What it really means to honor someone

Something to think about:

Lately I have, for whatever reason, overheard people with injuries in conversations joking about being a victim of domestic violence. Examples of what I’m referring to include something similar to the following statements:

•Woman who broke her tooth playing softball: “I’ve been telling my husband he better behave or I’ll start telling people that he’s the one who knocked my tooth out!”

•Man who busted lip falling down the stairs: “I busted my lip falling down the stairs but since that’s an embarrassing story I’m just gonna start telling people my wife did it!”

•Woman who has bruise on her leg from a slipping on the wet kitchen floor. “I’m telling everybody that Tom (husband) did it, just because it’s so much funnier.”

Most of these statements, when made, are followed by laughter. Which is to be expected, because THEY ARE JOKES. They are intended 100% to be funny. It is funny, after all, to joke about your spouse doing something he or she would never do in real life.

The only problem with this is that it’s actually the extreme opposite of funny for those who have experienced this in real life.

Make no mistake. Domestic violence is one of the worst forms of trauma any individual can go through. Trauma is trauma in all forms, and I’ve never been a fan of making judgments around which traumas are “worse” than others. However, we know, through research, that trauma experienced from domestic violence is awful and insidious in its long term effects on entire family units.

This particular kind of trauma is one that I feel I need to try and speak about because, as some of you who read this blog may know, I was in a relationship where I experienced domestic violence for ten years.

So, as you can imagine, when I overhear these conversations in real life, or when I see jokes on social media about this, I want to say something BADLY to confront the person making a joke. I want them to know that when you joke about domestic violence, it does two things:

  • It normalizes it.
  • It continues to perpetuate the cycle of victims not speaking up. If it’s a joke, why speak up? Maybe it’s not that bad, etc.

And let me tell you, there are people RIGHT NOW in your life who are going through this and you have no idea. People who experience this often become experts at hiding their shame.

But back to the moment when I want to SAY these things. I want to speak up, to use my voice, to be an advocate. But without fail, the same thing happens: I freeze. I want to speak the words or type the words in a message in a way that lovingly confronts, without inflicting too much judgment on the person whose intentions are typically benign, but I FREEZE. The words do not come, I feel a pit in my stomach, and I withdraw.

And then I start to think something along the lines of, “I can’t be that person that shares something, because everyone will think I’m overly sensitive since I’m the one who went through it. Maybe they won’t even believe me?”

(There is not a worse feeling for those who have experienced trauma than feeling like others don’t believe you. Experiencing that feeling is almost as bad as actually remembering the trauma.)

But back to me freezing up: perhaps this feeling that I’m scared to speak up is similar to or a small percentage of what people of color or women feel when they are in a situation where they are witnessing or experiencing racism or sexism and they don’t want to speak up because they feel that people will label them as “overly sensitive” or “making a big deal” when they, in fact, are EXPERTS on racism or sexism because of what they have experienced and so all the other people who have not experienced it need to simply sit down, close their mouths, and listen to them share their knowledge and experiences.

When you are victim of something, you naturally begin to study that very thing that has hurt you. You recognize it, you internalize it, and you SEE it and feel it and take it seriously. Because you know the ill, systemic effects of this awful thing becoming NORMALIZED and not taken seriously or even dehumanized.

That thing that we went through that broke our hearts–THAT THING is something we become an expert on. And it is not okay for anyone to take our expertise away from us.

Everyone has “a thing.” Some of us are blessed with more than one. But if a subject comes up that’s not “your thing,” your job is simple: close your mouth and listen to the people who went through “the thing” if they feel comfortable sharing. Because those people are COURAGEOUS and your only job is to listen. Don’t start talking about someone you know who went through “the same thing.” Nope. Don’t do it. Not your moment. The only job you have in that pivotal moment is to listen.

And then, once you know a little bit more, you can become an ally to people who went through that thing, and start speaking up to honor their pain. Because you didn’t have to go through the pain, trauma, and suffering of that thing–somebody else did. Your job, after you have listened, is to confront traumatic experiences being joked about, not taken seriously, and dehumanized. Confront it-speak up. Have courage. Remember, you didn’t have to go through that thing–it may be easier for you to speak up than someone who did.

So why is it that our culture doesn’t understand this? I don’t know. I truly don’t understand. Racism, domestic violence, sexism, and other kinds of trauma are not funny at all. And if a joke is being made, the only people who truly have a right to joke about it if they so feel inclined is THE PERSON WHO WENT THROUGH THAT THING.

When I think back to some of the experiences I had when I was in my ten year relationship where I experienced abuse–both emotional and physical–one of the themes I see in those experiences is that I felt ashamed. I felt broken. I felt confused. I felt completely discombobulated. No one enters an abusive relationship thinking they are going to be abused. And yet, here they are. And it’s a living death. I had arrived at a point where I was emotionally dead, disassociated from those around me. By the grace of God, the birth of my child, somehow slapped me into taking a step into walking away.

However others are not so lucky. Some people have died from the abuse. Some have simply never left. Others are still in denial and won’t speak about it to anyone. It is for those people, and not for me, that I ask that you say something when you hear someone joke about trauma. Think of it as honoring those who cannot speak–either because it’s too painful or they physically are not even alive anymore to speak about it. This goes for all kinds of trauma–racism, sexism, bullying, neglect, refugee trauma, etc. Honor those who cannot speak. Because you can.

And here’s a photo below of the aforementioned slap that woke me up and gave me courage to take a step. I will never forget how lucky I am for doing a thing I didn’t think I could ever do. For I am no better nor more smarter than anyone else. There are many things I will draw a line on in the sand, but this is not one of them: some people leave abuse and others don’t. No one is better or smarter than anyone else. I do not know why I have been given this gift of a second chance. It’s like similar to being the person who walks away from a car crash, still alive, while others are seriously injured, or worse, deceased.

May the thing that broke you open give you an awareness and love and empathy for others. May it give you strength to do hard things. May you feel heard when you want to speak up.

There is no easy walk to freedom

At this very moment eleven years ago, at the age of 31, I was in a hospital bed, waiting to be born.

I, a 31 year old woman, was waiting to be born.

People around me were waiting for a baby girl to be born. They didn’t know that she was not the only one entering the world, though. They didn’t know what my insides looked like, because I didn’t tell them. I guess I didn’t really know that I was dead inside either. I only knew that I was a vapid, insipid human being–a person who knew nothing and felt very little. Feelings were painful and scary, and so disassociation had become my normal state of being. I was going through motions just enough to keep the peace, but not enough to actually show up in this world as fully human.

Until I saw her.

They pulled her out of me at 7:50 am on June 15, 2008. She tilted her head to one side, as the nurse held her up to my face. For the first time in such a long time, I felt something. Something about those mocha eyes staring at me caused me to almost want to stand up, even though I had literally just been cut open a few minutes ago in a Caesarean section surgery.

I took her and held her. This was an inexplicably important moment. It wasn’t just the birth of my child. It was the birth of me. Somehow I knew that. I just didn’t know how it would quite play out. I didn’t know what that meant. I only knew disassociation was no longer an option. I had to start showing up in my own life.

Every day of the first two years of Aliana’s life, I knew that I would need to leave my marriage in order to become me again. This truth grew into a massively strong tree that continued to grow inside of my soul as it was revealed to me, day in and day out. This tree of truth became so mighty and strong that I felt shame for not watering it. I felt shame for noticing it, but not taking care of it. While I didn’t act upon it, I felt this ominous feeling inside that I needed to do something or that tree would actually pop out of me and I would be exposed for being a fraud.

I somehow made baby steps of action. I found Bible verses that spoke to me and read them every day. Every morning I read the magnet on my fridge that said, “Be strong and courageous and do the work.” -1 Chronicles 28:20. As I read that verse over and over again, I hoped the words would eventually cause my feet to act on what was growing inside of me. I wrote down a quote in my journal by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr: “Our lives begin the end the day we become silent about things that matter.” I knew this was the truth. That until I spoke up about what was happening in my life, and acted on that truth–that I would continue to choose a life that was rooted in darkness instead of in light.

Silence creates shame. Ironically, the more we don’t act on changing things that we know need to be changed, the more the shame seems to grow.

I knew the work I needed to do was to leave my marriage. The more I knew it, the angrier my spouse seemed to become. The abusive episodes escalated until a moment in February 18, 2010, where my daughter witnessed something that no child should ever see. I felt my heart jump out of my chest as I called the Julian Center the next day, “I need help,” I told them.

I began to call attorneys. I began to interview attorneys in secret. I began to go to the Julian Center for a women’s support group.

And then I told my family. I started with Uncle Roy. Uncle Roy was patient and kind and truthful. He helped me to begin to not be ashamed of my experiences but to actually own them. I began to understand why “responsibility” is the fourth stage in the cycle of violence: for it is when we take responsibility for stopping the cycle, that it can finally end. Ownership of truth leads to responsibility.

Abusive relationships are addictive. People become addicted to each other during the cycle of trauma. There’s something called trauma bonding that happens-which is why the average woman tries to leave an abusive relationship multiple times before she actually does it with finality.

People ask me all the time: what causes some people to finally leave abusive relationships, and others to never leave? And I used to say all the time, “I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. I just know I somehow did it but I’m not even sure how I got there.”

And while I still don’t completely know, what I do know is this–there is a connection between humility and courage.

My parents always acted on the extreme side of teaching me humility. Sometimes I felt that they aimed so hard to teach me that vanity and pride were a load of crap, that I actually almost had none.

But this trait they worked so hard to instill in me–a sense of humility–was ultimately what caused me to change my life.

Humility is defined by Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary as “freedom from pride or arrogance.” When you are humble by nature and are facing difficult challenges, you can start to say things like, “Hey, I don’t know how to do this. Let me get some help from someone. Let me listen instead of speak. Let me admit that I’m jacked up right now. Let me sit with this and know that God will lead me out of this if I listen hard and surrender to the fact that I cannot control my situation, but I can take responsibility for it.”

There is something to be said to listening to your inner compass. But when your inner compass is not working, there is wisdom in listening to and following the advice of others who love you and who are professionals. When you are blindsided with fear and anxiety, your inner compass doesn’t even work. It’s like a compass on steroids, spinning and spinning and freezing up.

So that is when you find the following two people:

-a very wise, professional well researched individual who is an expert on what you are going through (like a psychologist or doctor)

-a wise friend or family member who always wants what’s best for you and loves you more than you love you

And then you sit down and listen. Filter out what sits better with you than what doesn’t. But trust that they know things you don’t.

We don’t know it all. We can be experts and read books until we are dead, but when we are experiencing something keeps us stuck in a shame cycle, anxiety spin, or is just painful as hell, we will need help.

We will need help. We will need each other. We will need truth, that is borne from love.

For me, my rebirth was the road to freedom. I still have pain and difficulties in my life, but I have ME. I know how to be me and it’s safe to be me. I am free from abuse, and just like an addict who becomes sober, I will never go back “there.” I will not become entangled with someone who abuses me, uses me, and confuses me.

But I wouldn’t have gotten to that point without learning to listen, and without a humble heart. The challenge with raising a child is aiming for humility AND self love. It’s hard-it means you must do a lot of talking, modeling, and building understanding of healthy relationships.

I feel so much gratitude today. Gratitude for my 11 year old baby, gratitude for humility, and gratitude for freedom. The other day, I saw this quote from Nelson Mandela, posted at a school I was in:

“There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere, and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death again and again, before we reach the mountaintop of our desires.”

May we remember this: that no one, not even God, has promised us an easy life. But we have the ability to be quiet, be still, and listen. And within that stillness, we just might find a new path or new way of being. I am so thankful to this child, whose birth was a reminder that it’s never too late to change your life. And it’s never too late to become free.

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.


 

Weak is the New Strong

This is what it’s like to save your own life.


My husband of almost ten years tells me he is going to go out of town. I feel a pit in the bottom of my stomach. Pain wells up. Fear brims over me. Adrenaline rushes through my body in the way it does when someone attacks you, leaves you for dead, and you survive and escape.

I pretend I am dead. Not literally dead, of course, but dead in the same way I have  been dead for ten years. I do not show him I am still breathing and that a flame is flickering under the surface.

He believes me. When he walks out the door, I get to work. Time is ticking. I put my toddler to bed and start packing. I try to remember what is important-photos, toys, clothes, passports, birth certificates. As I stuff them into random boxes and suitcases, I suddenly feel like I just can’t move anymore.

I lie down on the floor of my bedroom. I want to cry, but my heart is pounding and my body is hollow from not eating. I realize I do not feel sad. I feel paralyzed. Paralyzed by the fear of doing something that other people will think is crazy. I realize they will think I’m crazy, only because they do not know I have lived a lie for years. The lie is crazy-not me.

I call my only friend.

“I can’t do this. I can’t pack another thing.”

My friend reminds me that voice is a liar and that I need to keep moving.

I do the next thing and the next thing, followed by the next.

Soon, it is morning. Even though I did not sleep, I keep going. My uncle and aunt arrive to help. Then my mom and dad show up. We pack the moving van quickly. I am afraid a neighbor will see me and ask me what the hell I’m doing. But no one does.

Next, I go to the courthouse. I empty out all the contents in my purse and put my belongings on the conveyor belt as I walk through the metal detector, clutching my paperwork for the protective order. I make eye contact with the security guards  and I wonder if they can observe that there is strength in my frail body.

I go down to the basement to file the order. I speak to a victim’s advocate. She tells me I am beautiful and that my life will be better after I file the protective order. She tells me her story and how she once ran away too. I look at her perfectly done nails and long blond hair. We are nothing alike. Can our stories really be the same, I wonder? I do not feel beautiful and I’m only pretending to be strong.

I rush home, drive the van to a storage unit, and unpack everything there except for a small suitcase. A stranger catches my eye and asks me if I’m moving.

“Yes,” I tell her, hoping she does not ask anything else because my mind may crack.

I get home and I take one last look at my kitchen where I used to bake cookies. I do not feel sad. I know the same kitchen where I baked is the same kitchen where I was once beaten with a broomstick.

Everyone leaves the house and goes to their vehicles. It is pouring torrential rain, and we need to get out. But I feel the familiar wave of paralysis again, underneath the adrenaline and I cannot move. I ask my uncle for help.

My uncle is my second father. Over the last ten years, I have burdened him and my aunt with the story of my shameful  marriage, so that my parents’ hearts wouldn’t break. He knows everything, and he and my aunt have walked beside me through the pain and recognized the flicker of light, streaming through my brokenness.

“Do I leave a note?” I ask him.

He pauses and thinks. I can tell he doesn’t think I need to, but he gives me a piece of paper anyways.

“This is what you write,” he tells me. “Aliana and I are okay. I hope you can find a way to be okay, too.”

This note feels truthful and perfect and heartbreaking, all at the same time. I am proud of this note. I put it on the door and we walk out and never turn back. The note feels like a bomb that is about to detonate on the path of fear I have walked for so long.

I tell you this story today, because I remember what it feels like to die and start again. I tell you this story because I do not want to forget it. I do not want to disassociate from my darkness completely, because every time I do that, I forget the lesson that lives there. That woman is me. She is a survivor. I AM A SURVIVOR.

I need that lesson. Like, that lesson is the antithesis of my kryptonite. All my power lives right there.

And the lesson is this:   WEAK IS THE NEW STRONG. Each time I get to the end of myself, there is power in the new beginning. At the end of everything hard and messy, there is a reclamation of self that must occur. There is that moment that you do not want to cross the next line and do the hard thing, but you pick up a piece of paper, and start writing out the truth. You create your reality and are simultaneously shocked that you could do it.

I will keep trying to remember my lesson, and I hope you remember your lesson, too. When life is hard, remember that really hard thing you did. And know that you can do it again. And again. And again.

I Remember

Tonight I did something I wasn’t quite sure I could handle. I went to volunteer at a counseling center for victims of domestic violence. 

There is a group of writers who are running a workshop at the counseling center. The objective of the workshop is to encourage the participants to tell their stories.  They can write about anything they want–meaning, they have the power to decide if they want to write about the trauma they have experienced or something else. I decided to volunteer specifically as an interpreter and writing tutor for the women in the group whose first language is Spanish. 

But I wasn’t sure I could do this. I wanted to do this. I have been wanting desperately to give back. My memories of expressing my creativity as a way to recover from trauma are some of the most powerful reminders of the beauty you can find within pain.

But I wasn’t sure I could do it.

What if I cried as someone told me her story?

What if I started to remember awful things and wanted to leave the room?

What if I couldn’t help the women I wanted to help, because my own memories got in the way? 

What if I wasn’t strong enough to lead them in their writing? 

These were the questions that raced through my brain as I pondered the potentiality of this opportunity.

And I decided that since those were all questions that began with “what if…,” that I wouldn’t have the answers until I decided to do the very thing I wasn’t sure I could do. 

And so I JUST SHOWED UP. I showed up and sat down next to some brave women. I observed them writing. The other workshop volunteers and I wrote alongside the participants when the instructor gave them a prompt. I watched the women seated next to me let the words flow out onto the pages without any hesitation. 

A woman I was interpreting for wrote about how she wanted to be an eagle. She began to cry as she was reading her story outloud to the group in Spanish. She stopped and froze. I handed her tissues and touched her arm. 

“You are so brave!” I whispered to her in Spanish. 

She nodded and continued to read. She has always loved eagles because they are strong and free. She said she used to be free like them once. But then something happened. And now she hasn’t been free for several years but she KNOWS she will be free again just like she once was. 

I looked at her, feeling a mixture of wonderment and empathy and pride. “Your writing will help so many people,” I told her. She nodded. She was so sincere and so real to me. She knew there was power in her pain.

You see, I had been so afraid of feeling weak, BUT THE OPPOSITE ACTUALLY HAPPENED. I felt the strength and the energy in the room–strength and energy and power.

Sometimes we doubt that we are ready to do emotionally hard things. And so many of those times we just don’t give ourselves enough credit. 

In honor of doing hard things, I am sharing with you an excerpt of my writing tonight. As I mentioned, we wrote in silence with the participants, as a form of solidarity. But also because writing is good for the soul. 

The writing prompt was a simple one. It was, “I remember…”

I Remember (by me)

I remember, now, that there were good things. I remember the sound of your laugh. So boisterous and loud. I remember how when you were filled with joy, everyone else was, too! I remember the smell of your cologne–so grossly strong, yet so good. I remember watching you play the piano. I remember how you slammed those ivory keys in a way that was over the top. I remember the first time I saw you play, I laughed outloud, thinking you were being funny, until I realized you were actually serious. THIS WAS YOUR ART. I remember how we laughed so hard at our inside jokes that we rolled on the floor, tears seeping out of our eyes. I remember how you lovingly touched the small of my back, and my nerve endings felt excitement. I remember how I wanted to be yours and how that simultaneously worried me. 

I remember how when I left, I couldn’t remember these things because that would have created confusion. I remember that the pain of you gripping my throat on the closet floor clouded all the good memories of you. 

I remember how the pain of loving you was my addiction. I remember how as I became stuck in this addiction that I had dreams of running away. Sometimes even flying away to a place you couldn’t find me.

I remember how much of a dichotomy you are. How all of it–all of you and all of us–couldn’t survive. I remember the day I realized how dangerous it was. 

I remember all of this. But I don’t remember sometimes, because if I did, it would be hard to watch our child hop into your arms for safety.

But I remember. I do. 

   

Dr. Willis 

Six years ago, I found myself walking into the Julian Center, an organization that helps victims of domestic violence, and asking for help. 

“I need to talk to someone,” I said, in a shaky voice, while trying to calm my cranky 18 month old toddler. 

The girl behind the desk told me that there was a 12 week long women’s support group that met every Monday night and was led by a therapist named Dr. (I can’t say her name, so let’s just call her the name I’m about to say) Willis.

I had no idea what was about to happen. All I knew was that I needed to put one foot in front of the other and just show up.

But first, I had to meet one on one with Dr. Willis, so that she could listen to my story and become familiar with me. 

I sat in a chair across from her in her tiny, dimly lit office. Dr. Willis was tall, exquisitely beautiful, soft spoken, and serious. 

She asked me a series of questions, all of which I answered through blubbering tears, while the doctor maintained her serious, yet concerned, composure. 

“I think you will be a good fit for this group,” she said. “I need to tell you that this is a women’s empowerment group. I’m all about tapping into your strengths and helping you build each other up. This group contains women of various economic backgrounds, races, and IQs. Everyone is very different, but you all are here for the same reason–to become empowered.”

I showed up to every single one of those 12 week sessions. Dr. Willis gave us homework every week, and I diligently did it. I was hungry for the knowledge she was feeding me.  

After one of our sessions, I asked Dr. Willis for advice about a book to read. I named off about three books I had researched, and she listened.

“Emily,” she said, in her always composed, calm voice, “I want you to stop reading books for the time being.”

“What the freaking heck?” I said in my head, as I would never have dreamed of contradicting Dr. Willis out loud. “Stop reading books? Seriously? Books? Books are my fountain of knowledge, my support system, my–”

Dr. Willis interrupted my internal monologue. 

“Those books are good that you named. However, I think it’s time you started to look within. You have all the knowledge you need in you to get through this. Allow yourself to trust yourself. You don’t need more evidence or research. Your feelings and your truth are enough to be your guide.”
I swear my jaw was hanging open. This was a first. No one had ever forbidden me from reading a book. 

But this amazing thing happened, you see. I started to recognize that my feelings and intuition and gut mattered. I mattered. I was almost even beginning to show signs of trusting myself. I trusted God first, but believed in the signs shown to me, and that my knowledge was valuable. 

And now…I have a confession tonight. 

I’m writing this story because I need to hear it again myself. Sometimes I forget that I have the capacity to be courageous. I forget that same woman with a quivering lip and a cranky toddler who finally asked for help WAS ME. 

And sometimes I forget that I have this built in superpower called intuition and self knowledge. I have it, and so do you. 

Occasionally I will find myself scrolling mindlessly through my phone, looking for information on God knows what. You should see the weird sh*t I’ve googled–things like, “Did I screw up my child because I let her watch television for eight hours straight while I was cleaning the house?” Or, “How do I know if he’s cheating on me?” Or “What happens if my cat eats her own barf?”
Seriously. 

If you are looking hard for information about how much you have screwed up your life, I guarantee you that you will find it. And you will find it everywhere

This week, I’m challenging myself to stop the mindless scrolling and looking for articles on silly sites like buzzfeed or elitedaily for answers to my life. Let me tell you, it is a BAD habit I’ve formed that needs to be broken. Because 25 year old writer from elite daily named Jenny has no idea how to live my life.

A friend of mine reminded me today, “There is no blueprint for life.” So, on that note, I’m reminding myself to just show up, do me, work hard, and pray–not in desperation–but in thanks. Because I’m thankful that God has given me and you everything we need to get through this messy and beautiful life. 

  
A photo of my cranky toddler, 6 years ago, about the time that I decided that I was more courageous than I thought.

 

Healed People Can Heal People

I once heard the phrase, “Hurting people hurt people.”

Kinda makes sense, doesn’t it? Someone who is consistently snarky isn’t a happy, fulfilled person. Instead, he is wearing his snarkiness cape because he doesn’t know what else to do. He’s in pain, and snarkiness is the only way to protect himself. 

Or someone who is consistently speaking badly about others is often doing that to make herself feel better about herself. She has her gossipy cape on to protect her from looking at her own life. 

(I actually have an appreciation for the snarky people and gossipy people in my life. Because they are really teaching me to practice patience and grace.)

So back to my original thought, though: if hurting people hurt people, is it possible that the antithesis of that statement may also be true?

I was in a situation recently where I was having a conversation with three women who are casual acquaintances. One of them revealed quite courageously to us that she was going through a difficult time. She found out her husband had been cheating on her. 

She said, “I told him he had to get his life together. And we had a long conversation last night over text. He said he was willing to do whatever it takes. I know he is, because he can’t survive without me. And he’s just a mess right now. He has anger management issues and even pushed me the other day in anger. But I finally put my foot down and told him he can’t come home until he agrees to get help.”

And then the other women in the conversation were nodding their heads in agreement, making “you go girl!” statements and telling her how strong she was.

I couldn’t get a “you go, girl” statement out, because my feelings weren’t feeling very go girlish. I felt the strangest mix of guilt and empathy and shame at the same time. Because I used to be that woman. Her story sounded like mine. My tears were slowly filling up my eyeballs and I was trying hard not to blink so they wouldn’t fall, but I finally had to blink. 

And so they fell. 

And someone noticed and asked, “Are you okay?”

Crap. 

“Yes, I’m okay,” I said. “I’m just processing everything you said. You said a lot, my dear. You really are going through a hard time. How are you?”

But she didn’t hear my words at first and she kept talking about her husband and how he was “messed up.”

“Okay,” I said. “But how are you?”

And she didn’t know how to answer me, really, because she was just in survival mode.

Everyone was suddenly looking at me again, since tears were still coming down from my eyes. So I said, “I’m really sad for you right now.  I know I don’t know you well, and I am trying to be really careful to not ‘project’ my past onto your present. I need to say, though, that it’s not okay for your husband to push you. Like that’s really not okay,” I said, as my tears kept flowing. 

She nodded. And I said, “And you deserve so much happiness. You deserve peace.” 

I started to tell her snippets of my story

She sat down. She listened. She looked at me like this emoji 😳 and this emoji 😧 and this emoji 😪. 

I have had darkness in my life. And I really don’t like to walk around thinking and talking about it, because I am SO happy most of the time. And I am SO grateful that my life is good. 

But if my darkness and your darkness can help another person to heal…then there is great power in that. If I embrace “the dark matter,” (as pastor Rob Bell calls it), and I join with someone else in his or her dark matter–there is actually new life in that. 

If hurting people hurt people, then it makes sense to also believe that healed people can help to heal people.

Sometimes we can’t make sense of the dark matter when we are in it. But as we continue to push forward in time, our dark matter shapes us and can actually create new life. 

I still can’t wrap my brain around it completely. But I know that embracing our past instead of running from it is a powerful thing. 
  

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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