1,000 Days of Freedom, Part 5: Hopes

I decided to end with something a little different from what I had done before. I had acknowledged my past and my present, so I thought it was important that I also acknowledge what I hope for in my future.

I chose sand dollars to represent my future hopes. Sand dollars are hard to come by, but when you find one, they are said to bring you good luck. Some traditions also say sand dollars symbolize peace.

I chose six sand dollars, and wrote one hope I have one each one.

To become psychologically, physically, and financially stable.

It’s been a struggle to achieve stability in any aspect. Psychologically, I’m not the best. I spend way too much of my life in therapeutic settings. I can’t take most medications, and the ones I can take don’t seem to work. They’re always telling me it’s going to take a lot of time to get better; it’s going to take a lot of time to undo 29 years of programming. Those who know my story tell me I’m doing great considering what I’ve experienced. I could have died. I guess they are right.

Physically, I know I’m never going to be 100%. My health issues are not curable. Some will get progressively worse over time. I just want to be able to feel better, to gain whatever control I can have, if that’s even possible, over my illnesses. I want to be able to stand up and walk without people being afraid I’m going to drop.

I want to be able to live with more than $1 in my bank account. I want to be able to go out without having to sell something to pay for the bus. I don’t want to be a burden on others, even if they tell me I’m not. Whether it’s financial assistance or some kind of work, I just want to be more secure and stable.

To get justice for myself and others.

I still feel responsible for leaving people behind, for leaving my mother behind so she could hurt others. I know it’s not my fault, that her actions are not my responsibility. But I long for justice. I want my mother to be punished for what she has done, for all the crimes she has committed. I want that for me, and for the other people she has hurt. I know it’s difficult to go through a trial. I know a lot of therapists don’t recommend re-traumatizing yourself for the sake of justice. But I hope one day, I can be strong enough to go through it. And if I can’t, that I can find some other way to get even just a semblance of justice.

To know my purpose in life.

I never had a chance in my first 29 years to learn who I was, to gain any sense of what my purpose was in life. Even after I ran away, I spent so much time focusing on therapy and work that I really didn’t spend enough time trying to find myself. I thought my purpose was to be a therapist and help others like me, but after the incident with my grad school that led to my removal, I lost that sense of purpose.

Perhaps it’s not about how far I can get in my education. Perhaps I don’t even need a degree to do what I was meant to do. Maybe I am meant to be a writer. Maybe I am meant to speak out about abusers like my mother.

My therapist always asks me if I’ve built a skyscraper yet. He said in one of our first sessions that I am the type of person who has the intelligence and the drive to do amazing things; he said one day, I’m going to have my own skyscraper. I have no desire to do that, but I understand what he’s saying to me. I can do things. I just have to figure out where to start.

To help others like me.

I’ve already started to do this, I think. I put myself out there when I started writing professionally, and I’ve had so many people reach out and tell me how much my writing and my honesty has helped them. I know I haven’t done much with PAFPAC lately. It’s been difficult to manage everything I am doing by myself, tired and sick. I want to do more one day, but I need to work on myself first.

To know what it’s like to live without wanting to die.

I’ve been wanting to die since I was six years old. Not a day goes by that I don’t think, even for a moment, that dying would be so much easier than living. I’m chronically suicidal to the point that it’s become normal to me. The thoughts come up at any time; some triggered by events or trauma anniversaries, but some don’t even have a reason to be there.

It’s exhausting. It’s like I’ve been fighting a battle that will never end. I just want to live without those thoughts. I don’t want to have to worry about waiting for the urges to get stronger, because I know from experience they will get stronger. I want to live a day without the weight of that on my mind. Just one day.

To accept that I’ll never know or understand why.

I think this is the most difficult hope for me, and yet the most necessary. I’ve spent years trying to figure out why my mother did what she did. I’ve read every book on sociopaths and narcissists. I’ve studied psychology and neuroscience. I’ve shared with others who have had similar experiences and I still can’t come up with a reason why. I need something to blame; for some reason, blaming her hasn’t been enough. It’s keeping me stuck.

I’ll never be able to understand why I have this life. I’ll never understand why I had to endure things that no child, no person should ever have to endure. I’ll never be able to rationalize the pain and hurt I feel every day of my life. Sometimes, there aren’t reasons. Sometimes, we will never know why. I will never know why. And that’s okay.

I will be okay.

Don’t go looking for the reasons
Don’t go asking Jesus why
We’re not meant to know the answers
They belong to the by and by

–Chris Stapleton, Broken Halos

Replace

Some nights, when I find myself unable to sleep, I look up old classmates on Facebook. Most of them appear stable. They have successful careers. Many are married with several children. They’re doing things that 30-something year-olds should be doing.

It brings up feelings in me — but not feelings of envy, feelings of grief. I know there are some things I will never be able to have, some things I will never be able to be or to experience.

I didn’t get to have a childhood. I didn’t get to experience the freedom of the teenage years. I spent 29 years of my life in hell. And when I finally got out, I didn’t get to experience the life that I thought I would.

It’s not just the psychological shit. Trauma doesn’t go away just because the environment changes. I knew that would follow me wherever I went. But I wasn’t expecting all of the physical damage to hit me so fast.

I’ve spent the last month hobbling around on crutches. I’ve been in pain for a while. But when you’ve been through what I’ve been through, you learn to shake pain off and deal with it. That’s the safe way, right?

Except it wasn’t. By the time I ended up in the ER last month, my knee was already severely damaged. I had worn all of the cartilage away, to the point where bone was rubbing against bone every time my knee bent, causing pieces of my knee cap to chip away. They recommend a knee replacement. Another surgery.

People don’t understand why I won’t just get the surgery. What’s the big deal? It’s not about the surgery. It’s about everything. Every part of my body is damaged. I have problems that people my age don’t have. People my age aren’t hobbling around on crutches, getting body parts exchanged with metal substitutes. They aren’t sitting in support groups, surrounded by people 40 years older than they are.

Trauma changes people. Not just their minds, but their bodies, too. My emphysema — that isn’t just a fluke. It’s from living in a toxic environment. My heart problem, the dysfunction of my brain and my autonomic nervous system — that isn’t just bad luck. That’s from my brain having to constantly be in overdrive. The poorly healed fractures, the joint problems — that isn’t just the bad genetics of EDS. It’s the result of constant trauma to the body.

Constant reminders of what I went through, courtesy of my body. Constant reminders that I will never be a normal 30-something, just as I had never been a normal child, teenager, or 20-something. Loss after loss after loss.

I deal with the pain. No one really asks about it, so I don’t talk about it. Except for my therapist. He asks me every time we meet. And I brush it off. I tell him I’m used to the pain. Because in my head, I keep telling myself at least I’m not at home, at least I’m not being actively broken. Be grateful for that. In my head, pain is normal. In my head, pain is deserved.

If only they could fix my broken heart like they could fix my spine. Glue the broken pieces back together, then screw in some brackets to hold it in place. Good as new. No darkness any more.

If only they could fix my damaged mind like they could fix my knee. Take out all the broken pieces. Suck out all the bad memories. Take out the whole damn thing. Just replace it with something new, something stronger, something that can’t be damaged.

I’d give anything to erase what’s happened to me, to replace all of the damage that’s been done with parts that cannot be broken. Replace the memories with happy thoughts of what life could have been. Replace the pain with strength. But that’s a hope that can never be fulfilled.

She’s the Shark

ocean

She jumped off the edge of the boat into the deep blue ocean. She didn’t tell anyone that she didn’t know how to swim. She took her chances. She couldn’t stay on the boat any longer, knowing that the boat was soon going to sink and they would all sink with it. The others refused to acknowledge that the boat sinking. So she left them there to drown. She couldn’t save them. She chose to go her own way, risking life or death as opposed to just the latter.

As she dove in, she found herself falling deeper and deeper into the sea. Overwhelmed, floating into a complete unknown. She opened her eyes and looked around her. She saw hundreds of fish swimming about. All the beautiful colors surrounding her. Majestic sea creatures, existing in harmony. The pink and white coral on the sea floor. The glistening sand beneath her feet. It was peaceful. It was safe. So many things she had never seen before, so many new things to explore. She walked across the sand, a stable ground, experiencing happiness for the first time in her life, experiencing freedom.

But she got so lost in the wonder that she didn’t realize she was drowning. She didn’t realize there were sharks circling her. She tried to get away, but she fell deeper into the sea, into a black abyss. There were no more beautiful colors. No more glistening sand. No support beneath her feet. Just darkness, and a shark swimming above her, waiting to attack.

She tried to swim back up out of the darkness. She tried to get away. But she had never swam before. She didn’t know what she was doing. She tried so hard to escape the shark, but it was relentless. It could smell her fear. It could see her, but she could no longer see it.

She moved her legs as hard as she could. She tried to push her feet but there was nothing to support her. She waved her hands about, hoping someone would see and save her. But no one was there. She was swimming alone, with no idea of what to do next. Powerless against the shark. Powerless within the water.

But she kept fighting. She knew she had to. She kicked and screamed her way out of the dark abyss. The shark was still following her, but she could see better now. She felt the sand beneath her feet again. She saw the colors of the new world, a world that was hidden from her for so long. She was finally learning to swim. All by herself.

Somehow, she managed to make it to the surface. She could see the sun breaking through. A beautiful sight. A new hope. Shadows of promise. She tried so hard to reach it, but she was tired. Tired of running from the shark. Tired of trying to swim when she was never taught how to. This new world had been too much for her.

She continued to look at the sun as it was breaking through the water’s surface. But she was sinking. She lost all her power. She lost her way. She sunk back into the darkness of the ocean, wondering if the shark will ever give up its hunt, wondering if she’d ever get to see the sun again.

[This piece is a writing activity I completed in therapy — the prompt was to create a story inspired by the image].

Facade of a Family

I’ve sat at my computer several times this past week, planning to write what was on my mind. Yet every time I tried to write, I couldn’t do it. The emotions were too overwhelming and I ended up in tears.

I couldn’t really understand why. I’ve written quite a bit about emotionally laden things, and I’ve always been able to write through the pain. But this was different. This pain left me silenced in a way I hadn’t experienced before.

It’s my fault, though, at least in part. I have been holding on to something I should have let go of years ago. I knew it wasn’t good for me. I knew that it would only continue to cause me pain. But I held on, because I didn’t want to lose that piece of something that was part of my identity: my family.

I could never quite understand it, how anyone could stand back and allow someone to be hurt over and over again. I wanted to believe that no one else knew, I wanted to believe that we were so good at hiding the pain that no one else could see it. It was much easier to believe that than to believe that other people knew and chose to do nothing. Those beliefs allowed me to hold on to the very tiny bit of self-worth I had left.

That is, until that false reality was ripped away from me, and I found out people really did know what was going on. Some people knew for years. YEARS. Yet no one ever said a thing. No one ever helped. Didn’t want to cross any lines. It wasn’t my place.

That pain is inexplicable. At that point I believed I was worthless. I wasn’t worth being helped. I wasn’t worth being protected. I wasn’t worth being saved. If I was, someone would have said something, someone would have put an end to my pain. All I wanted to do was matter enough to someone, I wanted to be loved and cared for by someone. Instead I was left with nothing but a facade of a family.

I still played along. I still kept up my end of the facade, hoping that one day  they would change, hoping that one day I would be worthy enough to be saved. But time has only shown me how much I still don’t matter. Time has only shown me how much I don’t belong.

There must be something wrong with me. There’s no other explanation. How could someone stand there and ask me to protect their child from my mother, when they knew full well I could not even protect myself? You know how that made me feel? Worthless. It was okay as long as I was the one being abused, as long my mother didn’t hurt anyone that mattered. They were the ones that needed protection, protection I obviously wasn’t worthy of.

But I still held on to hope. Maybe one day I will be worth saving. Maybe one day I will be a part of the family. That never happened. Even in my darkest times, when I was in and out of hospitals, I had no one to turn to. The social workers begged me to ask family for help; there was little the system could do to help me. When I finally got the strength to give them the okay, it was only met with rejection — the same rejection I had experienced for years.

There is only so much a person can take. I think I reached that point a long time ago. Yet I still held on. I still hoped that one day, things would change and I would have some semblance of a family bond. I kept forgiving. I kept making excuses for things I’m not really sure could ever be excused. All because I wanted to experience this sense of belonging, this notion of worth, this concept of being part of a family.

I realized this past week that I can no longer hold on to that hope. It is wearing away at me. I want something that has never been, and never will be. It hurts my heart to be ignored. It hurts my heart to know that friends and neighbors will always be more important, more worthy than me. I can’t change that. I can’t make myself part of a family that has continuously shown they do not want me.

And that’s hard to acknowledge, because I’ve wanted for so long to just be part of my own family.  Instead, I am the reject, and nothing I can do will ever change that.

I made a choice this weekend. I could have reached out. I could have made another desperate attempt to be included. But I feared that the pain of another rejection would be much harder than just not knowing. I made the choice not to put myself through that any more. I made the choice to put myself first, instead of my ‘family’.

It didn’t take the pain away. My heart is still broken. I still cry. I still feel lost. But I am no longer lonely.  

There is nothing wrong with me. I am only the reject of my biology, of the people who carry my last name. I have been accepted, cared for, and protected by strangers who became friends, and who have become more of a family than any biological family has ever been.

My only mistake has been caring too much and too deeply for something that was never there — a facade of a family.

It could be worse

I woke up this morning feeling the most neutral I had felt in days. I didn’t have to wake up early for work, so I slept in. I took my time getting dressed and ready for my therapy appointment in the afternoon. I wasn’t in a rush. I wasn’t feeling anxious. I wasn’t crying. I just was.

Until I found myself lying on the ground surrounded by strangers.

I don’t really know what happened. I got off the bus, just like I always do, and somehow ended up on the ground ten feet away. I didn’t realize that I fell until I saw the scrapes on the palms of my hands. Then I noticed the people. I didn’t see their faces, just their legs. And so many voices. Are you okay? Do you need help? What happened? They kept reaching out to help me, but I didn’t want their help. I wanted them to go away.

One of the bystanders was about to call an ambulance, but I shook my head no. That was enough motivation to get me out of my head well enough to get up off the ground (with the help of two or three people). I hobbled over to the bench and just sat there, trying to figure out what to do. My therapy appointment was in an hour. I couldn’t miss it. There was no way I could make it home to clean up and back in time for session.

So I sat on the bench and I tried not to cry. I tried not to feel. I told myself I was okay. I have to be strong. There is no time to be hurt.

After ten minutes or so, a man came by and asked to sit. I didn’t feel ready to get up. This man didn’t know anything, and I couldn’t tell him. So without saying a word, I got up and let him sit. I managed to walk across the street to the coffee shop, hoping to find a seat there, only to realize that school was out early, and the shop was overrun by teenagers. I propped myself up against the wall, unable to ask if someone would give up their chair. Within the span of minutes, I failed to assert my needs not only once, but twice.

I thought about how I was going to explain this to my therapist. I didn’t really know what happened. I just spaced out. Or tripped. Or got dizzy. I don’t know. I hadn’t eaten. I was afraid she would ask about that. I know I didn’t fall out of hunger. I’ve gone much longer without eating and I’ve been fine. I didn’t want that to come up as a possibility. I just wanted it to be a fall. Everyone falls. And I am fine.

I was so disconnected, I didn’t notice the blood on my shirt sleeve. My elbow was bleeding the whole time. This should be hurting. I should feel this hurting.

When I got to therapy, I stopped in the bathroom. I saw my knee, already swollen and bruising. I didn’t want to panic. I told myself it could be worse. I told myself that if I could walk on it, it must be fine.

Then all I could think about was what could go wrong. I thought about last year, when I fell in the street. How I dragged myself to the corner, got back up, and walked the rest of the way to the bus stop and went to work. I thought I was fine. Until I found out I had broken my foot. I spent the day walking on a broken foot like it was nothing. And that scares me.

I didn’t want to tell my therapist at all. I didn’t have enough time to process all of it. But I started to break down before I even stepped in to her office. I had to pull myself together. I told her I was okay. I’m always okay. I didn’t want her to see that I wasn’t. I didn’t even want to see that I wasn’t.

I cleaned myself up when I got home. I looked at my knee. More bruising. More swelling. But I couldn’t connect with the pain. Why can’t I always connect with pain? It’s easy when my emotions are activated. Then I feel everything. But when I am numb, I am numb to everything. I need some kind of in between.

How could I explain that to a doctor? They ask about levels of pain and I find myself struggling between what I actually feel in the moment and what I know it should be. Tell a doctor you’re not in pain, and you’re automatically dismissed. It’s one reason I try to avoid emergency situations. They cause me more anxiety than the injuries themselves.

Now I am sitting here rationalizing my avoidance. It could be worse. This is nothing. I don’t really have the time to be in pain. This will go away.

I know these rationalizations well. They are the same lines I’ve told myself since childhood, all stemming from the belief that I am unworthy of care, the belief my parents taught me. The man at the bench. The kids at the coffee shop. Everyone else on earth. They all matter more than me.

I know better than this. So why am I still living my life by their rules?

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.