This is not my family.

I still remember what my mother wrote to me

You made your decision to disown your family.

It wasn’t a decision to disown my family. It was a decision to save my life.

And I am reminded of that decision every day.

I left a life behind. A life I can never go back to. A life full of people I can’t see anymore.

One of my best friends graduated from college last week. I wanted to be there to support him, in the same way he was there to support me when I graduated college last year. But I couldn’t. I could only experience his moment through pictures he posted on social media. Because I can never go back to that place again. I can never take the risk of my mother seeing me, of finding me, of hurting me. I can never return to the only place I knew for 29 years of my life, my home, my friends, my family. And that hurts in a way I’m not sure I can ever explain in words.

For all those months after my escape, I went through my hardest moments alone. I spent holidays alone. I stayed in the hospital alone. I struggled to explain to every person taking down my information that I had no emergency contact, no next of kin, no person to notify. No mother? No father? No siblings? No one? They could never seem to understand how I had no family. Didn’t they hear? I disowned my family.

And now here I am, smack dab in the middle of a family that is not my own. I’m going through shit with people by my side from a family that is not my own. I am spending time with people from a family that is not my own. I am living in a house that is not my home.

Now it’s different. I went to the cardiologist appointment with someone by my side, someone who cared enough to take the time to come with me, because she knew I wasn’t going to speak up for myself. But she doesn’t know I don’t speak up for a reason. She doesn’t understand I’ve been trained not to speak up for myself.

I went through my surgery with her by my side. As the cardiologist stitched up my incision, she said “I’m going to go out and tell your mother how everything went.” In that moment I realized that’s who should be here: my mother, my family. Instead here was this woman, of no relation to me, standing by me through a hard time. She isn’t my mother, but she cares and supports me more than my biological mother ever did, strong enough that even my doctor mistook her for my own family member.

I always dreamed of having a real family, but I never knew what it looked like. I didn’t really imagine other people, I just imagined my parents being different. I imagined living a life with a mother who didn’t rape and abuse, and a father who hugged instead of hit. I imagined going out places instead of being stuck inside of that prison. I imagined that they would change, but they never did.

Thirty-one years later, I found that family. A normal family where I don’t have to be afraid to go to bed at night and I can eat food without being punished for it and I can go outside and see the world whenever I want. I found a family with a man who asks if I’ve done my homework every Friday, because he knows I have a paper due that night. I found a family with a teenager that asks where I’m going each time there’s a stranger parked outside the house waiting to pick me up for a date. I found a family with a kid I can joke around with so much, we both end up rolling on the floor. I found a family with a woman who tells me goodnight and gives me a hug before she goes to sleep. I found a family that makes sure I’m eating enough, a family that always makes sure I have what I need.

It’s a normal family. It’s a family I never experienced. And it’s not my family. Because I’m not sure I fit into a normal family. I am not sure it’s fair for them to have to deal with me. It’s not fair for them to have to make sure I am eating like a normal person. It’s not fair for them to have to hold my head off the floor every time I pass out. It’s not fair for them to care for me, when I can barely find it within me to care about myself. I am a burden. And they did nothing to deserve that.

As much as I’m included in everything they do, I still feel like an outsider. I feel like someone who doesn’t belong. Because I don’t belong. This is not my family. I am alone. In the middle of a room full of people, as crazy as some of them may be, I am the only one that doesn’t belong.

It’s ironic. My own family treated me like the outsider my whole life. Yet the truth is I never belonged with them anyway, because I was nothing like them. And now, with a family who is treating me like I belong, I find myself pushing away.

I ended up crying in the corner of the living room yesterday. The family had a barbecue. Other family members were there. And for a few hours I felt okay. I talked, I listened, I even got dragged into a mini-trip with a woman who had just learned my name. And then right before dinner, something clicked in me. This is not my family. I do not belong here. It hit me like a ton of bricks.

They sat down together in the kitchen and I isolated myself in the corner of another room. I knew I was going to cry. I tried so hard to hold in the tears. I tried to look at my phone, act busy, but then she came over to ask if I was okay and I just knew I wouldn’t be able to hold the tears in anymore.

She asked if it was my heart. I knew she meant my arrhythmia, so I said no. But my heart was broken in a different way, a way that I can barely explain. A broken heart that continues to break each time I realize all that I never had.

She knew something was wrong and kept asking me what it was, and I kept trying to hold it all in. I’m fine. I finally broke down and told her, this isn’t my family, this is yours. I couldn’t hold in the tears anymore. She grabbed tissues and tried to comfort me, while blocking me from everyone else in the other room. She told me that I was family, that she adopted me, that I belong. She had told me it all before, but it still didn’t feel right.

I got what I always dreamed of as a little girl. Love, care, support, safety, and all of the things a real family should be. Yet even though I am the safest, happiest, and most balanced I have ever been, I am still reminded of what I don’t have: my family. They are gone forever. Some dead, some gone away, some too dangerous to recognize they exist, but regardless, still gone. I am one standing, both disowned by my family and disowned to them.

This is not my family. I don’t want to be a burden to them.

I don’t understand how I got here.

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500 Days of Freedom, Part 1

I still count the number of days since I ran away.

I started counting the day I left. I didn’t really know how far I’d get, but I still kept counting. Every morning was another day of freedom gained, every seven days was another week I made it through.

And now I have made it 500 days.

I realized I was getting close to 500 days a few weeks ago. I noticed it was also very close to the Thanksgiving holiday, which is a difficult one for me. I knew I needed to do something to celebrate. It would not only be good for me to acknowledge how far I’ve come, but also to be able to celebrate something meaningful for me while other people celebrate something meaningful to them.

I wanted to do something different. I brainstormed for a few days. Then one night, I was sitting at my desk and saw the stones of what I (thought I) lost. They have been sitting on my bookshelf since July, when I made them at the workshop I attended. As much as I wanted to do something special with them, I realized that they were made in a moment of hopelessness. I was plagued by a horrible memory, and it cast a dark cloud on my mind. I believed in that moment that I had lost hope, love, support, and purpose. But they weren’t really my losses. I had those things. I still do.

So I decided I was going to have a do-over. I was going to make new stones. I went to the craft store and found the biggest, heaviest, stones and put them in my basket. Then I saw a bag of small, smooth stones. I thought, I can do something with these, too. And then I grabbed another bag of stones as well. They were small, but not smooth; they were disfigured and heavy. I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do just yet, but I know I would come up with something.

And I did. I separated the three groups of stones. The big, heavy stones were going to be the stones of what I’ve lost. The small, smooth stones were going to be the stones of what I’ve gained. The heavy, oddly shaped stones were going to be the stones of what I’ve given away.

These stones were my progress; five-hundred days summed up on 72 stones. I felt something with every word I wrote on each stone. I cried. I got angry. I grieved. But I kept going. Just like I’ve kept going for 500 days.

I know there are many people who don’t understand why I still count the days, who don’t understand what I ran away from, and who don’t understand why I celebrate seemingly meaningless things like 500 days of freedom. But I know. I understand. And that’s what matters.

I spent the day with my stones. Some are gone forever now. Some are still with me. And some have found a different home. I grieved today. I cried. A lot. But I also smiled. I sensed relief. I felt the burden of what I’ve been carrying for so long lifted away.

There is a song by Thousand Foot Krutch, called Give Up the Ghost. I listen to it every day. The words speak to me in ways a song rarely does. It reminds me of my struggle. It reminds me of all of the things my parents kept hidden from me, the things they took away from me. But it also reminds me of the freedom I found. I am no longer caged. I am no longer the enemy. I am me, and I am free.

They never told me that I could be

free from the hate that’s inside of me.

They took my place, took my dignity.

They kept me caged like an enemy.

But I know now, I can be

free from the pain that’s inside of me.

You took my place, gave me air to breathe.

Opened the cage, and you set me free.

Freedom, Part 2

It has been one year now that I have been free.

In the beginning, I didn’t think I was going to make it this far. I had limited finances, no job, no family, and no friends. I sat in my room the first few days and just got lost in my thoughts. I told myself I would enjoy freedom as long as I could, and then kill myself once I ran out of money. I had very low expectations, a lot of fear of the unknown, and a lot of anxiety about the world.

Many people don’t understand it when I say I ran away from home, that I escaped. Regular people just move out when they change locations. But I never had that ability. I ran away and ran towards freedom.

But even then, I could not run away from my mother’s programming. Even though I was physically free from her, I carried the same beliefs about the world that she had trained me to believe. She wanted me to believe the world was a scary place because that is how she kept her control over me. And when I moved away, I still thought the world was out to get me.

As the weeks went on, I started making small achievements. I took the bus all by myself. I crossed a busy highway. I went to the mall. I had conversations with strangers. I went to the grocery store and picked out new foods. I sat on my porch at night and looked at the sky. While these all sound like everyday things, they were not to me. They were things I was never allowed to do by myself.

Within a week, I started therapy. I already contacted my therapists before I even made my escape. They were ready and willing to help me. Therapy started out fine, and then all hell broke loose. After one month here, I dissociated so badly that it took two therapists to bring me back. That was when I got my official DID diagnosis, and I’ve continued therapy ever since. It’s been a couple hundred hours, thousands of dollars, and a whirlwind of emotions, but it has allowed me to be where I am today.

Within two weeks, I got a job. I had a couple of interviews lined up, but I decided to go with the first place that wanted me. In the long run, that ended up to be a great decision, because the people I work with are some of the most understanding, amazing people I have ever met in my life. The night before my first day at my new job, I ended up in the hospital. My PTSD was severe and I was admitted to the psych unit for a few days, without a phone and without a way to contact my job. I thought for sure that was it. I missed my first day and I was a no show. But they understood, and within 24 hours of being released, I started my new job, the job I still have today.

Within six weeks, I finished my thesis on mother-daughter sexual abuse. I received the highest grade of 99. With that, my undergraduate career was done with. I graduated with high honors and a 3.9 GPA.

Within two months, I was hired as a writer for a mental health website, writing about the disorder I was still in denial about. It was a challenge for me in many ways. Taking the position meant that I had to be public, and up until then I was completely untraceable and off social media entirely. It also meant that my name would be tied to DID forever, and that my diagnosis would be public record, so to speak. I decided to go for it, and even though there have been some trials, I am happy with my decision. I have grown a lot through my writing, and have learned so much from others as well.

Within six months, I got accepted into graduate school and started my first semester. I went on to take the CPCE and score above the national average. I ended my first semester attaining a 4.0 and a lot of praise from my professors.

Within six months, I also started PAFPAC. I knew it would take a lot of time and effort, and even though I wish I could be doing more for the organization, it’s there for those that need it. I haven’t been able to do much as far as advocacy, but our Facebook support group continues to grow and helps survivors connect with others.

It hasn’t always been good and easy. I also broke my foot (which did not heal correctly and still leaves me in pain), I was hospitalized a few times (PTSD and panic attacks), I quit a job after four days because I had an emotional breakdown (I couldn’t handle seeing so many happy families), and I had to drop out of graduate school because someone reported my mental illness, via links to my blog.

Looking back, I can’t believe all of this (and more) happened within one year. I never expected to be where I am today. I am still standing. I am healing. I am helping. I am writing. I am telling my story.

And I am free.

I celebrated the day in my own way. I baked brownies and shared them with my coworkers. My getaway driver came down and we went to the movies and went out to dinner. My roommate got me a bouquet of flowers. I ended the night by deciding, on a whim, to get a fish.

I named him Freedom.

We’re both in better places now.

Freedom, Part 1

On April 26th, 2015, I knew I was going to run away from home.

That weekend, I sneaked off to a retreat for my online support group. I knew I was going to be in trouble once I got back home, but something in me told me I needed to take the risk and go anyway.

It was at that retreat that I met my (now) therapists. On the last day of the retreat, I received a card from them, which I still carry with me every day.

You are so brave and courageous to come to this year’s retreat. You are deserving of a healthy, safe life. We are here to support you and believe in you. You are stronger than you believe.

Those words stuck with me, not only on that day, but throughout the following two and half months. As soon as I came home from the retreat, I started planning. I had my money spread across several bank accounts so I could hoard it without my mother finding out. I started selling things I didn’t really need (electronics, sneakers, books) online to make extra money.

I checked Craigslist every day looking for apartments and rooms for rent. I knew I needed to go where those therapists were – they were willing to help me, I just needed to get out. Several times, I thought my plans were not going to work out. No one wanted to rent to a person with no job in the area and no references.

Despite all of the ‘no’s, I kept looking. I knew this was something I could not give up on. I knew that I could not make it living there much longer. I put in my two weeks notice at work before I even secured a place to live. I told my family I was on vacation so they didn’t know I quit. I set up a fake post of my Facebook page that said I was accepted into an internship for school and that I would have to travel for a few weeks. I knew my family stalked my Facebook, so I made it public so my mother would see it. All of my friends were in on it, and posted supportive comments to make it appear legitimate. I had everything set but a place to live.

At the last minute, I found someone who was still willing to rent to me despite my situation. I sent the first month’s rent and security through a wire transfer because I couldn’t risk leaving my house anymore. That is how desperate I was.

Over the next few days, I was full of anxiety and doubt. I didn’t think I could do it. I was so scared to leave, and so scared to be somewhere new. I was also scared of how I was actually going to be able to get out safely. Very few people knew of my plans. My best friend, who was essentially my getaway driver, was the only person that knew exactly where I was going. I couldn’t risk telling people and tipping off my family. I had my online friends supporting me through the entire process, keeping me focused and helping me stay calm until the morning I finally did it.

On July 10th, 2015, before dawn, I woke up, cleaned myself up, got dressed, swallowed a few Xanax, grabbed my two sport bags of clothes, shoes and other essentials, and my computer, and I ran out the door. My father was there, waiting, as he heard me wake up early and wondered what was going on. He tried to question me but I did not want to get tied into anything, so I quickly told him I had an internship and went out the door.

That was the last time I would ever see or speak to my father again.

My friend was parked around the corner, in order to maintain his own safety in this unpredictable situation. I threw my bags in the back seat of his car and we drove away. My heart was beating so fast, my mind was racing, and I was nauseated. To add to the chaos, my friend had a flat tire. Not even 15 minutes into the trip, and we had to stop and find a shop to get the tire fixed.

As if I wasn’t anxious enough, I had to sit and wait for over an hour as they replaced his tire, watching the news on TV, continuously checking my phone to make sure none of them were trying to reach me. It seemed like forever, but we finally got back on the road and on the way to my new home.

Once we got into town, we stopped at a store so I could buy a few large items I couldn’t bring from home (a hamper, storage containers, bedding, hangers). With the car now packed with my only possessions, we drove to my new home. We were a few hours later than scheduled, but unscathed nonetheless.

July 10th, 2015, turned out to be the longest morning I’ve ever had. But it’s also the day I found my freedom.

Independence

Today is July 4th, the day America celebrates the anniversary of its independence. In less than one week, on July 10th, I will be celebrating the anniversary of my own independence.

This coming Sunday will be one year since I ran away from home. One year of independence. One year of…freedom (and I use that term loosely, because in many ways, I am still not free).

I don’t think many people in my life understand the importance of that day for me. I didn’t just run away from home. I escaped hell. I escaped a life of pain, a life of hurt, and a life of abuse. I escaped a life I will hopefully never have to experience again.

I didn’t expect to make it this far.

I’m in a weird place right now, for this and other reasons. I need to write, but can’t find the words.

I’ll be okay.

4 Miles of Freedom

Something I saw on Facebook inadvertently triggered a memory.

It wasn’t a bad memory. I would have liked it better if I had the memory at a time other than 3 o’clock in the morning, but I guess some things are just out of my control.

I went to a private high school in another town. It was another way my mother distanced me from people. My father would always drive me to school. For some reason, I don’t remember what exactly, my father couldn’t drive me to school for a few weeks (I think it was work-related). So I had to take the bus. The first few times, my mother went with me. Then she would just walk with me to the bus stop (about 6 blocks) and stay until I got on the bus.

One day, I was feeling rather rebellious. I didn’t want to take the bus. I just wanted to experience freedom. So I took a chance. I told my mother I was going to be okay and she could go. The bus was right down the avenue. And by some miracle, it worked. I had my chance. She turned away and as the bus came to a stop, I ran around the corner.

I was free. My heart was pounding, I was carrying a book bag that probably weighed at least 20 pounds, but I was free. So I walked. My school was over four miles away and up a hill, but I walked. For that hour, I got to experience some normalcy. I was still afraid. Afraid my mother was going to find out what I had done, afraid someone would see me walking and tell my parent. But none of that mattered. I still did it. I broke the rules because I wanted to be free.

By the time I got to school, I was covered in sweat and exhausted from the trek. But I felt empowered. I had done something that in some way I knew was wrong, because I had disobeyed my mother’s rules. But it didn’t feel that wrong to me. It felt right.

I wonder if I channeled that same part that made that brief escape walking to school, when I made that permanent escape from my mother’s prison.

It’s funny, as afraid as I was (and still am, in some ways), there was always a part of me that fought through the fear and moved towards freedom. It’s that part that got me to where I am today. Where would I be now without it?