Monday, March 30, 2009

That's all she wrote! (memoir snippit)

Growing up in a household like I did, being in a long term abusive relationship like I was, I didn’t go from living in bad relationships to all of the sudden finding health and happiness in a good relationship. If only the transition were that easy. I liken it to the reaction people always have to battered women, “Why doesn’t she just leave?” It seems so simple, doesn’t it? But being in bad relationships, functioning in an unhealthy way in relationships is something that is learned. It becomes a way of operating. It is all you know, so you repeat those same mistakes over and over again. So to ask, “Why doesn’t she just leave?” Or “Why didn’t you just find a better relationship?” is not really effective. There is a struggle that goes on. There are so many things to be learned on the journey toward building good relationships. Of course it starts with that conscious decision to want to be happier, to want to be in loving and healthy relationships. But to unlearn all those old ways of relating that took a lifetime to form sometimes can be tricky. It takes lots of introspection, guidance, hard work, and of course, more mistakes.

I learned some big lessons about myself from my relationship with Coy. I learned that I desperately wanted to be heard and validated, but that I kept choosing relationships that would inevitably belittle me and shut me down mentally and emotionally. My unconscious self learned in childhood that negativity and invalidation was the proper response to expression of emotion. And I continued that cycle by choosing partners who wouldn’t listen—by choosing partners who would tell me what I thought did not matter and that I didn’t know what I was talking about. After my relationship ended with Coy, I began to reflect on these patterns I was seeing in myself. One thing became glaringly clear—I did have a voice, thoughts, emotions that I not only wanted to express, but that deserved to be heard! This was a revelation. And I wasn’t riding some empty self-esteem train, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggonit! People like me!” But I had seen through my work with Kenneth at Douglass High school, and through my work with clients at the CPC, and through my work with the kids on my caseload at DHS, that I had something to offer this world. I could help. And I was a vital part of the lives of those I was helping. I had also seen in my own life and in the lives of others I had worked with the devastation that unhealthy relationships could bring. I had already spent seven years of my life in a struggle, a seemingly endless battle that was completely self-focused, merely surviving. My life was worth more than that. My life mattered. What I did with my time mattered. And my personal relationships, in a very big way, would reflect my relationship with the world and my place in it.

I spent several years after my relationship with Coy trying out my singleness in my early and mid-twenties. I went nuts. I had fun. I did things every twenty-something girl should do. I went on vacations to the coast by myself. I met strangers. I had torrid and short-lived love affairs. I went to graduate school. I drank too much. I stayed out too late. I lived alone and loved every minute of it. I bought reams of butcher paper to cover my walls and covered them in lines, lyrics, poems, and pictures whenever I felt like it. I worried my parents that I would never marry or reproduce. I made some of the best friends of my life. I tried out different roles in many different kinds of relationships both personal and professional, and realized no matter how they ended, they were all valuable. And I learned that even though I had been through some very tough situations in my short life, I couldn’t name even one regret. Everything was an experience from which a lesson could be gleaned. Every experience was an integral part of who I had become. And I was becoming something—a whole person, a healthy person, a happy person. When I was faced with the decision we all face at some point in our lives—will we let our experiences change us for worse or for better—I chose the good. I chose to let them be a part of who I was, for better or worse, and to learn from them and to let them produce positive things in my life. I had lost multiple pregnancies, some by choice, some not. I would help those who were also experiencing that pain. I had been in an abusive relationship and lived to tell the tale. I would help those who weren’t feeling so lucky. I had struggled to believe I was capable of writing and doing good academic work in school, even though I so desperately wanted to. I would help those feeling the same. This was my life’s purpose, to help.

After the devastation of the divorce and the uprooting of our family, eventually the dust settled. Both mom and dad moved on. Mom went on to continue her graduate education and became very successful in higher education administration. In her own way, she was helping to change lives. It seemed she had also chosen the good, when faced with that difficult decision of how to use hard experiences in life. My mother and I now have the relationship I always wanted to have growing up. We are close friends and we provide each other with comfort and counsel. Just like every other relationship, it took time and struggles and much work to get to the point we are now. But I think the things my family went through really revealed the humanity in each of us. The world wasn’t so black and white. There wasn’t always a right answer and a wrong answer. Sometimes all we had was each other. And sometimes we didn’t even have that. But in the end, we came out better people for what we had been through.

Dad eventually remarried and opened his own business. The second love of his life is music, and he decided there would be no better way to make a living than to do the thing he loves. So he sells guitars all over the world every day and provides the world with just a little bit more music, a little bit more happiness. I still see sadness in my father’s eyes from time to time. For all the things we endured as a family, no one felt it more deeply than he did. He was on the front lines. He took the bullets. And deep down, although he has picked up and carried on quite successfully both personally and professionally, I don’t know if that small part of him will ever recover. Even though my sister is now a professional in the medical field and I am still continuing to help people through education, I think dad still longs for the family we once had. I do too. I can’t pretend I don’t feel it, especially around the holidays. We splinter off to our respective corners of the country, a fragment of the unit our family once was. The relationships are harder now. We have to work to keep in touch. Some old wounds will never heal for some of us. But I’ve learned that’s what a family is. You hold on, flaws, faults, insecurities, and all. You hold on and you love, even if it is from a distance sometimes. You are forever linked. You are family.

Eventually I started a family of my own. When I was twenty-six I met my husband, Robert, at a bar my friends and I frequented, a casual hang-out popular for live music. A preacher’s daughter meets a guy at a bar—stop me if you’ve heard this one. But he was a guitar player in a band, and he was lots of fun to be around. We became fast friends and nothing more for two years. Eventually, one of his friends spilled the beans one night that friendship wasn’t all Robert wanted, and I was totally blindsided. I had never thought of him in that light. He was my good friend who had been so much fun to be around. Now he was going to make it awkward by letting me know he wanted more? My first instinct was to run. And by run, I mean sleep with him once and then tell him we would be better off as friends. I was the traditional non-committal type by this point. But he had other plans in mind. He was persistent. And over time he showed me the most open and unconditional love I had ever known. He knew my baggage and he came with some of his own. But it didn’t matter. He valued me. He supported me. He encouraged me in everything I did. I had never experienced this in a relationship before—genuine selfless love. And I was hooked. A year later, Dad married us on a cliff overlooking the ocean in California.

Dad tells a story about when I was a little girl, about the age of two or three, he would hold me in his arms outside at night and I would reach up to the stars with my little fist and say, “Gimme dat!” As children we are so idealistic. The world seems endless and full of opportunity for most of us. We never imagine our lives will take windy roads that will lead us to some very dark places. We never imagine those we love the most will leave us even for a minute and we will be left to pick up the pieces on our own. We see the stars and we want them. We find out in adulthood that sometimes those stars are unreachable. Or are they? Hopefully, eventually we turn that corner. We ask for help, we embrace the change, and go exploring. We use the bad for good. Like I say with my husband, we take all our baggage, throw it in the middle of the living room floor, work together and see what we can build out of it.

My life experience has taught me that things don’t always work out as planned, that you don’t always get the happy endings that you want, and that sometimes we are our own worst enemies. But it has also taught me that life is what you make it. We have choices every single day. We choose our response to people, to our own thoughts, to the world. We must consciously choose the option that yields the best possible consequences. And we must be mindful of our fellow citizens of the world. We do not exist in a bubble. People need and people hurt. People have bad days. Make your life one that makes it a little bit easier for others to exist on this planet. Plenty of bad exists, but choose to see the good and build on it, and eliminate the bad when you can. Realize the pathway to the stars is not paved alone. It is only in helping others and letting them help us that we all succeed. My life this far is a testament to this and I am committed to keep learning, keep exploring, and keep helping. The future holds dark, scary, brilliant, and wonderful things. I want to experience them all fully and appreciate them for what they are, the things that make me, me.


Shelley said...

Wow you are an exceptional story is similar in some ways and different in others and I feel everything you are able to put in words. I have often wished I could put it into words. Your brilliant!!!!!like the stars.