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.

Absence

My father’s service was last night. I did not attend.

I know that, in many people’s eyes, that makes me a horrible daughter. I’ve already heard it. But that’s okay. I did what was best for me. I made a decision that was in my own best interests, for once in my life.

What would going to a service do? My father is already dead. I know that. I don’t need to go there to confirm it. I don’t need to go there and talk to people and pretend that he was a great person, when he was not at all what he should have been. Other people can attend and mourn for who they knew him to be. I mourned for who I knew him to be long ago.

I could not go and see my mother. There would have been no avoiding it. While I may not be scared of her in the moment, I have younger parts that are still terrified of her. Why would I expose them to that? Why would I expose myself to that? It wouldn’t be fair for any of us. It is too much of a risk.

And honestly, I don’t trust my mother at all. I can’t say with any amount of certainty that she would not try to hurt me. It doesn’t matter that she said she wouldn’t do anything. The fact that people even had to ask her that question says a lot. She is predictably unpredictable.

I’ve made too much progress to throw that all into jeopardy for a few hours of faked grief. I am not grieving. I am not mourning. I’m not sad that he’s gone. I am relieved.

My absence doesn’t make me a horrible daughter. My absence doesn’t make me a bad person. My absence proves that I have grown enough to realize that I have choices.

 

Change the world

It’s been emotional these last few days.

I think the reality of everything has finally started to sink in.

I realized that I have people here that really care about me. My team at work congratulated me when they found out the news of my grad school acceptance. My work buddy kept saying how proud of me he was and I had to tell him to shut up before I started crying. Fortunately, he doesn’t take my (at times) harsh responses personally.

My roommate took me out to dinner last night to celebrate. I tried some new foods and stepped out of my comfort zone a little. She started to say all these good things about me and I tried to get her to shut up. I need to work on accepting compliments more. I’m improving in some ways because I’m no longer countering every compliment with an excuse as to why it’s wrong, but I’m still uncomfortable receiving positive feedback in general.

I had my usual Thursday therapy session today. When I arrived, I set my bag down and the other therapist came out to see me. She asked if she could talk to me for a few minutes. I was scared and anxious but I followed her into her office and sat down. My therapist came in and sat down on a chair next to me, and the other therapist on the opposite side of me.

She reached for something on her desk and handed it to me. It was a bag filled with makeup. While that may seem random, I was stressing out last week because I realized that I didn’t own any makeup to wear for the interview (the few products I had were ruined months ago when a bottle of acetone leaked). Now I might actually wear makeup once in awhile.

Then she handed me a book: What Do You Do With an Idea. It’s a book that I read once before after a particularly difficult therapy session months ago. She told me that her and my therapist had written some things on the back page. I turned the book around and opened up to the last page to see what was written. One message stood out to me the most:

“With your brave and tender heart and your exceptional mind, I know that you will change the world. I believe in you.”

I’m going to change the world? This was written by the very woman who played such a huge role in changing my world, and in changing the lives of so many survivors. For her to think so highly of my ability to do anything is mind-blowing to me.

I started to cry. They both told me how proud of me they were, how amazed they were at how far I’ve come in the five months I’ve been away. I was trying to take it all in, but I was also so focused on trying to stop crying. I can’t even identify all of how I felt in that moment. I felt safe, appreciated, and cared for. I felt like I was really at home (and not in a physical building sense). We had a group hug, and at that moment, I knew everything was going to be okay.

I don’t think I can change the world. I wish I could. All I can do is try my best to effect change in others, and hopefully somewhere down the line the world will change for the better.

Acceptance

I spent the majority of my life being told I would never amount to anything.

My schoolwork was never proudly displayed on our family’s refrigerator. I never got a pat on the back for a job well done. While my brother was honored and glorified for getting mediocre grades, I was made to feel like shit for getting straight As. “What do you think, you’re better than us? You think you’re so smart? You’re nothing.” It didn’t matter what I did. It would never be the right thing. I could never be good in their eyes.

I found out after the fact that many of my college acceptance letters were hidden from me. I never had a choice in the matter. My family took my acceptance into Princeton as an insult to the family. Any other parent would have been proud. They didn’t want me to succeed. They didn’t think I deserved it, and for awhile I believed that, too.

Why am I talking about this? Because today, I received a call from the admissions office of the university I interviewed at just two days ago. I’ve been accepted into the program. I will be pursuing two masters degrees in counseling. As soon as I heard the woman say “Congratulations”, I started to cry. I had just left the store and was standing on the sidewalk in front of the parking lot. It took everything in me not to fall to my knees. I was so overwhelmed with emotion, I could barely speak. The admissions counselor wanted to register me right away, but I asked if I could call her back tomorrow, and she said that was fine.

I hung up the phone and began to cry uncontrollably. People walking by were staring at me, but I didn’t care. Everything I’ve been told would never happen was now happening. I’m free. I’m succeeding. I’m something. People are seeing the potential in me; the potential that has been there all along, the potential that was consistently quashed by my parents.

Through tears, I wrote about my good news to my online friends. I e-mailed both therapists, and text my best friend. I may not have had anyone to physically celebrate with, but that was okay. People were genuinely happy for me. My therapists may have been just as excited about the news as I was.

Even hours later, I still find myself intermittently crying. I never expected to be in this position. At this time last year, I was extremely close to giving up. I told myself if I didn’t make it out in the next year (by the time I turned 30), I was going to end my life. I thought for sure I was just going to continue on that path towards death. I didn’t expect an end to the pain. I didn’t expect to escape that hell. I didn’t expect to be living the life I am now. If I didn’t escape, I would not be where I am today – and I don’t mean just physically, I mean emotionally and otherwise.

My therapist told me that people need light and love to blossom. I am blossoming. It’s amazing how much different I have become in just five months. I’m achieving so much and growing in ways I never imagined.

The journey has been difficult. It will continue to be difficult. But I have support for the first time in my life. I have people I can count on. I have people who genuinely care for me. I can pursue better things without being made to feel like I’ve done something terribly wrong.

I almost wish I could tell my parents how far I’ve come. I want to tell them that I am better than them, that I am smarter than them. I want them to know that I am not nothing anymore. I don’t need them to proudly display my schoolwork. I now proudly display my own work to remind myself of what I have accomplished.

21 weeks

I’ve spent much of the last few days crying.

Not because I’m sad, but because I recognize where I’m at right now and where I’m going.

I received an e-mail late Wednesday that said that after reviewing my application, I had been invited for a final interview with the Psychological Counseling department on Saturday. I just assumed that everyone got a final interview, but when I told my therapist about it the following day, she said they only interview you if they are interested in you. Both therapists seemed more excited about it than I was. My therapist asked me in session if I wanted to go over some preparation for the interview, but I told her I would be okay. I wasn’t going to prepare. I was going to just wing it.

My anxiety started to kick in shortly after my therapy session was over. I was sitting in the lobby waiting for the next bus to come when the other therapist saw me and stopped to sit next to me. We talked for a little about my pink bag (because I mentioned that I hate the color pink) and laughed, and then we started talking about the interview. She told me what to expect, what questions they might ask, what questions I should ask, etc. She even shared some hilarious answers that she had people come up with during interviews. We ended up talking for almost half an hour, and she gave me a hug and reassured me I would do great.

I felt a little better knowing what to expect, but now I was anxious about needing to prepare. I had no nice clothes, no dress shoes, and no makeup. I had to make myself look presentable. I bought the cheapest drug store makeup I could find, bought dress pants, a shirt, sweater, and dress shoes (which I was sure I would never find in size 12). I definitely looked the part. Now I just needed to act the part.

I stayed up late looking up information about the program, how it ranked nationally, and how it was rated by other students. I made sure I got more than 8 hours of sleep, which never happens for me. I woke up early to make sure I’d be ready in time. I made it there a half hour early, which is always better than being late.

The interview was not nearly as bad as I expected. There were 10 people including me, with two professors leading. We introduced ourselves, learned about the program, and asked questions. Then we were split into two groups and had to discuss how we would respond to certain ethical dilemmas. I think I did pretty well. We then had a discussion about informed consent and confidentiality and I was the only person that mentioned mandated reporting when child/elder abuse is involved. I’m surprised that more people did not know that, as I thought it was common knowledge.

At the end, everyone had to write a short essay on a hypothetical situation while utilizing the ACA Code of Ethics. Once that was written, we were allowed to leave. There were no one-on-one interviews. I was nervous for no reason. I shook the professor’s hand and told him I hoped I would see him again soon. I will hear back within the next week if I have been accepted or not.

I e-mailed the therapist that helped me as I was waiting for the next bus. I told her everything that happened and thanked her for her support and encouragement. She e-mailed me back and mentioned that she was proud of me, and how she was really rooting for me, not only for this grad school stuff but in every area of my life. I started to cry again because I know her feelings and care are genuine. It’s difficult at times because I don’t have very many people on my side that I can count on (excluding online support). But she has been there, my therapist has been there, and my support group has been there for me through all of this.

I’ve accomplished so much in these 21 weeks. I have a job that I really excel at. I started this blog and have continued to write. I write professionally. I’m (hopefully) going to start graduate school next month. I’m getting more involved in advocating for mental health and other issues. I was recently invited by NAASCA to be a guest on their program and share my experiences recovering and healing from the abuse I endured as a child. I’ve also been approached about my thesis on mother-daughter sexual abuse, which I am currently re-editing for a more general audience.

I have so much going on, but it’s all good. I’m in such a better place right now. I could never be where I am today if I was still with my family. I made the right decision. For the most part, I am happy. So many people tell me how much better I’ve been looking, and how much happier I look. I’m starting to realize that they are right. When I take a picture, I no longer have to fake a smile. I’m struggling, but I’m no longer living in fear. I’m no longer waiting for the pain to come. I’m finally able to live. I am worth living.

A few steps back, a few steps forward

Last night was weird for me.

I’m not even sure why it happened, but I started to feel unsafe and fearful.  I knew it because I locked my bedroom door and kept checking it, and then I kept trying to barricade my door.  There was no reason to.  This time, I was semi-conscious of what I was doing, so I was able to stop myself from going overboard.  I knew I needed to convince myself that I was safe and was where I belonged.  I kept a small light on so I could see what was going on around me.  I held my bear close to me.  I searched through my bags to find my note card from the retreat I went on in April.  I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned it before, but I carried that card with me every day up until a few weeks ago.  It was written by the woman who, oddly enough, later became my therapist.  Among some other things, it says:

You are deserving of a healthy, safe life.  We are here to support you and believe in you.  You are stronger than you believe.

I memorized those words.  I’ve told myself those words.  I deserve a healthy, safe lifeI am safe.  I deserve this.  I’ve made the right choice.  I must have read that card at least 50 times last night.  It’s like I had to convince myself all over again that this was the right decision, and that I’m in a safe place and can’t be hurt again.  It was exhausting.  I still went through today with a general feeling of uneasiness.  Now I am back to carrying around that note card, for now at least.  I feel like I regressed a little, and I don’t even really have a reason for it.

On a more positive note, I did make some progress and went grocery shopping today.  I told myself I was going to try at least one new food.  I chose carrots.  Adventurous, I know.  That’s probably an easy way out for me considering I eat a lot of vegetables, but at least it’s a different color from what I usually eat.  Aside from that, I stayed with my usual food choices.  I did find those chocolate brownie vitamins my therapist informed me of and bought them.  I also bought dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets.  I may have gotten excited when I saw them, and even more excited that they were 40% off.  I’m not sure if that was me, my inner child, or Anna wanting those nuggets, but I bought them regardless.  And I’m going to enjoy the shit out of them along with my chocolate brownie vitamins and Cocoa Puffs.

Seven weeks

I’ve made it seven weeks now.

I’m bruised.  I’m broken.  This time, though, it wasn’t at the hands of my mother; it was caused by the hard cement of the sidewalk I fell into Wednesday morning.  I refuse to let another person ever break me like that again.  The sidewalk and I will need to have a discussion, too, because this can’t happen again.

Despite my fractured foot, I’ve been going to work.  I wake up 40 minutes earlier  because it takes me 40 minutes to walk to the bus stop.  I leave my house in the night and end up getting to the bus stop at dawn.  But it’s what I have to do.  Broken bones don’t pay the bills.  I leave my crutches in the break room at work and shuffle around and get my job done – a little slower, for sure, but the work still gets done.  I can’t not work.  I don’t have time to be disabled.  I’m exhausted by the end of the day, but maybe that’s a good thing.  That means there’s less energy available to screw other shit up.  Most nights, I just want to lay in bed and cry; but that doesn’t make the pain go away.  It just gives me horrible cry face.

I got my first paycheck today.  It wasn’t much, but it just feels a little better getting some sort of income in.  I still need another job or two.  Or a rich a husband.  I’m okay with either scenario.

I’ve been socializing so much more than what is normal for me.  It’s still difficult for me.  I still find myself struggling to respond.  But I am trying.  For some reason, people are naturally drawn to me.  That is the worst for someone who is socially anxious.  It’s a process.  It is also difficult for me to understand why someone would want to like me enough to talk to me (I know, a lot of childhood brainwashing there).  It’s something I’m slowly overcoming.  The other day, I exchanged jokes with a bus driver, which turned into a short, but polite conversation.  Yesterday, I engaged in a conversation over broken bones with an older gentleman who had more metal in him than bone.  And today, another bus driver and I talked about which place had the best cappuccino.  I still let the other side do most of the talking, but for me, it’s progress.  I’m doing a lot better considering where I was before.  It’s almost as if the simple lack of my mother’s presence has been enough to lift some of the fears and anxieties I had in speaking with other people.

On another good note, I finally received feedback for my thesis.  My grade: 99.  I have been obsessively checking all week, as if I were afraid I was going to fail the paper.  I didn’t expect to get a 99.  One grammatical error.  One point away from perfection.  In a way, it relates so much to my life.  As much as I strive to be perfect, my life will never be perfect.  But if I work hard enough, it can be damn near close enough to perfect.