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:

The Softness that is Forgiveness

If anyone again asks me what it means to forgive someone, I will tell him or her this story.

It started when I was 32, in the summer of 2009. My husband, at the time, was from the Dominican Republic. We decided to make a trip there so his family could meet our daughter right when she was turning one year old.

We arrived in the hot month of June. The Dominican Republic is near the Equator, and from the moment we stepped off the airplane, I could feel the heat of the sun percolating on my pores. I had lost all my baby weight, but now was almost too thin due to not eating. My marriage was falling apart at the seams and I was unraveling too. The only thing holding me together was my focus on my child and her wellbeing.

“I’m so glad you finally lost weight,” my mother-in-law said to me in Spanish, with a widely genuine smile when I greeted her at the airport. While I knew that a person’s weight is not as taboo of a subject in the Dominican Republic as it is in the United States, her words etched a streak on my already decrepit spirit.

My mother-in-law never seemed to like me, but I could not ever seem to deduce why. Sometimes I thought it was due to the fact I was a foreigner. Other times I thought maybe I was unknowingly breaking some cultural rules or wasn’t submissive enough, in her mind, to be a good wife.

But ultimately the reasons behind her perceived dislike for me weren’t really worth spending time analyzing. I just had to deal with it.

During this trip, I tried to keep my daughter on a nap schedule. My mother-in-law told me this was ridiculous and that no child needed such a thing. I didn’t want to argue with her because I felt that would be a sign of disrespect, but I continued to put her down for a nap everyday at the same time, even though she would blast merengue music in objection to my decision.

I loved the Dominican Republic for so many reasons: I adored the welcoming nature of its people, the love I felt from my host family when I studied abroad there, the hospitality of strangers in the community, and the kindness and resilient spirit I witnessed in its people.

But I did not love my mother in law. I could not love my mother in law, no matter how hard I tried.

I looked at her and I saw pain. The pain of being an abused wife. The shame of being left by her husband. The guilt and oppression she suffered from so many losses.

And yet, I couldn’t find it in my heart to accept her in her brokenness.

The entire time we were in her home, I was belittled and criticized for being overly focused on my daughter. I was confused by the criticism that seemed to be contradictory at the time: one moment I was being told my schedule was ridiculous, but the next moment, I was called disorganized for not getting my daughter’s bottle ready quickly enough.

It was gaslighting behavior, except for it was my in-laws doing it, instead of my then husband.

As for my then husband, he remained silent most of the time, choosing not to intervene. When he would intervene, it was to side with his family as they were telling me what I was doing wrong in my mothering.

The last night we were there, I felt relief that we were finally going home. As I was rocking my daughter to sleep that night, my mother in law called for me to come talk to her. When I was done putting her to bed, I went to find my mother-in-law in the kitchen.

“I need to tell you something,” she said to me in Spanish, “something I should have told you before.”

I had a moment where my heart softened. She’s going to apologize, I thought. She feels badly for criticizing me.

But before my heart could soften any further, her words quickly transformed into daggers that were aimed at my heart, my self worth, and my ability to love.

“You are an awful mother and wife,” she said.

I gulped down air, feeling like I needed to run away, but instead froze.

“Do you want to know why?” she asked.

I didn’t answer, standing there without moving. Apparently I was now an ice cube, stuck in my tray, unable to transform back to fluidity.

“You have paid more attention to that child than your own marriage. So if my son cheats on you… if he has other women he wants to sleep with–that’s no one’s fault other than your own,” she said.

“You deserve however he treats you,” she stated, and finally stepped aside so I could walk away if I chose to do so.

I suddenly felt my legs melting. I bowed my head and exited the kitchen. I went upstairs and wanted to cry, but couldn’t. I didn’t have tears. I felt as if whatever bubble of dignity was still present in my spirit had been popped by a sharp needle and had oozed away.

Despite this terrible emptiness, I somehow realized a small push of determination to fight for myself was still present within me. I imagined myself putting on armor, lying down in it to rest, knowing that this was temporary. I just needed to remember that the armor was there to protect me.

The next morning we left the Dominican Republic. One year after that, I left my husband.

And then nine years after that, I walked into my ex-husband’s house to pick up my daughter, and I saw her face. When they told me she would be there, I was scared. Scared I would not know what to say. Scared she would take her anger at me out on my daughter. Scared that she would take me back to that day nine years ago in her kitchen when I last saw her.

But when I saw her face, I instead felt the strangest thing. I felt something weird, as she walked over to me and cupped my face in her hands and side kissed my cheeks, as is the custom in the Dominican Republic.

I felt a tenderness. I felt empathy. I felt respect. I felt seen.

I don’t know how that happened. I have no FREAKING idea. But I know that’s what forgiveness is. It’s a softening. A turning towards. It is not reconciliation. It is simply understanding. It is letting go. It is loving from a distance. It’s gratitude from learning the lessons the pain taught you.

Time creates space. Space creates room to see the truth. I know that without the gift of time and space, it’s hard to learn to recognize the truth. And the truth is that you never need closure for anything. Things fall apart and the only thing you need to remember or try to do is put yourself back together. And once you do that, you may see that in your brokenness, you are strong. In your pain and bitterness, you have lessons. And one of those lessons might be that you may one day, after time and space, find yourself looking back on everything, with a very different softness about you.

And that softness is forgiveness.

What it’s Really Like to be a Single Parent

The other day I went to my doctor’s office for an appointment and was making small talk with the nurse. I told her about an upcoming solo vacation I was going on for a weekend, and the nurse asked me if I was taking my daughter. I told her no, she was with her dad that weekend.

“Oh,” she said. “So you can like get away and do things by yourself when she’s gone. Man, I wish I were divorced so I could get a break from my kids!”

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I thought of a couple sarcastic, semi humorous possible responses in my head, but chose not to verbally respond to her statement, knowing that it was probably more of a commentary of her sentiments about her own marriage and responsibilities, and less of a statement about divorce.

Because no one who has ever been divorced says stuff like that.

And what the nurse didn’t realize is what it’s REALLY like to be a single parent.

Preface: This is my perspective, based on a few different factors pertaining to my individual situation listed below.

    I am divorced and have my daughter alone about 75% of the time.
    For various reasons, I do not co-parent with her father. We have more of a “business relationship.”
    I do not have a partner in my home. It’s just me and my kid.

So in essence, I’m about to give you my take on single parenting from someone who is truly single parenting 75 % of the time to one child.

Here goes:

Single parenting is like living inside a computer that never turns off. There are many different tabs and programs open and only you can close them because you’re the one with the username and password and operating instructions. Oh, and the operating instructions are ones you have developed yourself based on your own experiences as a child except for you have to keep tweaking them as you realize your childhood and even your child is quite different than you. People may try to help you and sometimes you’re like oh my goodness, thank you for your help, YES, because your computer is so warmed up from running all the time, and you have all these different tabs open, like a tab for meals, clothing, homework, cleaning, extra curricular activities, one for trying to figure out tweens or toddlers, and not even mentioning the tabs for your own life.

In contrast, many homes with two involved parents have a computer they share. They exchange operating instructional notes. They both know how the computer works. And they can divide up the endless tabs and responsibilities. And sometimes one of them can say to the other, “I’m losing my patience with this kid we are trying to figure out. I need to walk away from the computer, so can you keep tabs on it while I go to the grocery store and get a mental break?”

But the single parent has to keep all the tabs open even when she or he wants a break. Any breaks taken from the computer are never, ever spontaneous. No one just randomly shows up at her door at the exact moment she needs a break. That doesn’t mean she or he never receives technical support to keep their computer up and running smoothly. But it does mean she is the only one responsible for running that computer. It is she who must make decisions and decide how to fix it most of the time.

It is the times when my child is most emotional that I feel the greatest responsibility of single parenting and running that computer. When she is devastated about a loss, or extremely excited or nervous about an upcoming event, or angry with me because she didn’t get her way, I feel her feelings and I hold space for her and I realize that THIS IS IT. I’m her emotional support and I have to be present. I have to help her process.

It is in those times that I sometimes literally fall to my knees and say, “Lord, lead me, because it’s just me and my heart leading this kid, and I don’t know what in the heck I’m doing. Give me wisdom and strength to bear this great responsibility.”

Here’s the thing, though: I cannot bear witness to the challenges of single parenting without bearing witnesses to the beauty in it.

I am no more proud of anything than I am of the work I do as a single parent. I am not doing it perfectly, but I am doing it. I know that there are times she wishes, as many children of divorced parents do, that her parents were not divorced. What she doesn’t know, and may never know, is that I fought very hard to save my marriage to the point that I had lost myself completely in another person.

However, I found myself as a mother when I had the freedom to be me. I found myself when my daughter was two years old, woke up vomiting in the middle of the night, and cried for me. I found myself when she was three years old and fell running at the pool and got a concussion, and I scooped her up off the ground and rushed her to the doctor. I found myself when I took her to a child psychologist at the age of four because I was so worried I had no idea what I was doing raising this strong willed, vibrant little girl. I found myself when she received straight As all year long and won an award, and I was the sole person there to support her. I found myself when she got in big trouble in first grade for throwing her shoe over the fence during recess and she went the rest of the school day wearing one shoe.

In a million and one ways, I FOUND myself due to parenting my daughter alone.

And while I do not wish the challenges that come with divorce or single parenting on anyone, I am grateful for the million and one ways that the experience of single parenting has forced me to find myself.

With great responsibility, also comes a great reward, if you are simply willing to find yourself in the midst of the hard stuff.

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.

For the People Who Care the Maximum Amount

This one is for the people who care the maximum amount. Those of us who care about others, what others are thinking, if we offended others, suffer from social anxiety, perfectionists in our relationships, etc. If the aforementioned describes you, lend me your ears.

Many years ago, an incident happened with a friend, that I felt was a betrayal. Others perceived it as a miscommunication. I wanted to give the person the benefit of the doubt, so I communicated to her that a boundary had been crossed in our relationship, and I then restated my boundary (which happened to involve my child).

My friend said, “No problem, I understand. This will not happen again.” So, I carried on in the friendship until, one day, she became very angry with me about the boundary I had expressed and it was stated to me by both her and members of her family, that my boundary was unrealistic.

I spent a night agonizing over this. Was it unrealistic? Was I wrong? Was I… being stubborn ūüė≥?

You see, I had spent most of my life, believing that people who could not come to an agreement on things were exhibiting pride and/or were operating purely from their egos. I didn’t want to be a person who was so caught up in “my beliefs” that I couldn’t compromise.

Until one night I was talking to my friend Melanie about this incident, and she said something profound:

“This is one situation where you can’t budge. It’s beneath your dignity to do so.”

“Dignity?? Like, what does that even mean??” I asked her. (I mean, I knew the word “dignity,” but its meaning felt so foreign to me in this context that I needed to hear an explanation.)

“You know… dignity. Like, you’re worthy of respect.”

“Dignity. Okay. My dignity,” I slowly said, taking it all in.

Within that particular moment, what I was beginning to realize was this: my boundary that had been violated was an extension of my values. So I just couldn’t bend–or I would break and be compromising WHO I was. I would be compromising my self worth–what I value, who I am, and my dignity.

And here’s the thing–for some people, this wouldn’t have been a big deal. But for me, it was. Because I’m wired to care THE MAXIMUM AMOUNT about my relationships. Like, on a continuum of caring about other people, where zero is literally “IDGAF” (don’t google that, Mom) and ten is “I really want people to be happy with me and not hurt their feelings,” I’m pretty much a 12. While saying no to others may come easily to some, it does NOT come easily to me.

And this situation was a hard one. I ended up disappointing a lot of people: people who I loved and people who my child loved. I had to take time to grieve the loss and work through this betrayal.

But the one person I didn’t end up disappointing was myself. I had not betrayed my values. I had spoken from my heart, and from a place of truth. This was not pride–it was dignity. And dignity is the very ONE THING we cannot compromise. Our lives will never be easy, but we can at least know we are living in integrity when we speak and respect our values through our decision making.

I’m talking to YOU–the one who cares the maximum amount. Don’t forget to care about yourself.

Photo: My friend, Melanie, who has been teaching me about dignity since the third grade.

Forgiveness and Stuff

Easter and I have a crappy history.  It all started back in Easter of 2006 when I woke up on Easter morning, curled up in a fetal position on my bedroom floor, after finding out my then-husband was having an affair.

There are no words to describe the feeling of a deep betrayal, but I will attempt to do so. Yes, there is shock, grief, anger, loss, etc. but there is mostly a bizarre emptiness that takes over you. It’s a realization that the water you’ve been drinking for years has been poisoning you, while you are unknowingly guzzling it, believing it to be clean. And you start to wonder why you believed and trusted the water to be clean in the first place. Could you have possibly known it was poisonous???

However, on Easter Sunday, 12 years later, I woke up feeling much differently.  I was excited to go to a kundalini yoga class that morning at a new yoga studio.  I hopped (no bunny puns intended) into my car and began to drive there.

What happened next was surreal.  As I was driving down a main road in downtown Indianapolis, I spotted a car in my periphery that was moving slowly towards a stop sign at an intersection I was crossing.  In the next second, I felt a devastating impact and held my breath as a car crashed into my back passenger side door.  I spun in my car, gripping the steering wheel, feeling the shock of what in the hell just happened and then finally screeching to a stop, with my vehicle perpendicular to the road.  I looked up, and saw the other vehicle slow down from the impact of hitting me. In fear, I felt myself wanting to make eye contact, but as I was looking at the driver, he suddenly pushed on the accelerator and kept driving.

The next moment was filled with uncontrollable crying as I dialed 911.¬† (Crying is my jam. It’s just what I do.) A police officer¬†stopped and pulled over next to me.¬† I assumed he was the one who had been called to come to the scene, but I was wrong.¬† He told me he had just gotten off duty, but would stay with me until the assigned officers arrived.¬† He told me to call someone to come and get me, since the car was undrivable, and to begin calling my insurance company to tell them I was the victim of a hit and run.

I continued to let the tears flow, while talking to the insurance company, feeling the release of the trauma and shock as the next two police officers arrived.¬† I replayed everything that happened in my mind as I retold them about the vehicle crashing into me.¬† I found myself wanting to apply blame…to someone.¬† Who would do this?¬† Who crashes into someone, and just drives away?¬† Who looks at someone who is clearly in fear and/or pain and just keeps going?¬† Who floors their gas pedal because their fear of dealing with the hurt they have caused, outweighs the courage to face the damage they have done?¬†

Since I couldn’t answer those questions, I then looked at myself.¬† Was there anything I could have done to prevent this from happening?¬† Even though I had the right of way, could I have possibly anticipated that he wasn’t going to stop?¬† Why didn’t I get a good look at him?¬† Why didn’t I look at his license plate number?

And then I started to blame the city:¬† Why aren’t their cameras at every intersection to record this crap?¬† Why didn’t anyone come out of their home to help me?¬† Why was there only one person along the way who stopped to help?

As the tow truck came along, the driver listened in to the conversation I was having with my friend who came to pick me up.¬† “Who does this?”¬† I asked her.

“Someone high.¬† Someone who has a warrant out for their arrest.¬† Someone who doesn’t have a driver’s license.¬† Someone…afraid,” she insightfully said.

“Someone who drives a Buick,” the tow truck driver chimed in, as he handed me a piece of the offender’s car he found in the street.¬† I looked at it.¬† It was the Buick symbol.¬† A piece of the person.¬† A piece of the vehicle which had crashed into me, on this bright Easter morning in 2018.¬† I cringed, but took the piece of the car as a clue to the piece of my pain.

A week later, I am sitting in the sunroom writing this post to you. At this moment, I realize there is much to be grateful for. I am grateful I am physically okay.  I am grateful for my friend who came to help me and for the police officers and the rental car employees, and for my insurance company.

I look at my daughter, thankful she wasn’t with me, and yet, terrified of the thought that she could have easily been sitting in the backseat at the point of impact.

But overall, now that I have some perspective, what I am reminded of is this: blaming others does not solve problems. What solves problems is doing the work–turning inward and acting on what we are called to do. And what else solves problems is deciding to act with compassion that is founded in truth, justice, and community.

I recall the moment when I looked over at him, and he floored the gas and drove away. That moment, to me, symbolizes all the moments when we look at someone in pain, and choose to keep walking.

We’ve all done it. We’ve all been the guy that drove away.

When we see homeless people on the street and somehow think they are not worthy of our attention, we are the guy that drove away.

When we hear the voice of someone in pain, speaking out about the injustice he or she feels, and yet we ignore it, we are the guy that drove away.

When we choose to not see others as being as valuable as ourselves, we are the guy that drove away.

When we choose to ignore those that we perceive to be different than us, we are the guy that drove away.

And please, don’t for one second, think that I’m “a good person” or “noble” for thinking this way. I’M JUST AS JACKED UP AS EVERYONE ELSE. I’m simply calling the sentiment into the light that “I am the other.”

It’s painful. It’s hard. But it’s a truth worth examining. And it’s what I believe DOES solve problems. The faster we can accept the reality that hurt people hurt people, the faster we can do the work and start to protect those who are suffering in our community.

And the faster we can actually begin to forgive.

Let Them BE

About six years ago, I was sitting in my therapist’s office, discussing a new relationship. She made a statement to me that made NO sense to me at the time, and yet something inside of me believed it could be true, simply because of the fact that she was WAY smarter than me.

“The highest level we can achieve in our relationships, is when we have the ability to stand alone in the presence of another,” she said.

What in the whatity what? Like what in the actual heck are you TALKING ABOUT? I looked at her like as if she had grown two heads–this was one I wasn’t even going to ask her to explain. It was too…BIZARRE. And what fresh hell is this in re: to dating? You mean I have to stand alone even if I’m dating someone? I’d rather run away from someone than have to show up as I am and be alone in his presence. What is this crappy alternative universe she is speaking of and how can I make sure I NEVER GO THERE?

Those ‚¨ÜÔłŹ were my thoughts.

And yet..here is where I want to go with this today. Today is right now. 7:51 pm on February 19. I am thinking about this alternative universe my therapist mentioned, where people can stand alone in the presence of another, and I can still honestly say that it feels just plain WEIRD to me that this is even possible.

AND YET

… I now believe in different things: I believe in BEING STILL with the stupid negative feelings that come up. I am still sometimes afraid of pain or rejection or even intimacy, but I know I can tolerate them so I SIT with them and sometimes I EVEN SIT WITH THEM IN THE PRESENCE OF A FREAKING OTHER PERSON. Which is still not fun, but I CAN DO IT, which is the weirdest thing ever.

This is what it’s like: Here I am, living my life, joyfully, or sometimes not so joyfully, doing my thing. “Doing my thing” basically means BEING MYSELF. Showing up as me. And then, in the midst of me doing my thing, someone else tells me or shows me in his or her actions that he or she doesn’t like my thing-whether it’s the way I express myself or my belief system or even the way I look or show up to him or her.

And this hurts when they communicate this to me. Because that’s how I’m wired– I am wired to care about people and thereby I sometimes care a little too much about what they think.

But I can TOLERATE the discomfort of the disagreement. I can still stand as myself, being myself, allowing myself to be who I am.

And furthermore, I am allowing the other party involved to BE WHO THEY ARE.

And here is what I now KNOW to be true:

WE MUST LET PEOPLE BE WHO THEY ARE. LET. THEM. BE. WHO. THEY. ARE.

Let them BE who they are.

And know that you CAN still stand in their presence.

This is how this *could* look in various relationships:

Scenario 1: Pretend I’m married. My husband always forgets to turn off the coffee pot in the mornings and this drives me crazy. I keep telling him to do it and he keeps forgetting or maybe just plain doesn’t want to. Instead of continuing to get angry, I let him be who he is. I start turning off the damn coffee pot because it’s important TO ME.

Scenario 2: Pretend I have two kids who are angels. Then I suddenly give birth to a third who is literally hell on wheels. I say go left, he goes right. He is HARRRD to parent. But I continue to show up as I am in my parenting and exercise my beliefs and values in the way I teach him and treat him. He continues to show up as himself in his strong willed, yet sensitive nature. We butt heads, but we still ALLOW each other to be who they are WHILE still enforcing the boundaries and teachings that as parents we must enforce.

Scenario 3: Pretend I am dating a man who has a lot of qualities I like. And he has some other qualities, that, while are not deal breakers, are TRIGGERS for me. So that basically means that he’s a human being who is just minding his business and being himself, but then I text him something and he doesn’t respond to it, and I am triggered. It is at this moment that I have choices. I can text him in anger, asking for a response. I can text him with a humorous, playful tone, but still with the express intent of getting a response. (Which can actually be controlling since I am texting him as a way to diffuse my triggered emotion, instead of just owning that emotion MYSELF). Or, I can LET HIM BE who he is. And do nothing, unless I am sure I am responding from a place of love, instead of a place of being triggered.

You see, we ALL have our triggers, and we have to OWN them. Another wise person once told me, “What other people think of you has nothing to do with you,” and I thought that she had grown two heads too. But guess what?? She actually only has one head and she’s right. If someone doesn’t like how I show up in this world, that’s about THEM. If I don’t like another person, or if I feel “triggered” by them, that’s ALWAYS about me. It’s never about them. They are just doing their thing.

We have to allow the people in our difficult relationships to be who they are. And that may mean that we sometimes take a break from them, and that’s called self care. It’s also called “being still” until you are confident you are interacting in a spirit of love, instead of fear.

It’s a tricky thing. Because it involves being yourself 100 percent of the time and staying true to you, while simultaneously showing the utmost respect to a person who is 100 percent being who they are in this world.

If we could all do this… even just SOMETIMES. We maybe could teach others in our world what it’s like to respect humanity. What it’s like to be true to who you are, not betray your values, while also allowing someone to be who he or she is, and not taking his or her behavior personally.

This involves knowing ourselves. Knowing what rubs us the wrong way. And then digging deeper with that. What’s under that feeling? What thought or belief is behind your experience? Why do you feel that way?

While all the while, remembering that the highest form of relationship and love you can show to another person and to yourself is to be willing to stand alone and stay true to you, while still standing in their freaking presence. ūüė≥

It’s so hard. Yet so easy. And I’m convinced it’s the best way. But you can disagree with me and still stand next to me and I will still love you.

(Picture in my house I look at every morning before I get in the shower. And I sometimes even pray, “Dear God, help me to love others just as they are. Just the way they show up, while still being true to me. ūüôŹūüŹĹ)

Grace Elaine Sommers Whitehead

This past week my mom turned 79. It’s kind of jolting, because I don’t think of her as being someone who is close to entering her octogenarian years. She’s just my mom. However, she’s MY MOM. And being that I’m a mom, this has caused me to reflect on what it must be like to be my mom.

Sometimes I look at old pictures of myself from when I was a kid, and try to remember what my personality was like. I’m guessing my mom would say I was a happy and talkative child, and I was, for the most part. I liked to play outdoors in the dirt, ride my tricycle, talk to the neighbors, and play in the sandbox. I also liked to pretend I had imaginary friends and even children. One day I told my mom that I had two daughters–one named Ruthie (after my grandma who I was obsessed with) and Crouton (after my favorite salad bar topping-BECAUSE WHO DOESN’T LOVE SEASONED BREAD?!). I was creative and liked to color and draw and watch the birds at the bird feeder.

My mom would sit at the foot of my bed every night until I fell asleep. We said bedtime prayers, and she helped me to learn how to pray. She cooked healthy food for us, and we always ate at the table.

(God, I should stop reminiscing because this is actually making me think about all the ways I’ve failed as a parent.)

But before I stop, I must mention one more thing.

I remember lying in bed in my childhood bedroom. Only I wasn‚Äôt a child anymore. I was 30 years old. My mom had pulled the curtains up, in hopes that I would feel the sunshine. It was springtime and it was beautiful weather. And yet, I couldn‚Äôt stop crying, and I couldn‚Äôt get out of bed. I knew my parents were concerned, but every time they tried to speak to me, I either cried or shut down. And all I remember thinking was, why can’t I just enjoy the sunshine? There are actual people who are getting up with the sun and going outside and living their lives and going to the grocery store and shit. And getting up to go pee was overwhelming to me. Eating was overwhelming to me. Showering was overwhelming to me.

I felt like I was getting evicted from my own life. This was during my second separation from my husband. Things were crumbling and I did not want to surrender. What I didn’t yet understand was that, as Glennon always says, nobody gets evicted from his or her life unless she is being called to a truer, deeper life. Rock bottom is always an invitation to something else- something even more authentic and beautiful.

My mother came into my bedroom. She sat down on my bed. She told me she had baked some homemade bread and had fresh strawberry jam, made with strawberries from our garden. While my mother is an incredible cook, it was very out of character for her to make homemade bread. I looked at her, perplexed. But then I knew: she’s trying to get me to eat AND baking may be her way of coping with the fact that her child is feeling hopeless and not eating or sleeping.

She convinced me to eat a piece of bread. She brought it upstairs to me and sat on my bed. I put the bread in my mouth and could tell it was nearly a perfect tasting piece of bread, so I began to chew it, even though I wasn’t enjoying the process of eating. Every time I swallowed food, it went into the pit of my stomach and I thought would vomit. But I didn’t vomit. So I continued to slowly and thoroughly chew the bread in my mouth so that I could nourish my body at least.

“I’ve been thinking,” my mother suddenly said, “about you.”

I sat up in bed. She had my attention.

“I have this vision of you in my mind. You are an exquisite, beautiful flower. And yet, you’ve been buried for so long under the dirt. The ground above you is hard and cracked, and the soil is not good. However, you continue to grow and you will soon sprout above this ground that is holding you back–this ground that has held you down for so many years, and you will begin to bloom. And you’re just the most beautiful flower. You’re becoming yourself and you’re stunning. You are going to bloom and break free.”

I looked at her in awe, because she was envisioning things for me that I simply couldn’t see. But what she said–her words–were so intricate and fascinating, that it drew me in.

Everyone has always loved my mother. At times I resented this, because I didn’t like sharing her. I would get jealous and hide for attention or act out (when I was a child, to clarify-not last week ūüėú). But now I know why people are so drawn to her-it’s because she showed up for them, and never fell apart. It’s because she’s a vault when it comes to trust. My mother has exhibited grace under pressure, time and time again. When others are stressed, she remains serious. When people are crying and crushed, she responds with compassion. That’s why people love her.

So that is my mother. She is a believer in things that dwell in truth and possibility. Happy birthday, Mom.

The Woman I Feared: My Ex’s Fiancée

When I was still married, I remember lying in bed one night thinking of all the reasons why I shouldn’t get divorced, despite the fact that my marriage was pretty much a living death at the time. All of the reasons I listed were branches grown from trees of fear or “what if’s.” Among these reasons was the following;

He’s gonna find another woman and I cannot bear the thought of another woman playing mommy to my daughter.

My internal dialogue went something like this: She’s gonna be pretty and sweet and is gonna let my daughter do whatever she wants and my daughter is gonna want to go live with her just like what happened in whatsherface’s family–YEAH that will be my freaking life and I won’t be able to bear it. And she will be the “fun mom” and my daughter will hate me because her dad and fun mom hate me.

But, as the story went (that was actually not just a story, but my real freaking life), I filed for divorce in spite of this fear and all the other fears. Because what often happens when you’re in a situation where fear is ruling your life, is your heart and your brain and body eventually can’t take it anymore, and so you have two choices: disassociate from the pain and fear OR boss up. Somehow, not by anything less than luck or possibly the grace of God, I chose to boss up. Not everyone is or was as lucky as me, and it is to those beloveds who are still living with fear as the boss of them, that I dedicate this post. I am speaking to you, my loves, who are living in fear, and I want you to know:

I am no different than you. I am no smarter than you or more courageous than you. I just somehow decided to do it-to leave an abusive, scary hellhole that was my life. Maybe your hellhole is different situationally than mine, but fear is fear, and loss is loss. It is real, and it’s hard, and it’s scary.

To this day, I have mixed feelings when people say to me, THANK GOD you changed. While I am very thankful I left my situation and that my life is now beautiful and true (albeit messy and hard, just like life is), I have SO much compassion for that girl that I used to be-my rock bottom self. Cause there ain’t nobody in this world who loves her more than I do. Why? Because she felt the pain and let it steer her. She felt the loss and knew that it was devastating. She knew she wasn’t like everyone else around her. But what she didn’t know, was that she was worthy of happiness, respect, and peace of mind. And so that’s why I love her–because she needed love and still does.

We don’t give as much love to people at their rock bottoms as we should. Sometimes it’s because we are afraid they will never change. Sometimes it’s because we are afraid they will change, but not for the better. Sometimes it’s because we’re just plain tired. To the people who are tired, please rest. But to everyone else, I say this: love them anyways. Show them love without fear, so that they know it’s real and that it exists.

And to my rock bottom beloveds, I tell you this story, about my now ex-husband’s girlfriend. Once I left, I had the gift of time. And with time, came less fear and more understanding. And then one day, my little girl came home from a visit with her dad and said, “Daddy has a new friend and her name is Ashley and she’s my friend, too.”

And somehow, I felt the goodness in this. You may ask me WHY and HOW in the HECK did I get there? And all I can tell you is that it was time, beloveds. Time created space, and space created awareness. Fear cannot survive when you start doing things you’re afraid of doing. I don’t know why that is, but it just is. It’s like your brain and anxiety get a little shock, but then they realize that you are still alive, so they keep going. That’s kinda how it was for me, too. I did a lot of little, scary things, and then the big ones took care of themselves.

And then it was revealed to me pretty quickly that Ashley was just a younger version of myself. And I loved her, because I love me. And she loves my girl, and so it makes sense that there is goodness in that. And even though she’s a younger version of me, she’s still not me. I am still mom, and that’s a truth that will always exist. Fear can’t change the truth.

So here it is, my fellow rock bottomers who may be reading this: I am no different than you when it comes to strength and courage. I love you more than I do most people because you know rock bottom. I love you because you understand pain and haven’t entirely dissociated from yourself yet. The pain you feel can be a loophole that you slide through which brings you to your future- a future where you find others like you, and show them love, and pull them out, too. All you have to do now, though, is believe, even if it’s for just a minute, and that everything you’re afraid of, isn’t as strong as you are. Give yourself the credit you deserve and know that you even if you just slide your pinky toe through the loophole, you still got through, so just keep going. One minute of believing fear isn’t your boss may turn into two minutes the next day, and soon enough, with time, you will realize your whole entire leg slipped through the loophole.

And that is how your truth begins.

Should I Stay for the Kids?

When¬†a couple is in a¬†committed relationship, and one of¬†them is contemplating leaving, he or she may ask¬†him or herself questions¬†such as, “Is this bad¬†enough for me to leave or good enough for me to stay?” However, when¬†that same¬†couple¬†is in a committed¬†relationship with children, there is a much more disconcerting thought that may enter his or her mind: “What would leaving do to my children?”

I am 41 years old.¬† I am divorced.¬† I am clearly not a psychologist or a relationship expert.¬† I am not going to furl¬†data or research¬†at you.¬†¬†However, I have had the privilege of witnessing profound personal growth in people who were willing to dig deeper into the layers of this aforementioned question:¬† What would leaving my children’s father or mother¬†do to my children?

When I hear people ask this question, I also hear the following underlying/interconnected  questions:

  • What would it do to me to see my children suffer through this pain?
  • What would it¬†mean for my children to come from a broken home?
  • What will happen to me¬†as I explain this to other people?
  • What will people think of me for leaving a marriage or partnership that doesn’t look “that bad?”
  • Shouldn’t I be able to¬†tolerate it, at least until the children get older, so that I can give them a “stable” home life?

These are really hard questions that I am sure many a therapist has heard in their offices. These are questions that have been written into journals and secretly tucked under people’s mattresses where no one else can find them.  These are questions that are whispered in quiet corridors where lovers meet to have affairs that feel more comfortable to them than leaving the status quo.  These are questions that people ask themselves as they drink a bottle of wine every night in order to go to sleep, because numbing out is easier than answering these questions.

While IÔłŹ don’t know the answers to these specific underlying questions, what IÔłŹ do know is this: OUR CHILDREN NEED US, NOW MORE THAN EVER BEFORE.¬† And when I say “need us,” I mean need US–the real, most true version of ourselves.¬† If we are in a relationship that does not offer us the opportunity to be the most REAL and TRUE version of ourselves, then staying in¬†that relationship¬†CANNOT¬†be what’s best for our children.

When¬†a mother¬†walks into her home, and feels like she can’t be herself, that has a negative¬†effect on the little people in¬†her home.¬† When a girl looks into¬†her daddy’s eyes and¬†sees a person who does not love himself, that actually has a negative impact on that little girl’s mental health. When anyone walks into his or her own home, feeling broken-hearted because love doesn‚Äôt live in his or her marriage, his or her children will FEEL the effects of this sadness.

I know kids.¬† When I come to school to teach, and I seem frazzled for whatever reason, one of these insightful little people will come up to me and say, “Have you had your coffee yet?” BECAUSE THEY KNOW THINGS.¬† I don’t really wear makeup much anymore to work, but the first day I stopped wearing it, a five year old asked me the minute I stepped into the building, “What happened to you and where did your pretty eyes go?”

These are children–some of the most¬†curiously perceptive people on our planet.¬† They FEEL things in the air and see between the lines.¬† They know when we¬†are trying to¬†distract ourselves from our lives in order to avoid living it.¬† And they definitely know when we don’t love ourselves.

They can also sense when our lives are unfulfilled.  They can feel when there is an emptiness in our hearts.  Our children know when we are pretending, and if we continue to show them that pretending is okay, they will begin to start pretending and stuffing their feelings down, too.

And one of my mantras for this year has been: there is no power in pretending.¬† We do not want our children to believe it is okay to behave like someone they are not. When we push down who we are and what we want, in order to avoid causing other people to experience pain, we aren’t actually LIVING, and are in fact, BETRAYING our truest, highest selves.

We must start to understand that there is a way of being that is authentic. And in this space of authentic living, we will find that what is good and true and right for us (and I got this line from Glennon Doyle, because she’s a genius) is going to be what is good and true and right for “our people.” And our people include, but are not limited to, our children. Now, this does not mean our children will not suffer pain. Divorce is painful. Painnnnnnnful. Heartbreaking, in fact, for adults, children, and members of the extended family. But–and IÔłŹ cannot ask this question enough-is it our job to protect our children from ever experiencing pain and heartbreak? Is that truly what being a parent means? Or, does being a parent mean to hold our child’s hand and show them how to be their truest selves, even when it’s hard and not popular or right?

Could it mean that we are actually doing our best parenting when we teach them that they can walk through pain and come out stronger and more resilient?

IÔłŹ don’t know about you, but for as much as IÔłŹ hate seeing my daughter in pain, what IÔłŹ would hate even more would be for her to never know the lessons that pain can teach. That grief can teach. That heartbreak can teach.

Perhaps if our children can learn to withstand heartbreak and grief and pain, they can learn to sit with others and have empathy for them, too, when they see them walking through the same. And when our children can learn to hold space for each other and practice empathy and compassion, they can change this very world.