experience with alcohol addiction, she could somehow make a connection to her experience because PAIN IS PAIN. All of us had very different stories, but this never seemed to matter, because we could somehow make the most insightful connections by listening to each other.

One day, a woman named Anna (whose name I changed of course) was speaking about her father, who was dying.

She told us all about how confused she was by the fact that her father, who was extremely physically and emotionally abusive to her and her entire family throughout her life, had sort of “mellowed out” once he figured out that his death was eminent. And what was even more confusing to her, was how her heart had softened towards him.

“I guess there were always parts of me that loved him no matter how abusive he was at times,” she said, somewhat perplexed. “How jacked up is that?”

The therapist saw me tearing up.

“Emily… you seem to be having a reaction to that. Is there anything you would like to share?”

I took in a deep breath. I had learned that deep breathing helped to keep my voice from being shaky when I was tearful.

“Yes,” I finally said. “I don’t think it’s jacked up, Anna. Because nobody is entirely good nor entirely evil. We are humans. We are complex.”

It was hard for me to admit this. And yet, I knew it was true. I felt it in the depths of my spirit. Even today, I still feel it when someone who has hurt me deeply does something that is kind, such as genuinely apologizing for past behavior.

Please do not mistake the words I’m writing to be in alignment with the belief that allowing people to abuse you or even keeping people in your life who are abusive is in any way, shape, or form OKAY.

I value my peace, so that I can do important work in this world, which has lead me to have boundaries that may be firmer than most people’s at times. I block people from my life and put up a metaphorical drawbridge when needed to protect my heart, my spirit, and my energy.

But I don’t choose to live in the thought that I am any better than anyone else.

Instead, I choose to live in the thought that each of us is responsible for our own life. And what that means by default is that I am in charge of my peace and joy, and living my best life. What that further means is that I must have boundaries with people who engage in toxic behaviors with me or behaviors that steal my joy.

Humans are complex. And I refuse to engage in the belief that I am a better person or more righteously evolved than another. It is that very belief that fuels indifference to other’s pain. We cannot be indifferent, but what we can and should be is AWARE of how others’ choices affect us, and undoubtedly act on this, to protect our dignity and wholeness.

I love knowing in the depths of my spirit that I can do hard things. I can break in a million pieces, feel deep pain, and still will rise. I believe this for you, too. But the only way to arrive at this is to be aware and act on taking responsibility of this awareness through a combination of honesty and action.

When we feel continually hurt and devastated by the actions of another human, it’s time to put up the drawbridge. Like don’t overthink it–put that drawbridge up! Because it is only then, when we are in our separate castles and at peace, that we can begin to forgive and to start to see, when the time is right, with clarity, that the person who is hurting us, is simply a person–someone who is showing up in their pain and hurt, maybe even doing the best he or she can.

Random photo, circa 2013:

One decade ago today

One decade ago, I was lying in a hospital bed in great physical discomfort as I was birthing my daughter.

This day is sacred to me unlike no other. My child’s birth was my rebirth. For this reason, her birthday is even more special to me than my own. She woke me up to the possibility of a new life and a new way of being.

She ignited a fire in my heart that I followed: a fire which burned through

injustice,

darkness,

and fear.

I took the ashes from this fire and buried them. I built walls to prevent me from veering off the path. I knew the new pathway I was creating required a significant commitment to growth, courage, and love–both for myself and for my child. I knew it was going to be hard, but that the reward would be great.

I am not being dramatic when I say Aliana saved my life. That statement is both a beautiful and ugly truth for me. It’s beautiful because it was because of my love for her that I took responsibility for my life. It is ugly because no child should have to enter the world, bearing a burden of such consequence.

The world of domestic violence is a dark one. People who live in it experience warped realities and emotional and physical trauma. There were three things that saved me: my love for my daughter, getting professional help, and about two people who knew my story and never gave up on me. Those two people told me everyday that I was strong and smart and that they believed in my capacity to do hard things. They reminded me of who I was when I forgot.

But if I hadn’t had that trifecta–I may not have left.

I feel that I am one of the lucky ones. Some people live their whole lives in an abusive relationship. Some get out, but they never heal or understand how they got there in the first place. They continue to repeat the patterns or form new addictions.

When you decide to take the pathway to healing, you will discover that it is simultaneously incredible and also brutal. You must be willing to be ripped open and dissected and put back together. Not everyone is willing. But I do believe everyone is able if they allow it to happen.

But they must really allow it to happen. All the beauty and all the terror– to allow it to wash over them, as Rilke says.

Today, people sometimes write to me and ask me for advice about how to help a friend or family member who is experiencing abuse and what I usually tell them is this:

  • Listen
  • Affirm their feelings
  • Accept their decisions
  • Set boundaries when necessary
  • Encourage the victim to get professional help
  • Acknowledge that leaving is very hard but it is the only way their children will know the love of a parent who has the capacity to love with her whole heart.

I am not a therapist nor do I know if the advice I just gave is the best or not. But I do know that conquering an abusive relationship is similar to conquering an addiction. That’s because all these crazy neural pathways are formed in your brain during trauma bonding. Research it. It’s a real thing. Stockholm Syndrome and stuff.

But if you actually DO it–if one actually leaves the abuse, the amazing thing is how quickly one can heal when you

  • Take responsibility for showing up in your life
  • Allow justice to be served by setting boundaries like you’ve never known before.

I am so lucky. I am so grateful. I will never ever EVER stop feeling grateful for my trifecta: my daughter, the professional help I received, and my two people who believed in me nearly a decade ago.

But it all started with my daughter. With me looking into her eyes and me saying to her, “I don’t want you to live like this.”

Beauty and truth. It’s what’s being served in our home, one decade later.

I love you, Aliana.

The Cave

When you decide to walk through the dark caves, searching for light, you may eventually find that you ARE the light.

On a sunny day in April of the year 2006, I woke up in a cave.

My body was aching and asking me to pay attention to it. But I didn’t, and I went to work anyways. I felt nauseated and weak. I went to the school nurse’s office and she took my temperature. It was 102 degrees. My principal told me to go home.

As I was walking out of the building, a colleague stopped me. I told her I was very sick. She said she would pray for me, and I asked her how she was doing, as I was getting into my car, and she paused to tell me she was feeling sad. Why? I asked her. She then told me that her sister-in-law was filing for divorce because her husband was having an affair. When I asked how she knew he was having an affair, she said, “He was often out late at night, came home drunk, and made excuses about feeling depressed and needing time with his friends.”

In my fogged-up, feverish state, I told her I was so sorry about her sister in law and that I would hopefully see her Monday and we could chat more.

As I was driving away, the pit in my stomach abruptly felt as if it were bottoming out. I was no longer nauseous. I was STARVING. I am embarrassed to say I drove through a Culver’s drivethru and ordered a big, greasy cheeseburger. I went home and devoured it and took Tylenol and went to sleep.

As I drifted in and out of dreams, my skin vascillated between chills and sweats. My thoughts went to the story my colleague had told me about the family member whose husband was having an affair. I knew why the pit in my stomach had bottomed out. The pit had cracked open from hearing the truth: I was that woman, too.

My body was ready to feel this truth. It was so exhausted from lies. But my spirit wasn’t.  It was in fight or flight mode. I tossed and turned in my feverish stupor, and finally went back to sleep.

I began to dream. I dreamt that my husband was drowning, and I was trying to resuscitate him, but he asked me to let go of him. Under the water, he called to me, “I’m having an affair. Let me go.” I let go and watched him sink further into the water.

As I continued to dream, my fever broke. My body jolted awake in a sweat. I remember sitting straight up in bed, completely clear-headed, yet terrified.

I called my mom.

“He’s having an affair,” I blurted out. “I know it because I dreamed it! And my friend, she said it happened to her sister in law-that’s what’s happening to me!! I know it. But I can’t prove it.  What should I do?  Should I hire a private investigator?”

My mom listened. She didn’t think I was insane. She knew I had been searching for answers as to what was feeling “off” in my marriage. But, she knew I was afraid and told me, “God has already shown you so much. Don’t go out and investigate any more. God will continue to reveal the truth in the time that you need to know.”

After I hung up the phone, I started to pray. I prayed so hard for truth. I prayed for more information. I prayed that I wasn’t crazy. And as I was praying, I suddenly heard a voice–a voice that I believe to be God–who spoke to me and said, “Go check your mail.”

And here’s the freaking thing…as I’m walking to my mailbox, I KNEW I WOULD FIND SOMETHING SIGNIFICANT THERE. I was awake, yet zombielike. In that walk to my mailbox, I was feeling like every sensation I felt, every person I passed, and every detail I noticed was a sign, pointing me in the direction of truth.

I went to the mailbox, turned the mailbox key, and a piece of mail fell out from a jewelry store. It was addressed to my husband, and looked like a bill. I opened it up, and was not surprised to see a credit card bill with several hundred dollars worth of necklaces, bracelets, and jewelry purchased that wasn’t for me.

I held this bill close to me. It felt important, almost sacred. Here I was, holding a piece of gold in my hand that was pure truth. I went upstairs, and once again, I heard the voice saying,  “Go to the computer.” I sat down at the computer, and looked up our cell phone bill online and pulled up my husband’s phone line. There was one number on there repeatedly at all hours of the day and night that I didn’t recognize. I called it.

A woman’s voicemail came on.

“Hi, this is Maricela. I can’t take your call right now, but leave a message and I’ll get back to you.”

I didn’t know a person named Maricela. But I ascertained that my husband knew her very well.

The rest of the weekend, I curled up in a ball and cried and ached and talked to my family. My husband had told me he was going to Chicago for a concert that weekend.  I called him many times, but he never answered. I didn’t know what I was going to say or do. I just knew that this truth was crumbling everything I had been clinging to and destroying it. This truth wanted to break me from my attachment to my husband, because that’s what the truth does-it breaks you wide freaking open and you can’t hide. Or run. Or really do anything, except for sit with it until it’s taught you what you need to know.

The next day was Easter. I didn’t go to church. It was a sunny day, yet I couldn’t move. I didn’t eat. I sat in the darkness of my bedroom, wondering what was about to happen. I had been split right open in the course of 24 hours with a truth that felt so threatening to me; however God had revealed it in such a precise manner that it was impossible to ignore.

This was the beginning of a spiritual awakening.  I did not go gently into that goddamn night, though.  I went on to wrestle with the truth and what it meant to be awake.  I even went on to have a baby with this person.  That’s right:  I ignored the truth and hoped that a child would change it.  But I discovered that as I fought that truth, it continued to fight right back.  And this moment in April when I was curled up in a fetal position in my bedroom in Madison, Wisconsin was only the beginning of the fight.  My husband’s affair was pure PAIN for me. But it was only a thread of the truth that was about to unravel before me.

The good news is this: once it unravels, there are treasures to be found.  You just have to be willing to enter the darkness to find the light.


 

I am her prototype

When I heard the story on the radio about Ray Rice beating the crap out of his wife, Janay Palmer Rice, I listened, even though I felt uncomfortable. When I heard there was a video of it–a video that people were watching–I felt sick to my stomach.

It’s really hard to talk about domestic violence. And it’s really hard for me to listen to other people talking about domestic violence from an outsider’s perspective.

That’s because I’m an insider.

Right now, my fingers are typing what my heart is saying, but my brain is like, “Stop doing that. It’s done. It’s over.”

And it is. Yet it isn’t, since our experiences shape us into who we are today. I have learned from my past and have grown up. There are four stages that women go through which constitute what psychologists call “The Battered Woman Syndrome.” (I’m not talking about the cycle of abuse, which is different.)
1. Denial
2. Guilt
3. Enlightenment
4. Responsibility

Janay Rice is not in the fourth stage. She may never get there. Many women (or men who are abused) never get there. The fourth stage is not called “responsibility” because you take responsibility for the abuse. It’s called “responsibility” because you take responsibility for your life and you choose to no longer live that way. You accept that your partner is not changing and is making the choice everyday to not change. And you decide that is his choice which has an effect on his life–but not yours. You reclaim ownership of yourself–your feelings, your spirit, and your right to happiness. Responsibility looks like courage in the face of someone who wants to overpower you.

I won’t discuss the details of my story, because I believe it is important to share your painful experiences only with those people who have earned the right to hear your story. This blog is public, and I don’t know every single person who is reading it, so some of those people have not yet earned that right.

But what I will tell you is this: people don’t want to believe that horrific things like a wife getting spat on by her husband or almost being strangled or choked to death can happen to people they know. People don’t want to know about such awful things because WHAT THE HELL DO YOU DO WITH THAT KNOWLEDGE? It’s gut-wrenchingly revolting.

And so people end up thinking thoughts that are more pleasing for them like, “He’s such a friendly guy or they seemed like such a loving couple…could that really be true?” or “Maybe he just has an anger management problem and needs counseling” or “Maybe she hit him back and it’s a volatile relationship” or even “What did she do? What did she do that started the whole thing?”

People don’t want to think about how an abuser’s mind works–whether it’s emotional or physical abuse.

The reason why all of this is hard for me to talk about–even with those closest to me–is because it’s a hole in my heart that never goes away. And oh, I am really a happy person. I am one of the happiest people you could meet. So I don’t like being identified as a “victim of domestic violence.” It’s a part of my past. It is an experience I went through, but it doesn’t define WHO I am today.

I wrote this tonight to tell you that odds are you know someone who has experienced abuse. And when you are an outsider and are trying to understand how someone could do such a thing to someone, what I want you to understand is this: it’s not about anger. It has never been about anger. It’s about power and control. It is about another person using subtle or not so subtle tactics to gain control of another human being. And what an abuser takes from his victim is valuable. When another person wants to dominate his partner, he uses threats, jealousy, isolation, and other tactics to break down his partner’s confidence, security, and belief that she deserves to be treated well. He tries to take away her very ability to trust herself and believe that her feelings have value. And that’s why she stays with him and that’s why it feels like her spirit will break into a million pieces if she leaves.

So now, in the words of Maya Angelou, “Now that I know better, I do better.” I’m thankful this Christmas for my life. I’m thankful for my daughter. I’m thankful that we live in a happy, healthy home and that I chose courage over fear. Because I’m her prototype and that’s kind of a big deal.

And I pray for and remember those who haven’t yet left. My heart is heavy for them during this season.

I leave you with a cheesy collage I made right after I was out of my abusive relationship. My favorite phrase on there is “turn out.” Because what I finally realized was that I was waiting for an outcome that wasn’t going to happen. It had already turned out. It was up to me to change my life. ❤️

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In the spirit of the season, tonight’s recipe is “Christmas Morning Rolls” from Aunt Roxanna. So yummy, and I promise this is one thing that will turn out perfectly.

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