Two Years of Freedom, Part 3: Growing

There are many aspects of growth. It’s really complex when you think about it. Just because something grows, doesn’t mean it’s thriving. There’s growth in surviving, too. But it’s a different kind of growth. It’s not full. It’s not healthy. It’s growth that never reaches its full potential.

I’ve thought a lot about growth. When I think about the first 29 years of my life, I know I grew. Physically, emotionally. But that growth was stunted by the environment I was in. I was in survival mode. I grew in ways I had to in order to stay alive. But that didn’t make me healthy. That didn’t make it all right.

And then I think about where I am now. Two years of freedom; two years of tremendous growth. I wrote a commendable thesis, graduated college, established my support organization, started grad school, became a notable writer, co-wrote a book, and even started work on a second. It’s no longer about surviving. Now it’s about thriving.

But even that tremendous growth could not have occurred without the darkness I experienced before it. The losses I experienced, the grief and the pain, they were part of my growth, too. They were sitting underneath the roots of my existence this whole time. It just took the right environment for the real growth to take place. It took light to overcome the darkness.

When I first thought of burning those cards and letters, my initial plan was to bury the ashes in the yard. But as I thought about it more, I found it to be too dismissive. Even though I let go, those feelings and those experiences were still a part of who I became.

So I saved the ashes, and I spread them across the bottom of a planter. Then I added in some dirt. And then I placed the stones of what I’ve lost on top. They were the stones I have been holding on to for almost a year now: Family, mother, father, self, support, love, purpose, and hope. These were the losses I experienced in childhood, the losses I was still experiencing even after I ran away.


I no longer needed to carry those stones with me. In a way, I was letting go of them. But I was also acknowledging what has come from them. I lost my family, but I’ve been making a new one along the way. I lost my mother, but that loss has pushed me to help others. I lost my father, but that loss has driven me to take better care so I don’t end up like him. I lost my self, but I am working to find myself again. I lost support in more ways than one, but somehow that loss sent me to where I am today, surrounded by supportive people. I lost love in the sense that I never got to experience it before, but now I have — through those people who continue to support me. I lost my purpose because I believed for so long that I had no purpose. But I have found my purpose in using my experiences to help others. I lost hope a very long time ago, as a child who grew up believing that there was no way out of the pain but to die. But I now know what life can be; I know that I don’t have to die. All of these losses created me. They led to my growth.

And now they are supporting a new growth, because above the eight stones, I planted eight peace lilies.

I chose that plant specifically, because in many ways it was symbolic of my life and growth. Peace lilies can survive with very little water and very little light. But darkness slows its growth. It doesn’t grow as fully and beautifully in the darkness as it does in the light. It survives in the darkness, but thrives in the light. Just like me.

The peace lily is also a symbol of grief, of innocence and rebirth. And in many ways, my freedom has been a rebirth. What lies in the dirt below the seeds, my losses, the ashes of my pain, they are what came before me. They are what led me to my new life. Parts now unseen, hidden below, but nonetheless affecting.

I no longer carry those cards, those letters, those gravestones, or those stones with me. They are all part of the base in the growth of beautiful new flowers, just as they are all part of the growth of me.

My peace lilies are growing in the light now, just like me.

Advertisements

No answers

I call my dead father’s cell phone. He never answers, because he’s dead and the phone is disconnected. But I still keep calling. I still keep hoping he answers the phone.

I’m not sure why I keep calling. There’s just so many things I want to say to him. There’s so many questions that I want answered. But he’s dead, burned to ashes, gone away forever.

Why didn’t you stop her? Why did you help her? Why didn’t you protect us? Why did you become just like her?

He leaves me with no answers.

Sometimes I call my mother’s cell phone. She never answers, either, but she’s not dead, and the phone isn’t disconnected. It just rings and rings then goes to voicemail.

I left her a voicemail once. I told her I was sorry for being a failure, for being a bad daughter. I asked her for forgiveness.

I wanted her to answer. I wanted her to tell me she missed me. I wanted her to tell me she loved me and that it was all just a big mistake. I wanted her to tell me she was sorry, too. I wanted a mother. I wanted her to give me a reason to live, because in that moment, I had planned to kill myself, and I wanted to feel an ounce of love before I died.

I still call her, hoping one day she will answer. But I don’t call her to apologize. I call her because I want answers.

I want to know what I did wrong.  I want to know why she hurt me.

I want to know how she lives every day knowing what she did to her children, knowing what she did to others. How does it not eat her up inside? How does she get through the day feeling worthy enough to still be alive?

I want her to know how I live every day, constantly reminded of what she did to me. I want her to know that I am eaten up inside. I want her to know that most days, I still struggle to find myself worthy enough to still be alive.

I want her to know she broke me. Every time she raped me, beat me, burned me, bruised me, made me sick…she shattered me.

I want to know if she knows that. I want to know how that makes her feel. I want to know if she even feels at all.

I called her again the other day. I didn’t want to ask her anything. I didn’t want an answer.

I wanted to tell her I didn’t need her anymore. I wanted to tell her goodbye. I wanted to tell her fuck you.

Because now I know the problem was never with me. It was with her.

Sometimes, there are no answers. And sometimes, there are answers hidden within no answers.

An empty house and a full head of emotions

Perhaps it was the perfect storm; the day before Mother’s Day, less than a week before my surgery, just two days after receiving a job offer for a management position. There was just a lot going on in my head. Until I woke up Saturday night in a puddle of my own vomit, so drunk that nothing could go on in my head anymore.

That was a low point for me. To be completely honest, maybe one of my lowest points. Even in my prior days of being a blackout drunk, I never found myself passed out on the floor laying in my own vomit. And to make it worse, it was the woman who took me in who found me. Everyone saw me, her husband, her younger son, in one of my worst states. But I didn’t feel the shame until the next day, because that night, I was too drunk to feel anything other than the urge to pee.

I thought I was handling myself quite well, considering. I had a few crying moments throughout the week, a few brief fits of rage whenever a Mother’s Day commercial came on TV. But it was all controlled, it left as fast as it came. We had a game plan for Mother’s Day. I wasn’t going to spend it alone. I was going to go and spend time with their family, a welcome distraction to me. It was going to be okay.

But I guess it wasn’t, and I knew it that night when everyone left the house to celebrate the oldest son’s prom. I was grieving.

It wasn’t grief about Mother’s Day or failing health or anything that one would assume would be the thing to grieve over. It was a grief I had been feeling for weeks now, only growing the more time I spent here, in my new home, with a new family. A grief I was not prepared for. A grief I never expected.

As the days go by here, I see everything I never had as a child. A safe home free of violence, two parents that love and care and support and talk to their children, children who have freedom to eat when they’re hungry, to leave the house when they want to leave, to do the things I never had the opportunity to do until now. But I am 31 years old. I wanted these things when I was a child.

And that day, as I watched the family come together to celebrate, I could feel the emotions come up again, I could feel the loss of my childhood smacking me right in the face. I wanted that. I wanted my family to be happy for me. I wanted my family to dress up and take pictures and celebrate every event with me. I wanted to feel special, as every child should feel, as every child deserves to feel.

That was my tipping point. The grief flooded me, along with all of the anger and anxiety I had already been feeling about everything else, my emotions took control. I hid in my room, trying (and failing) not to cry and ruin their night. Because I knew it wasn’t about me. I didn’t matter, in this moment or in others.

And then everyone left. An empty house, and a grieving, angry, emotion-ridden me. I didn’t want to feel anything. I cried and I cried and then I felt nothing at all. Like a switch had just turned off in my mind, with each gulp of vodka I drank, it washed away the emotions until I felt nothing at all.

But I wasn’t thinking straight. Instead of stopping, I kept drinking and drinking, even after the feelings were gone. I drank most of a 32-ounce bottle of straight vodka, not even thinking about how it was going to affect me, not even caring that my heart had barely been working right even when I was sober.

For a brief moment, when I first fell to the floor and realized the severity of how drunk I was, I contemplated taking my bottle of pills and ending it right there. I knew if the alcohol didn’t kill me (and that amount very much could have, even without my heart condition), the combination would have been certain death. But I couldn’t do it because even though I didn’t care about myself in that moment, all I could think about was this family finding me dead. I couldn’t do that to them; I had already done enough.

So I ended up laying on the floor for hours, in misery, painfully vomiting nothing but phlegm and bile because I hadn’t even eaten food that day. I knew they weren’t able to lift me. All they could do was make sure I was still breathing and not choking on my own vomit. Hours later, I was steady enough to make my way to the bathroom and pee

Hours later, I was steady enough to make my way to the bathroom and pee. I looked at myself in the mirror. Hair a mess, broken blood vessels on my face, a rash from laying in puke for who knows how long. I did this to myself. And this is now how the family saw me. The shame started to settle in

The shame started to settle in. I woke up in the middle of the night to clean my mess, but I knew there were some things I wouldn’t be able to clean up, for myself or for others, things that could not be forgotten.

I lost a lot that night. And there are some things I wonder if I will ever be able to get back.

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.

In my rage, I learned something.

I am sitting here, several hours past my bed time, waiting for my Ativan to kick in so my heart will stop pounding and I can go to sleep. All because I became enraged over a social media post.

One of the pages I follow on Facebook posted this story: Mom Dies In Hospital, Then Son Writes Obituary Saying He’s Glad She’s Dead.

I was immediately drawn to it, as the headline sounded just like something I would write for my own mother’s obituary. I thought about what it would be like for me when my mother dies, if I am fortunate enough to outlive her. A friend once asked me if I would go to my mother’s funeral. I told him I would. Not to pay my respects, but to see for myself that she is dead. I wanted the same for my father, but to see him would have meant seeing my (very much alive) mother, and I couldn’t risk that.

Even though I have thought about my mother’s death, I never once thought about what I would write in her obituary. My father’s obituary was lacking. I guess it was better to not say much at all than to say the truth of who he really was.There was no emotion behind it. Just his demographic information. I thought about how I would write it, but stopped myself because I had (and still do) an unresolved compulsion to protect my father. Even so, my father knew he was an asshole. He admitted it.

But my mother, that’s a different story. I feel no need to protect her. She has already done a magnificent job of protecting herself her whole life, at the expense of everyone else. It doesn’t matter what truth I or anyone speaks, she will always turn it back and away from her true self. But she can’t do that when she’s dead.

As morbid as it sounds, I feel like writing obituaries for both of them. For their symbolic death, if anything. Let me write their eulogies, too. They won’t be filled with fluff and niceties. They would be filled with the truth and emotion.

Anyway, after reading this article, I felt an immense sense of respect for the son. To come out with such honesty and raw emotion had to have taken a lot of courage. I commented on the post as such.

Then I made the mistake of reading the other comments. Quite a few of them echoed similar sentiments that I had. Then I came across this:

Why wait until she’s deceased to come forward. Should have been done that. Whatever if she did do that then God made her suffer before her passing. It breaks my heart to see people come out like this in the end.

Why wait until she’s deceased to come forward? Because the fear is gone. She is dead. She can no longer hurt anyone. So many people severely abused by a parent continue to live in fear until the day that parent dies. That’s why.

Should have been done that? Maybe they did. Maybe no one listened. Are victims only limited to speaking out once? Is it a case of you’ve had your say, now let it go? We don’t have that option. We live with that shit for the rest of our lives. Or maybe the mother denied everything just like so many abusers do. I don’t see any abusive mothers coming out of the woodwork admitting they are abusers.

If she did do that? REALLY? We are doubting the victim now?. You just proved my earlier point of no one listening. People don’t want to come forward because the victims are the ones scrutinized instead of the abusers. Especially when a mother is involved, because God forbid a mother abuses her child, no, that NEVER happens.

I won’t even get into the rest of that comment right now. This person’s continual comments only added to my rage. Focus on healing their families and not on making the parent look bad. Don’t keep the heartache going around. How do you get to feel better about yourself for something you should have done long time ago. If you would have been said something you wouldn’t have had to wait til mom is deceased to start feeling better. To put in the obituary like that. Nobody probably believes them now anyway. Some should have seen signs. It’s always one person you can talk to. There are signs and there are people to tell.

I responded to some of her comments, but nothing was getting through to her. I told her it had nothing to do with feeling better about oneself. Abused children and adults have a hard enough time feeling good about anything. It wasn’t about making the parent look bad. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. No one should sit there and call that duck an elephant. This was about sharing the truth.

I managed to maintain my composure online, as I like to conduct myself with respect even when I disagree, and fight back knowledge instead of emotion. But on the inside, I was burning. Once she said if you had just said something, I completely lost it. I sat at my computer, yelling at my screen. I was angry.

If I had just said something? You think I didn’t want to say anything? There’s always people to tell? WHERE WERE THEY? No one was listening to me. No one was seeing the signs. Where were these magical, abuse-stopping folks I should have told. Because of course it’s the child’s fault for not saying anything. Let’s not shift any blame to the people who are actually doing the abusing (and the neglecting, for those in power that stood silent). Nope. It must be my fault. Even though I was just a child forced into silence in order to save my life. And now you want to force me and others into silence in our adulthood? Get the fuck out of here.

I got myself so worked up that I could barely breathe. This person was a stranger, but her words affected me so much. And for once, I didn’t turn any of that anger inward. I was angry at this woman. I was angry at every adult that chose silence over honesty. I wasn’t angry at me.

I realized, in that moment of rage, that this was just what I needed. Without thinking, I had admitted out loud (to myself) that I was just a child. I admitted that I couldn’t have said anything. I just spent a week suppressing my anger against others because I wanted to believe that my own silence was my fault. I allowed myself to do that. What I couldn’t allow was someone else faulting me for it.

It was through my need to defend the countless other children who couldn’t speak out, that I finally realized the truth within myself. I was not to blame. No child is to blame.

I get it now.

Dear Brother Explained

The other day, I posted a letter I had written to my brother: Dear Brother.

It wasn’t very well thought out. It was Sunday afternoon, and I found myself still struggling with my emotions about the situation that happened on Friday. I felt paralyzed by them, in a way. I couldn’t get anything done because my mind was set on thoughts about my brother. I needed a way to get my feelings out, because they weren’t serving me well by being bottled up inside.

I walked to the card store, still not set on what I was going to write. I walked through the card aisles, and came to the sympathy section. Loss. That is exactly what this felt like. My brother was still very much alive, but everything else about him was gone. My image of him: gone. My hope for him: gone. I lost him. He died in my heart.

There were only five or six cards dedicated to the loss of a brother. I picked up each one and read it. Unfortunately, none of them captured the type of loss this was. Then there was this card, describing the brother I always wanted: a brother I could depend on, a brother I could share good memories with, a brother I could love.

I started to cry as I looked through the card. I knew this was the right one. I put it in the envelope, wiped my face, and went to the register to purchase it. I left it in the bag until I got home, because I didn’t want to get emotional in public. Even so, I was already going through some of the things I wanted to write in my head. It wasn’t until later that afternoon that I sat at my desk, pulled out the card, got my pen, and wrote what I needed to say to him.

Even though I knew this was going to be just another card left unsent, like the cards I wrote to my father and to my mother, I found it oddly therapeutic. I didn’t need him to respond. I didn’t need him to give me an answer. I just needed, for myself, to say what I needed to say in the best way I knew how: through writing.

I didn’t always feel this way towards my brother. In fact, I struggled with feelings of guilt over leaving him behind. Every so often, the guilt would come back full force. It got especially bad after my father died. I knew that with my father gone, my brother was the only person my mother had left. I was scared for him. But there was nothing I could do. I couldn’t financially help him — I am barely surviving myself. I couldn’t risk my own safety by directly reaching out to him, because his closeness to his mother made it too dangerous to even attempt. I was (and still am) a mess myself. I needed to focus on me. I didn’t have the energy to devote to his cause. And I felt horrible for it.

Then the situation on Friday happened, and everything changed. I realized he didn’t care about me at all. He never once called me, but he still had my number. He couldn’t even contact me himself to ask for what he needed; he had someone else do it for him. And he didn’t even need to do what he did. He wanted to trade that Jeep in so he could pretend like it never existed, just like my family pretended like I never existed.

He could have offered me back even some of the money I put into buying that Jeep. Instead, he used all of it to get something bigger and better. The money from my father’s life insurance? Nothing. My brother and his mother have kept it for themselves. Because that’s who they are.

I realized that my brother is just like her. He is an adult. He can make choices. He chose to spread lies about me after I escaped, just as his mother did. He could have denied it, but I know that would have been hard to directly defy her. He could have said nothing at all and been okay, but he instead chose to fuel the fire his mother set for me.

He could have reached out. He knew my phone number, and my e-mail address. His mother would not have found out. But he chose not to try.

My brother could have just paid off the Jeep. Money was not an issue. Instead, he chose to trade it in, and trade it in for something better. There is something symbolic in that. He traded in that Jeep just as he traded me in.

My brother could have gotten away. He always had more financial resources than me. He worked full-time for a long time. I figured out a way to get out. He could have figured out a way, but he chose not to. He could have taken my father’s insurance money and left, but he chose not to. He chose to stay with his mother.

Together, they have chosen to take what isn’t theirs. They are opportunists. They are takers. They are liars. They are users.

My brother is just like her. Her training didn’t work so well on me, but it has worked on him. I didn’t see it before. Well, no, I did. The truth is that I didn’t want to see it. I wanted my brother to be a true and good person. I wanted him to be the brother I needed, the brother I always wanted.

But I realized he’s not that person. He never was, he’s not now, and he won’t be able to be. I can’t change him. I can’t show him something he refuses to see. I can’t save him. So I have to let him go.

It’s another loss. But sometimes, losses are for the better.

 

The Stones of What I’ve Lost

I had group therapy today for my support group. It is something I look forward to every couple of months, even though the topics are somewhat difficult and I always end up crying at least once.

Today was no exception. I was actually doing quite well until the topics of anniversary dates and grief came up. I thought to myself, anniversary dates aren’t a problem for me. I’m over it.

But I decided to write down something anyway. April 25th. The day I tried to end my life by taking a more than lethal dose of aspirin. The day my family found out, and did nothing about it.

The memories flooded my mind and I couldn’t focus on anything else. I felt the pain again, the despair that was all too familiar. I tried to hold back my tears, and retreated back into myself. By the time the topic of grief came up, I was teetering in another place in my mind. I was back in 2008, reliving the pain of that day.

I was able to ground myself enough to work through the rest of the grief session. We each chose eight stones, and had to write something we lost on each one, something we grieved or are still grieving.

It didn’t take long for me to write my losses: Mother, father, family, purpose, self, love, hope, and support.


Simple words, that to the outside world, would never appear to be related to loss or grief. But they were, for me, the losses I still carry with me every day.

The loss of a mother, the mother I never had, the mother I always wanted, the mother I deserved, the mother I will never, ever have.

The loss of my father, not as much in his actual death, but the loss of the father he should have been, the man he should have been, the protector he should have been, the superhero he should have been to me and never was.

The loss of the family I no longer have. I didn’t just lose my parents when I ran away. I lost any connection to my brother. I lost the connection to anyone on my mother’s side of the family. I’m losing the connection to the very little family I have left, and I can’t change that.

The loss of my purpose. I believed so strongly that I was going to be a counselor some day. That is why I went through what I did. I was going to help people. I was going to right the wrongs that were done to me for so many years. But I lost that when my school showed me that my mental illness was all that mattered, not my skills or who I was on the inside.

The loss of self, the loss of my identity. Who am I? I still don’t know. I was never allowed to be anyone or anything other than what my mother told me to be. My identity is so fractured, both literally and figuratively. I’m not even sure that I lost myself, because I question whether or not I ever existed.

The loss of love, the loss of trust, the loss of ability to connect with people. I never experienced the love I should have gotten from the people who were supposed to love me but didn’t. I don’t know how to love because I never learned what love really is.

The loss of hope, strongly felt that April 25th night, when I sat alone, nearly dying, and my family didn’t care. The very little hope I had was shattered forever that night. I could have died, I should have died, and my family didn’t care. The loss of hope I continue to feel day in and day out as I realize the world wasn’t meant for me.

The loss of support, through 15 years of working with some of the shittiest therapists, the loss of support when I left everyone I knew behind so I could escape the hell that was my (former) home, the loss of support I feel when my therapist wants to send me away to the hospital, because even she can’t seem to help me.

I carry these losses in my heart every day. Now I have stones to carry with me, too. Because as much as I would like to throw the stones away, it’s not that easy.

I wish people could see these losses inside of me, and not just on these stones I carry.