Postcards on Planet Morally Right


But first let’s toast to the lists that we hold in our fists

of the things that we promised to do differently next time
– Marrow by Ani Difranco

 

Friday, at the end of a long work day in a long, long work week, I had a text about a rodent issue with a rental unit I manage on the property. When I had this kind of issue last time, more than a year ago, in the midst of a very stressful time, it was the straw that nearly broke my back and made me collapse in tears.

This time, we’re in the middle of a literal fucking pandemic.

My daughter’s preschool is closed.

Every bar and store and restaurant on my downtown street is closed.

I”m working very hard to not take my daughter anywhere but childcare and home. And I’ve succeeded for weeks and weeks now, securing groceries by delivery or during the limited time she’s with her father.

A hardware store is the last place I wanted to drag her after my pristine record so far.

And I’m still working full-time – both grateful and stressed out by that.

I had a really rough week.

I know we all did.

In all kinds of ways.

I was afraid I was losing the childcare I had found two weeks ago, in this time of no-childcare-to-be-found, because my daughter is falling apart over her new overnights with her dad. Even refused to go with him one evening this week for the first time ever.

She’s five.

The chutzpah, man. The self possession she already has awes me. It’s terrifying and so, so admirable.

I had reached out to her father after she started crying just before the second weeknight visit – she was threatening to refuse that visit, too – and after I asked her what was making her so sad, she said she didn’t like staying after dark and going to sleep there.

I reached out to him Thursday morning to ask if he’d at all consider two overnights a month (instead of three) for maybe a couple of months to ease her in – to show her he respected her feelings and would compromise.

I said (and it’s truer than true): there’s a lot of trust to be rebuilt after you left this house so many times and there are small ways you can do that with her- build a bond with her, let her know she can trust you to be there and know you’ll honor her feelings. She’s so young and you have the time to do this in a way that helps her and you come together.

He said no. I’m wrong. Her issues are my fault. Blah blah blah.

I knew that’s what would happen. And I did what I think is the right thing anyway. For her sake. And for my sake (so I can know I always did what was hard in order to try to always do what’s best for her).

I reached out with a way to have him get what he wants while honoring and adjusting for her trauma. Even though it gives him ammo to say I’m controlling and trying to keep him away from her and blah blah blah.

Even though I knew he’d use it to attack.

Then I got the call from the caregiver about her newest meltdown, that afternoon.

I messaged her dad again and told him she’d had enough of a meltdown with the caregiver this week for her to call me at work, to have the other mother talk to me, (I didn’t say:) to feel overwhelmed.

I had to tell him: he’s her dad. Not because I’m legally bound, but because morally right is a planet I live on and try to pay taxes to stay on, even though he’s not a resident here. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t even visit here, just sends a postcard periodically.

I knew what sharing that info would unleash.  How he would ascribe motives to it outside of my true ones.

I did it anyway.

I said: only respond if you have some constructive ideas or solutions because ‘fault’ won’t help anything.

He answered, without waiting even five minutes to process. It’s my fault and her problems are because of me and she’ll get used to it and blah blah blah.

The blah blah blah is always full of cruel and inaccurate things. The barbs. The jabs.  Always.

I waited 24 hours to read it because I knew what it would say. If not the exact words, then the sentiment for sure.

My work has been contacted this week by both a coroner’s office and a mechanical tech for a hospital – both looking for different information about refrigerated trailers in order to prepare for the amount of bodies they will need to store as Americans across the land lose their battle with Covid-19.

Sobering shit.

As we try to keep all of our employees working to earn full paychecks but also worry about making them come out into the world every day to help keep food trucks running.

As I worry that my daughter is going to be exposed.

As I worry that I could get sick and no one in my company will get paid.

As I also feel gratitude that I am the quarantine equivalent of a weekend dad so I don’t have the full-on get-me-the-fuck-outta-here stir-crazy of those working from home with a small child (or children).

When I got that text just fifteen minutes before my weekend was about to start from a tenant freaking out over something that couldn’t even really be handled until early next week, I instantly thought of when this same kind of text had made me want to collapse on the kitchen floor and cry. Had actually made me cry one night, leaned against the kitchen counter as I tried to also manage the man standing there with me who would roll his eyes when I cried and weaponize any emotions I dared to show in front of him. Who, more than once, abandoned my daughter and I in those moments, calling it head games.

I thought of when the same kind of messages I got this week from him had made me want to scream just a few months ago.

I prepared – and steeled myself – to feel those feelings and then push through anyway.

But, it turns out, I didn’t need to steel.

I thought of the other mom whose kid is with mine every day and how she had sat with me in her kitchen that night after the biggest fit – six feet apart – and told me she wasn’t worried. Kids are kids. We just needed to figure out how to come up with activities and stuff for the kids to do so the caregiver wouldn’t feel so overwhelmed with them all.

She rolled her eyes, affectionately, about her own son needing to go to the office at the preschool our kids attended together. She said her son was overwhelmed too and we bonded over dads who refuse to pay for anything and don’t show up for their kids in the really important ways.

We commiserated over how much that shows up in the actions of each kid and how sad that is – for the kid, yes, but also for the dads who can’t see beyond their own wants to know these amazing kids and help them grow with the kind of ease and security they could know.

I left there feeling seen. And less alone.

I thought of my friend who had messaged me Monday night because she knew only one small anecdote I had shared with the group about my daughter refusing to go with her dad that night and my friend, who has been with me through this whole journey, automatically knew that it meant tension and stress for me.

Because she knew it not only meant I would have tried so hard to gently coax her to go, but also what it meant for me to spend fifty long minutes with him on the porch as I tried to get her to spend any time with him that night.

She knew the tightrope that was for me as well as what it would mean to spend that long in a small space with a man who is still actively trying to destroy me both personally and professionally.

The discomfort of standing my ground and ignoring my own repulsion for him to help my child push through fear while tamping down the actual physical pain of standing that close for so long to someone who is still attempting to abuse me, still swinging every emotional and verbal arm he can to knock me loose from the safety I now live in every day.

My friend knew that without me having to say it.

I felt known. And loved.

I thought of the other friends who I zoomed with the same night I sent him those messages and had to meet with the caregiver, one of our three times a week quarantine meet-ups, where I looked so tired and shot and almost didn’t join but did and then told them I was freaked out and overwhelmed even though it might have been easier to just not mention it.

And then they made me laugh about polygamy hair and pandemic pubic hair overgrowth and quarantine hair roots that were making us all feel old.

I felt heard. And not alone.

I thought of the beautiful piece of custom hydrangea art another friend sent me this week with a lovely card thanking me for my friendship and love and support over the last decade and a half. The heart she threw in for my daughter that made her smile ear to ear this morning as I read the message out loud to her.

I felt grateful and loved. For things totally detached from the chaos of the week. For who I was, and am, before, during and after him.

When I got home Friday, I handled the issue with the tenant and I made dinner for my daughter.

And I finally read and cordially replied to the ex’s message from the day before. And I shared it with my friends who have let me vent this all for months now to help stave off the holy-fuck-is-this-real kind of craziness that people like my ex thrive on creating in the world, especially love yielding against anyone audacious enough to stand up to them.

So I can remain seen and supported.

I went in and ate with my daughter and then we colored together. I taught her, again, who Selena is and she mumbled bidi bidi bom bom while coloring in a picture of Selena, making her look downright creepy while saying how beautiful she is and smiling widely.

When I leaned back on the couch, she curled up next to me, leaned into my side while pushing her head and shoulders under my arm so that it wrapped around her and I smelled her dirty kid hair and pulled her close and told her I can’t believe that she used to fit between my elbow and my palm as I looked at her legs dangling over my lap and hanging off of the couch, as she squirmed and I gently pinched her side to make her giggle.

I realized after I kissed her goodnight in her bed later and said my fifth or sixth buenas noches and she one-upped my te amo muchos over and over with te amo mases until I gave up and said, ok, good night, mi amor – as I walked out of her room and quietly shut the door, I realized that I felt completely at ease and relaxed.

What a day. What a week.

What a world we’re all in right now.

And yet.

For that minute (& for the rest of the night), I felt loose. Ok. Peaceful.

I am making a life free from the madness I spent nearly a decade in… I know his attacks will come, they always do… but they are, thankfully, less jarring to me.

Because of me. And the work I’ve done.

Precisely because of the nylon thread I’ve woven and then used to stitch up every triggering laceration as I locate it.

Stitch, stitch, stitch. Heal, heal, heal.

Because of the freedom I’ve fought hard to keep and the life I have rebuilt night by night in this house, I can stand next to the attacks and simply acknowledge them.

Not engage in them.

Not be crushed by them.

My home is calm.

I have people. (I always did – I just used them to keep me alive for too long instead of to boost and support each other).

I can help my daughter. I can. We will struggle. And lord, she is definitely my child and so she is strong and smart and difficult and emotional and invested in whatever moves her to a point of stubborn rigidity.

But I can do this. Help her navigate this world that feels so hard for her sometimes.

Love her the whole time so she knows that love is not conditional and prone to disappearing.

I felt healed. More than a little.

And that’s huge.

Not treading. Not surviving.

Living.

Even in these unbelievably sad and scary and uncertain times.

Keeping a promise to myself.

Doing it differently.

Slandered & Shell-Shocked: Silence is the Double-Edged Sword

Carry Chalk March 2020

(Photo courtesy of Carry Chalk – IG: @carrychalk)

 

…after my dreaded beheading
I tied that sucker back on with a string
and I guess I’m pretty different now,
considering
— Manhole by Ani Difranco

 

 

Today I went for an early(ish) morning walk with my daughter to pick up fresh bagels and freshly squeezed OJ before some friends came over for brunch. I had been awake since 2 am. My daughter had wet the bed at 2:00 and after helping her to change her clothes and then changing her sheets, I couldn’t get back to sleep.

I have less insomnia now than I did a few months ago, which itself was, despite the smear campaign to demolish my credibility that was in full-swing, even less than I had six months before that when I was still in a constant state of emotional fight or flight, constantly teetering on the tip of do I stay or do I go, my mind and body always in an alert state waiting for the next emotional blow.

Last night was one of those nights where I just had to give up and watch TV sometime after 3:00 – my eyes stinging and watering but every time I closed them, images and words started their tornado tango that made sleep impossible. I’ve learned to not fight it anymore and to instead do the work in the daylight that makes these nights fewer and fewer with time.

I read an article yesterday that so succinctly and correctly outlined narcissistic emotional abuse that it took me four tries to finish the two-years-old HuffPo article. Four tries for freaking Huffpo. I kept having to stop because I couldn’t read through the water that kept welling up in my eyes. I would have to pause and find a tissue and breathe for a few calming counts and then go back to it.

I have done a lot of reading in my journey to heal. It’s what I do – gather information, make connections, look for places where I can touch the experience of others to make sense of my own. I’ve been trying really hard to understand not only what happened to me but also to make sense of what I did in my own head to stay in it way past knowing it was wrong, what kind of gymnastics I did mentally to avoid seeing it as something that couldn’t just be fixed with love and will and the right words.

That HuffPo article felt like the kind of thing someone else could read and start to get an inkling of what I went through, what so many people go through –  a bizarre, unreal-sounding world of mind fuckery and truth twisting and then the avalanche of hate that unfolds once you cut them off for good, a world so rich and full and abrasive that it gets said, often, by those of us who have survived it that only those who’ve been through it can understand it. Everyone else can’t believe that what we say is real is actually real.

One quote I read recently likened this kind of abuse to death by a thousand cuts. To share one or two (or even ten) examples can seem like trivial things, like nothing to use the A word about. The sheer volume and absurdity of the world you find yourself in feels virtually impossible to explain to someone who wasn’t hearing about it in real time.

It felt like an article I could make everyone read and they would at least start to get it, start to try to get it, start to realize that the charming people sometimes go home and break down the people who love them so thoroughly and completely (and slyly) that they put those people in an adrenaline fueled confusion that makes leaving an option their brain doesn’t even get to because they’re still standing there trying to figure out the last ten sentences of their life and how those sentences could possibly be true when they know – they fucking know – that they are not.

What kept me up was knowing that even if I share this article, maybe no one will read it. Maybe they will and they’ll still say: but that didn’t happen to her. I just can’t believe it about him. That the isolation of this kind of healing and the shadow of my real life for the last eight years will always be just behind what people think they know about me (and him) and my relationship and my mental health and integrity.

So it seemed cruel and yet fitting that while I was on that walk this morning, as I was almost home, as I held my daughter’s hand and we strolled down the sidewalk, smiling and singing, that I should run right into one of his oldest friends. Someone I only know through him and only spent time with a handful of times (which, I am sure, according to the ex, is now my fault instead of how he isolated us from almost everyone until I started reaching out that last year to try to bridge our lives back into the world at large and reconnect us to the people around us, even his friends). I saw this man walking toward us and when I realized it was him, instead of someone who just looked like him, I could see him dart his eyes in that way people do when they want to find the secret hatch that will make them disappear before whatever is about to happen happens.

Time slowed. I weighed my options in that molasses second. I ran through several options. And then I smiled and nodded and said hello. Because I am still the person I always was, somewhere deep down, and I will not be too scared to do what feels right, no matter what anyone might think of me. His mouth contorted into some sort of partial smile and he nodded with a half-jerk that looked painful and kept walking.

My stomach flipped once. All of my muscles contracted. I missed a half step before I was brought back to the planet by the feel of my daughter’s small, warm hand in mine, our feet beating out a rhythm on the sidewalk as we kept walking.

I was still walking. My mind had frozen a few feet back near that oleander shrub but my feet knew to keep walking.

I was still moving.

I was OK, I told my brain.

Triggers are funny. They come in all shapes and sizes. This one, really, was pretty small in the scheme of things. But I still found myself counting breaths as my daughter and I crossed the street. I was repeating, silently to myself: you are in March 2020, not October 2019, you are in March 2020, not in October 2019. You are OK. You are OK. You are not the lies. You. Are. Not. The. Lies. 

Such a small encounter. That man really doesn’t mean anything to me. There are people who believe his lies that I do care about, that I have to continue to learn how to let go, how to move forward with what will most likely have to be my next step in healing: severing personal ties and blocking anyone still connected to him. By all expert accounts, I should have done that months ago, but it felt like one more way he was stripping me of things I care about. Another way to lose things without giving permission.

So I haven’t yet.

Late last night, it was the openings that those connections make in my cocoon that also filled my head with fear-based scenarios. The way they start to feel like tentacles reaching out from him. I’ve startled awake from nightmares more than a few times in the last couple of weeks where someone still connected to him presents evidence of my craziness that isn’t real, that had to be made up, but is there in front of me, on paper, proving to everyone something about me that I know to be false.

One side effect of this kind of abuse, especially at first, is you don’t trust yourself about who to trust. How can you? I mean, really – how?

That is not a rhetorical question.

It’s a question I spend a lot of time trying to answer. It’s the key and the door.

The guy on the sidewalk, though? He’s not individually important to me. It’s just that right then and there I had to see the physical representation of the way my ex’s smear campaign has worked just how he wanted it to work. If people in his family who saw me be a parent to both his son and our daughter for almost a decade can discard that for the lies and projections he started spewing less than four hours after I told him no more, then of course a man I barely knew who barely ever saw me would believe that I’m a psycho and a liar and a cheater and abusive and unfit for motherhood and bitter and vindictive and and and.

Until today I was convinced that the hardest part of this post-separation abuse – the kind where the abuser yields social media and made-up stories over beers or dinner – was the isolation. The way you can’t really refute it – there’s no good way to say, but really, I’m not like that, I swear without sounding exactly like the guy who says but really, I’m not racist, some of my best friends are black.  

You feel like you’re stranded on an island called Truth and no one wants to join you.

The only way to get through it is time. Continuing to live your life, honestly and quietly and (finally) mostly surrounded by calm. To hope that some people will eventually see through the pattern of his exes always being bitter and vindictive and mean and crazy and him finding a ‘new, healthy’ love in record time and then rinse and repeat and rinse and repeat.

Knowing that mostly it will mean people falling out of your life and having to cut off anyone who tries to defend him to you because they cannot ever fathom that the nice, funny guy they know who always seems to be getting the short end of the stick due to someone else wronging him is incredibly cruel and heartless behind closed doors and forces the abandonments that he so artfully bemoans in the perfect Saint Martyr role in order to hook another woman (like me, who will take care of him and save him). The stories that convince his friends he’s just unlucky in love, that tells them it’s always her, whoever her is that time. His stories that keep the carousel spinning and spinning and spinning.

And the isolation is an incredibly difficult and lonely part of this kind of abuse. When you stop the abuse, when you close your walls and keep the boundaries, you gain control over your home life, but you totally lose control over what image gets painted of you. Not that you had any control of it before – not really — but the fury with which someone whose whole focus was contorting and controlling you will work to shatter your life once they see they’ve lost that control is, on some days, more disorienting than the gaslighting you spent years trying to decipher.

Some of us, a lot of us, stay way past when we should leave because it seems safer and less terrifying to stay and try to manage the damage than to open yourself up to what he will do once you are not appeasing and mitigating. It’s an awful spot to be in – and I was in that spot for years – measuring if the damage to me was less in it than out of it, and more importantly, if the damage to me in it was worth it to save my daughter from the damage of being out of it.

Pause and think about that. You are lonely in it, but will you be alone and demonized out of it? And most important: will your daughter’s sadness break you more than his words ever could?

Even more than the isolation, though, I’ve come to realize that it’s the re-traumatization that happens when outsiders – friends, family, coworkers – dismiss or defend or disbelieve or perpetuate the lies that is the most heartbreaking part of this hard-won freedom. That the leap you had no choice but to make, eventually, leaves you at the mercy of lots of folks who really don’t know anything about what went on in your house.

It’s as though you are again standing there staring at a knife while someone adamantly tells you it’s a pillow.

As they tell you that they know better than you: here, lie your head on this cold metal blade, you’ll feel better, I swear.

You tell yourself they just don’t get it – they don’t understand – and thank god they don’t know because this is awful.

Saying that to yourself doesn’t save you from having to feel your daughter’s smooth, perfect palm in your hand in order to remember that you have a body and it is in the current moment and not hurled back into some earlier trauma. Nothing saves you from sometimes having to face the abuse that is still happening even if you work hard every day to try to not care about that. Even if you plug your ears and avert your eyes in order to make a new life that will, maybe, someday be free of these kinds of look-aways.

 

When I was in my early twenties, I lost friends and family because I fell in love with a woman. 1997 and 1998 and 1999 were incredibly hard years in that respect, before I came to terms with what was lost, before many of those people returned to my life years later. I lost my parents. Lost aunts, uncles, cousins, my brother. A friend I thought of like a sister. A job teaching at a private college. It hurt. More than words can ever express.

I had to come to terms with a whole new sense of self, a whole new identity. That was more painful than I could have ever imagined. I was surprised by this new development in my life. So I had to take this idea I had of myself that had formed over 23 years and put it in a blender and chop it up and reassemble it piece by piece. Really process who I was now and what that meant for how the world would see me.

I lived in the kind of city where just the two of us going to a movie, if we even gave off the scent that we weren’t just friends, would definitely mean dirty looks and stares, but also meant that the dark cloud of something worse was always right there.  Matthew Shepard had just been murdered and the danger felt palpable in our conservative ag town.

I had to embrace being someone people would hate for no good reason and without knowing anything else about me except that one thing.

That was lonely. And scary and sad and infuriating. But also galvanizing.

I could stand firm knowing that I was on the right side of history and humanity and love.

And – and this is a big one – people would hate me for something that was absolutely true about me.

 

Coming out of emotional abuse only to realize that the abuse hasn’t ended, it’s just changed shape and scope, feels brutally unfair. Like a pipe to the knees some days.

Part of this healing process means that I’ve had to again dismantle what and who I thought I was and fit it back together with this new piece of my identity – someone who lived in abuse for a long time. Not a victim, I just can’t own that one. So I guess survivor, but I don’t want that one either.

I want to be the person I thought I was eight years ago, five years ago, hell, one year ago before I understood my life in this way.

People who were friendly to me, people who I considered family, now bad mouth me and cheer him on when he spends his time and money on anything but his daughter, when he calls me crazy and yet leaves her in my care for what amounts to 93% custody even when he shows up for all of his visits any given week. People virtually high-five him when he keeps posting memes about his ‘toxic ex’ or when he calls me psycho.  His family, who have seen me fight harder for his two children (the family I poured every ounce of my soul into building) – they witnessed more of the day to day than even my family – they now block me and remain silent and don’t check on my daughter or invite her anywhere unless it’s the four to eleven hours a week he has her. They treat me like I am the plague.

His friends and family – some who have never met me or met me once at a music show or quinceanera or think they know me because they saw my picture for years on Instagram – they hate me because of lies.  Not because of who I am but because of who he now says I am.

There’s no march to try to show I’m not that demon. There are no school clubs or PFLAG meetings to help those who hate me understand that what they say about me, what they pass on without knowing it’s true, is another way to abuse someone who has already said she’s had enough.

Enough.

E-fucking-nough.

I’ve mostly wrapped my brain around (but am still trying to wrap my heart around) the fact that the person I loved so much that I practically sold my soul to the devil in order to try to stay with him could do all of this to me and have what amounts to no real emotions about it. Reading and writing and therapy and reaching out to other survivors has helped with that.

I am still, though, trying to wrap my brain around the fact that removing myself from the abusive relationship simply moved the abuse to a whole other realm, and in a lot of ways, ramped it up for several months with no real end in sight (since I can’t disappear from him completely).

This part may never end (in this age of social media the reach is fast and far) and so the goal isn’t freedom from abuse but freedom from seeing it or hearing it or letting it into my home. Mostly it means performing some kind of mental trickery with yourself to make yourself believe you don’t care about it at all.

So far I can’t get past that these mental games feel way too much like the ones I played with myself to stay close to him, to try to give my daughter (and his son) the family I thought I had actually built but had only hologrammed into our house. Right now, this process of trying not to care what people believe about me feels so close to the dysfunction that allowed me to stay that the triggers are hard to avoid.

I left the relationship to end the lies and stop letting them shake my world.

The aftershocks, though, are steady and on repeat.

This kind of abuse is so underground, so secret, so invisible that when you get free and the abuser does what every one of these type of abusers does – takes your name and your reputation and the trust and honesty that made you the perfect mark for his games in the first place – he takes all of that and he shits all over it and paints a picture of you doing everything he actually did himself.

He shakes all of his crimes off and superglues them to a paper doll of you that he parades out in front of anyone who will pay attention so they can tell him how sorry they are for his pain and loss and what a great guy he is and they hope he can bounce back from all that evil and bitterness. The irony is almost perfect. If only it weren’t so barbed and cruel.

So the advice you get as the survivor?  From experts and people who’ve been through it?  It is devoid of balance or fairness, but it is good advice if you want to get back to safety and health and something as close to normal as you can have in the aftermath.

To live your life. To heal. To keep living with honesty and integrity and cut out anyone who can allow him to reach back into your life and take anything else from you.  Keep going. Learn. Live. Breathe. Accept and grow.

Learn to live with the galaxy-sized ball of unfairness that is remaining silent, for the most part, just like you did in the middle of the abuse, in order to save yourself more pain. In order to save yourself the retaliation that comes from not playing along.

Silence. Then. Now. The same.

He’s such a nice guy. There are always two sides to every story. Neither one of them is perfect.

It takes two to Tango.

But only one of us is hiding out and doing the emotional equivalent of throwing our bodies on the floor when a loud boom shoots through the air.  

Only one of us.

 

 

******

HuffPo Article:

https://m.huffpost.com/us/entry/us_59691504e4b06a2c8edb462e

 

Who Knew You’d Turn Me Into Clint Eastwood?

Remember that time Clint Eastwood talked to an empty chair on TV?

I keep thinking about that lately.

Remember how crazy he seemed? Remember how everyone talked about how unhinged it made him look for months and months after it aired?

A very close friend just posted an infographic on Facebook about sitting with your discomfort instead of numbing it. How it’s the only way to really process and deal with the shit that hurts us. It hit a nerve because I’ve been (very intentionally) doing a lot of that lately. I’ve had some things in my life lately that make me feel downright unnnnncomfortable and icky.

One of them is realizing, now that I’m somewhat in the homestretch of the legal part of my custody stuff, that what I allowed myself to be in for so long was actual, certifiable abuse. At this age. As smart as I think I am. I did so many gymnastics in my head to believe everything could be different if only explained correctly, if only we could find common ground, if only something would break through to him. If only.

I’ve been sitting with the feelings that take over my body, slowly and completely, every time I have to face that I was so very wrong about so very much and that every memory I have is now recast by what the last five months have made impossible to ignore. The feelings that arise in every cell when I remember a new thing that wasn’t ever what it seemed to be back then – the way the realizations will make my whole body feel like electricity pushing at my skin, like if I could just peel my skin back, or run for a hundred miles, or drink four beers – maybe then it would all stop feeling like this.

I’m also, on the daily, fielding crap still from the outside: my daughter coming home to tell me Daddy says you lie all the time; finding out my daughter spent her birthday and Christmas with another woman without so much as a courteous hello, nice to meet you before I shower your tiny kid with gifts three months after daddy finally and fully got banished from your bed;  my daughter throwing up after being fed candy and popcorn and soda all day and me being called a liar in front of her about her being sick at all; the pending child support case because the court order has taken so long for the court to finalize and not one single penny from him for his daughter (him only paying his half of her daycare because I kindly asked the preschool to remind him, in writing, that he, too, signed the contract and was legally obligated to pay); him paying it late every single time it is due; my daughter crying in my arms because she doesn’t understand why there’s another woman around when she wants us to still be together since we didn’t fight when we both took her to the tree lighting ceremony; him blocking my emails (again) because I dared to ask for proof of insurance and registration on a car he didn’t, in fact, have coverage on (verified four days later through my lawyer, which was partly his plan since he thinks not only should I be the only one paying for our daughter’s expenses, but he thinks I have buckets of money instead of the 401k loan I took out to be able to protect my daughter and myself in this whole mess and so he takes joy in racking up my sizable legal bills); the daily knowledge that his character assassination of me may never stop because it’s the only thing he can do to make whatever I may say about him suspect, the only way he can try to preserve the false image he’s spent a lifetime crafting; that still, even after breaking free, his mission is to dismantle anything about me he can.

I’ve finally come out of an almost eight year relationship where one of his main tactics for survival was to cast doubt on my sanity – and the process has been harder and even more cruel than I feared (and I really did fear this part of it and stayed at least two years longer than I should have just to avoid this madness, to avoid having to face that his cruelty could go so much deeper than I had ever let myself believe).

I sit with all of this.

Over the last four months, some of that sitting has made some parts easier. I no longer lose sleep over the things he tells other people about me. After the judge, who is the only other person besides me and my lawyer to see the truth of his words and emails and actions completely, has limited his time with my daughter and postponed a decision about overnight visits until he can show that he will be reliable and less damaging to her stability with his words and actions, it got easier to let go of what everyone else who hears his accusations thinks. It still stings, but the feeling passes more quickly, and I can watch it pass instead of feel all the waves.

I have sat with the feeling, more and more, in the last month, that I fell in love, from the beginning, with a complete fabrication and so the shock and disappointment of that has lessened as I actually name what was done to me and talk to others who are going through the same bizarro world of trying to co-parent with someone who only knows how to counter and attack.

I’m still sitting with the fact that this will never really stop – the best I can hope for is that we have periods of less aggression toward me and that my lack of affection or love for him will keep me steady and detached from the things he does that I, of course, have no control over.

Historically, I’m a fixer, a problem solver. I look at details and make connections and find ways to move forward productively. If A won’t work, and B seems all wrong, I will fucking find C and make it my bitch.

There is a lot about this point in my life that I can (and absolutely need to) do this with . . . I am actively working it all out in writing, in therapy, and in quiet, calm moments of tranquility after my daughter goes to sleep (a time that, for years, was when I would crawl into bed tense and fearful for what would happen next).

I am spending a lot of time trying to decide what I can do something about and what I cannot. Mostly, I am deep into finding a sort of peace – or, if not peace, a type of truce – with so much on the list that I have to choose not to ignore but to see as it floats through my head, as it makes my stomach feel airy, as it causes me to take a deep breath and sigh in disappointment and then let it pass through my cells so I can keep doing whatever I am doing at that moment.

And so. Cue Clint Eastwood.

Mostly, when I try to sit with my discomfort, instead of fixing it, I end up talking to a chair. Or the shower head. Or the dirty dishes in the sink. Conversations with people I can’t really have: with him, with his sister who has cut me off completely (and so hasn’t asked to see her niece except the limited time she’s with her dad and whose presence in her life I miss the most), with my daughter (who I can’t possibly say the truth to in the way she’ll eventually come to know it herself), with the woman he’s wooing who certainly believes his hot air about my insanity and how I abused him and how I just want him back so will lie and sabotage anything he has with someone else. With myself who can’t believe how much I bought into something that was so, so untrue. Lots of times I’m the one sitting in that chair. And I listen. I really, really listen. Finally.

The two things that do still make me lose sleep, keep me spinning at my own witching hour of 4am, are the way his words and his care of my daughter will damage her (and how I can weather-proof her for these things so she’ll be less dinged-up by them) and the way that knowing he’s actively grooming another woman right now who believes all this love and magic he can fake and who will, someday, if she stays long enough, be deep in a pit of pain, huddled on the floor of her kitchen, trying to figure out how she is being made to be the one doing wrong when she knows, in her gut, that it’s not her, the way that knowing all of this makes my whole body uneasy.

As far as my daughter, I can’t control what he does or says, but there is action for me to take. I can choose to not engage with him except when necessary since every interaction spurs an inequal reactive attack from him, including multiple false claims of workplace harassment and useless police reports filed against me.

I can, and am, taking my daughter to therapy to help her learn how to talk about and name her feelings since he constantly tries to pit her against me and I seem to be the only one of us two who knows how damaging that is for children. I can continue to speak only positively about him and let her express her own opinions on what transpires. When she tells me that he says I lie all the time, I don’t counter it. I just ask her what she thinks, how she feels about that. She’s witnessed things that, when told to him, he says are lies. She knows I told the truth. So I just let her think critically, to ponder her feelings.

I comfort her when she comes to me and grabs my hand and tells me she misses when we were all in the same house. I tell her I do, too. I don’t tell her that what I (and she) thought we had wasn’t real. I just let her have her feelings, let her form her own opinions while I tell her that she shouldn’t worry if what he says will hurt me, that I’m strong and she doesn’t need to worry about me in that way. And I minimize, in any way possible, her exposure to hurtful words or careless actions.

There is some small comfort in knowing that while I can’t keep her from having to learn these things so young, I can give her the space and love to come out stronger. I can do something to make this even a little better.

This other woman, though? I have surprised myself with what her existence brings up for  me. I expected to have emotions about him seeing someone else even though I have absolutely no desire to ever entertain that option again. Even though I knew he was already grooming other women before we split (hell, the whole time we were together) and that he would be publicly boasting of real, true love so much sooner than would be healthy or considerate.

But that’s not what’s making me Clint Eastwood when I’m home alone doing dishes or laundry or staring at the darkened bedroom ceiling at 4:38am

I get a pit in my stomach when I think about how she feels right now when I know, I know, exactly what he’s still going to be engaged in with other women, what lies he’s already told her, not just about me (but so many other things both big and small), and how devastated and small she will feel when she realizes that this love bomb he’s exploding in her life right now has shrapnel that may never leave her ribcage.

She has ignored every single request I made of her to meet me if she’s going to be in my daughter’s life and every single plea I’ve made that they give her more time before she is with the both of them together. Ignored. Not even a no thank you or I hear you and I’ll back away from her for now.  This seems inexcusable to me, so I try to say to myself Fuck her – she deserves whatever she gets in this.

It doesn’t work. The feeling won’t be fooled.

I don’t respect her. Because she had to be asked to do something she should have done on her own and ignored me completely instead of acting like the forty-something adult that she apparently is (which made me, foolishly, assume that she would do the right thing).

This doesn’t change the way my mind spins at 4:00 in the morning as sentences I could say to her spiral in my skull and make it impossible to just sit with them and then sleep.

It doesn’t stop the daydreaming about sending her the infographic I saved about the three phases of being with a Narcissist (because while I can’t speak to an official diagnosis, I can testify that the things he has done and said tick every single line in the script narcissists use to trick and then belittle and unmoor the people they are in relationships with) in hopes that she’ll leave during the second phase instead of the end of the third when the damage is deeper and sharper.

Telling myself that she deserves whatever he does to her because she believes his bullshit right now so much that she would ignore the woman who gave birth to the child she spent Christmas and the child’s birthday fawning over doesn’t work because to believe that means this: I deserved everything I got because I tied myself to him so quickly and so fully and believed all the love lies he told me and let him convince me to look at my own trust issues before accusing him of anything (things he was actually doing).

That I deserved it because I believed what he told me about his ex-wife and the women he dated before me, even though I know now that none of it was really true.

To say she deserves whatever she gets means saying I deserve everything he’s done to me and his children and everything he will continue to do to us.

I don’t.

Neither does she. Whoever she is morally, ethically or as a human.

No one deserves to wake up and realize that they have chipped away at everything good in themselves trying desperately to make something real out of a heap of lies.

No one.

So I feel a feeling. And I look at it. I don’t numb it. I try to sit with it until it passes.

This one won’t pass yet.

I’ve written about it in other pieces that have been sent out for publication. I’ve tried to make a tender kind of peace that these women will be in and out of my daughter’s life. And oddly, I’m less fearful for my daughter than these other women, this one other woman right now. My daughter has me, and an amazing therapist, and a full family on both sides who will love her intensely and with devotion. And she has a way, already, of seeing the world around her that cuts through the bullshit. The things she has already articulated and noticed about her new situation both floor me with sadness and give me hope for her future as a smart, realistic, whole human being.

This woman, though. She is me. Eight years ago. Standing in front of the train – the slow, slow, slow moving train of destruction – and smiling and feeling like she’s just won the lottery, feeling lucky, feeling loved.  She doesn’t have any idea how heavy that train is, how fully it will pin her to the tracks, and how hard it will be to peel herself up from those rails and reconstitute herself into a new version of herself.

We all have times in our lives where we wish we could time travel and warn ourselves of something.

I’ve come to terms with the fact that even if given the chance, I wouldn’t go warn myself because to have seen him for who he really is would mean never, ever meeting my daughter. It’s a horse-pill with jagged edges to have swallowed that realization and to have to re-remind myself of that nearly every day of the last three and a half years.

But this new woman? I could warn her. I could. She won’t listen. Probably.  But maybe she would leave sooner than I did. Maybe she would shave less of her own flesh off for him before realizing that his attacks on her were just a sad attempt to further shield his own lies. Maybe she would stop rescuing him from his own mess right now that he’s told everyone is my fault and pretend that’s love. Maybe.

But it’s not appropriate, most people would say. Not my place. Kind of crazy.

Like Clint Eastwood talking to a chair on national TV. Like Chili burning down a house. Like Lorena Bobbitt cutting off the embodiment of what hurt her most.

So I’ll still try to sit and watch that feeling pass through. Feel it move through my body. The intensity of knowing that you could save someone else the pain you endured but that they probably wouldn’t listen. And maybe it would hurt your credibility in the custody case. And it would certainly continue to keep you tethered to a person, to a relationship, to a time in your life when you doubted everything you knew about yourself in the name of trying to preserve the family you thought you created.

As a woman, though, it hurts to keep silent about the harm in the wings.

I, most likely, will sell myself out as a woman in order to hold myself up as a mother. The woman I need to be most concerned with is the one I am trying to guide into being.

Here’s the feeling. I see it. I feel it in my back and my throat and in the way my nose tingles the way it always does right before I cry. I feel it. I wait for it to pass. I send a verbal thank you out for the life I am now living and where it can lead. There’s the ache in my shoulder, the pinprick in my scapula that always comes when I can’t do anything about something painful. I feel it.

Knowing with every ounce of marrow in all my bones that this feeling will never go away. Not as long as he lives. So I will sit with it. And try not to Clint Eastwood my life.

I’ve got to ask myself one question: Do I feel lucky?

Thank You for Not Ghosting Me

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One hundred and forty-six days ago I took the final step away from a relationship that was, virtually, eating me alive. Almost eight years total and the last three had been brutal. In just one summer of one of those last three years, I lost forty pounds and spent my birthday in the ER with symptoms of a heart attack. My friends and family, who knew only part of the story, were beside themselves. I could see it in their eyes, hear it in their voices. I could almost hear them saying what the fuck are you doing? 

I was somewhat unusual in that I knew what was happening was not OK, I knew I wasn’t crazy, I knew it wasn’t all my fault. And still I stayed. For so many reasons. Some days were good and so I hung onto those ferociously to keep from having to leave. 

I didn’t allow myself to face things I am only now able to look in the eye directly – and even now with great pain and an urge to look away from it all that is so strong that it nearly buckles my knees some days – because I needed it all to work out. I needed it to be transformed into something redemptive.  

And facing the truth of who I was with – and what was being done to me – would mean I had to leave, right away, forever.  That’s how I was so typical. So many of us stay, even when we know we deserve better, because we think we can strong arm the situation into something healthy. We think we can fix it. 

These last one hundred and forty-six days have made it impossible to not face the truth of what I lived in, though. The first ninety days after I banished him from my home for good were such a bizarro land of him doing and saying things that went so much lower than I had even imagined would happen. So much. So fucking much. And I was prepared for some serious hatred and character attacks. 

The last fifty-six days haven’t been a cakewalk, for sure, and my future, because we share a child, will always have these landmines and the hangover of what people around him will always believe of me no matter how untrue.  I’m surprised, maybe weekly now instead of daily (thank lawd), that I’m still surprised by what he will say about me or accuse me of or the action he will take to try to force me to comply with his reality. The tactics he will employ to try to make me afraid to go against his demands.  

This is my life now. Still far better than it was one hundred and forty-six days ago. 

A Facebook friend recently posted an article about ghosting friends who are in toxic relationships. It made my chest ache when I saw it. I imagined the last three years with my closest friends slowly disappearing from my life.  

I get it. I do. That sometimes you have to do that. That sometimes you just want to and, because everyone gets to make their own lives what they want (need) them to be, it’s a choice that each person gets to make without being guilted into staying connected. I get it.  

All I could think about the night I read that article (and the next day – and still, really, weeks later), though, is how fortunate I am that my closest friends, the women who always have my back even when I seemingly don’t have my own, never did that. They were always there – via email or phone or text (and when I was lucky enough, in person) – to listen and hold me up when I thought the world was, literally, falling out from underneath me. And I do mean literally. There was a whole year where I had to, often, tell my brain that I was not actually stepping into a sinkhole that would swallow me whole. Literally. I had to say that to myself and breathe slowly and leave work, sometimes, to convince my body I was safe. 

Trauma is fucked up like that. You can know – and still not know – that you are not about to die from the pain and uncertainty and emotional fuckery. When my daughter was born, my doula gave me the mantra the only way out is through and, in the toughest year of triggers that made me feel, daily, like I could literally lose my attachment to gravity and be flung from the earth, I used that same mantra.  

The only way. Get through.  

If I hadn’t had the handful of friends who knew more than anyone else about the illusion my whole life had been until 2016, I may still be on that hamster wheel of false life or death moments. 

My friends, the women I love as much as I can love any human I did not birth, not only took every call, responded to every text, made last minute plans to drive three hours to spend the weekend with me, dropped plans to let me come hide out at their houses on weekends I couldn’t stand to look at my house and see everything that it no longer was, let me fly up to see them and hide out for a few glorious days while I complained and complained and cried – they not only did these things, but they did it without telling me I had to leave him, without telling me I was a fool for believing it would change when the mountain of our own history showed that wouldn’t happen, when his own words and heartless reactions to his own lies and betrayals showed so clearly that it would never happen.  

They just sat with me. Laughed with me or let me cry. Without judgment and without demands.  

I can’t even imagine how hard that was on certain days – hell, most daysI am a fixer and so it’s the hardest thing in the world for me to not see the escape, see the solution – to not say stop it now before you shave off even more of yourself. For fuck’s sake, get out now and demand a better life. 

I read an article tonight about how to support a friend in an abusive relationship. I’ll put the link to that article at the end of this post because I think it goes against every after-school special we’ve ever seen, in some ways, because it says to do exactly what my friends did for me. Which, I think, in the moment, can feel like nothing. Certainly, like not enough. Even like enabling.  

It had to feel like a long, long time of me not choosing the right thing. Like forever of just being there for me. It had to be hard to sit there with me and be in my moment instead of the one they wished for me. 

Now, they cheer me on and prop me up when the craziness of what I’m up against teeters on the peak of almost absurd but so fucking sad and scary. Now they let me send them screen shots and anecdotes of the insanity coming at me and give me space to share the things I can’t share anywhere else.  

Now they tell me, even though they knew so early that what was happening was far from OK: it was abuse, I’m so glad you can see that now and start to heal. They help me own it and face it and name it. 

I wasn’t ready to leave – wasn’t at all ready to see it for what it was – until I was ready. One hundred and forty-six days ago.  I can imagine how much more lonely and hopeless I would have been – and I was already so lonely and hopeless for the last few years – if my friends had decided that they couldn’t be there for me as I hit my head on the same wall of this can be fixed for so goddamned long. If they let getting tired of my same old bullshit force a distance between us. 

I don’t have any doubts that their one-thousand-plus days of listening to me complain and cry about the same damn thing as though it wasn’t the same damn thing happening over and over is why I now have one hundred and forty-six days of my home being free of gaslighting and mind-fucking. Of a new hope for what my future can be instead of strings and strings of days of being unsure and unhappy and staying in what had become normal instead of weather the hurricane that ending it would (did) cause.  

I was terrified of what would happen after I ended it. I had seen into his past and seen actual messages to his ex-wife when she finally called it for good. I was afraid because I had seen what my future was and it took a lot of strength to know I could handle that and stay calm and steady for my daughter at the same time. 

And I was right to be terrified. It was, temporarily, worse than staying. I could have stayed in the pain I knew forever to avoid the gauntlet I had to run to get to today. If I hadn’t felt like I had friends who would instantly know that what was happening was made up and retaliation and desperate attempts to preserve his own false image – that what he was saying out loud and all over social media was horse-shit – I may have stayed much, much longer.  

If I had had to stay silent all those years because no one wanted to hear it, those first ninety days free may have been too much to bear.

Without those friends who knew our past and who I could turn to with the shorthand that comes from sharing the deepest, darkest stuff with someone who just holds a space for you to share what you are ready to share, I don’t know when I would have taken the leap. 

So ghost if you have to – really, I mean it. You can’t destroy yourself or your family for someone else. But also know that just listening, even if your friend seems like she’ll never ever figure it out to get her ass free, helps. Just having that space, that outlet, to feel loved and heard and not countered and not ordered to do a certain thing, can be what saves her, eventually. What gives her the strength to weather the fall out of leaving.  

That having someone to turn to, even when you’re not ready to make the leap, can be exactly what gives you the energy and will to start building an escape hatch.  

I will never not owe this handful of women for what and who they were for me through these last few years of my life. They are an integral part of my daughter getting to grow up with a different version of how people treat each other, of having a mama who’s not in and out of doctor’s offices and crying into bath towels as soon as I can hear her snores in the next room, of not learning that you put on a good face and truck through your day as best you can because you’re terrified of the alternative. 

Thank you, ladies, for not telling me what to do and for not, also, completely biting your tongues. For meeting me wherever I was on any given day. It’s nice to meet you in this place today. Thank you for sticking around and helping me get here. May I be half the friend each of you have been for me. May you never need me in the ways I needed (and still need) you. 

 

https://breakthesilencedv.org/the-value-of-being-heard/?fbclid=IwAR0sED7ip6aRLGKC5CH7DxkV912g4e7hYfCLl1rr9JbPFyvcuxk3PpnaT3A 

Ten Years

 

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Chipped my tooth on an engagement ring
That’s bad luck (bad luck)
Could have stopped any one of these things
But that would have been bad luck.
– 
Neko Case, “Bad Luck”

 

I grabbed a glass out of the freezer to enjoy an early evening beer after a lazy day of chores as my daughter dressed as a mermaid and put on play makeup and took fake selfies with her three foot tall princess dolls using her toy phone.

It hit me at the same time that I noticed my own fingerprint in the frost on the glass: I turned in the keys to the space that used to my cafe ten years ago yesterday. Ten years. 

I thought of that me I was ten years ago today: I had no idea what was next. No idea.

I planned on staying in Portland.  No doubt about it.

I started this blog. I had time and energy. To get back to writing. To figure out what I really wanted out of life now. I could maybe work part-time after all those years of six and seven day work weeks of 50-80 hours.

I knew, though, that Portland would be home. I felt sure that the relationship and house I was in would stay static.

Exactly one year after handing over the cafe key, I handed my house key over to the woman who had been my love for thirteen years and, with a ruptured ear drum and a lump in my throat, loaded my tiny Prius to the brim with plants and boxes and two chihuahuas and prepared to move back to California.

My mother was mad and missing. There had been a murder in my childhood home and it would, soon, be my job to do the first, tough weeks of the post-investigation clean-up of  that house. My sister was about to get out of rehab for the second time. I was trying desperately not to love a married man and I was with someone else whose house I would use as my refuge for the last few days in Oregon before driving through the border mountains with the split in my ear making crackling sounds that seemed like alien transmissions on an old radio broadcast

But ten years ago today, I didn’t know any of that. None of it. Not an inkling of what was about to start to happen. Where all of that would lead.

Today, I took a break from chores to read an article on healing from emotional abuse. Abuse. A word I am having trouble typing (or saying) but know is absolutely the right word (even typing it here is making my eyes well up with water).

It was the kind of article with a numbered list of things to do. Those lists we long for when we are feeling things we don’t want to feel – those lists that are so seductive and easy to swallow and give us anchors when the uncertainty of what’s to come rushes over us like a riptide.

I was just sitting on my bed reading it, really just trying to find a good book to read on the process of healing after a separation from that kind of relationship, just taking it in with composure and an analytical approach. Until the last numbered task: forgive yourself.

Deep breath in and then the tears came before I could even start the long exhale that was supposed to help keep the tears from coming. I wept. From a deep place inside that I have to keep at bay during most hours of the day. I wept for only a few minutes. My daughter was awake and I stopped reading and got back to doing.

Something.  Anything.

Ten years.

Ten years I could have never predicted. That girl giving her doll a fake bottle of apple juice in that other room the biggest and most unexpected surprise to the self I was on February 2nd, 2010.

What I gave up to have her the biggest and most unexpected shock, still, to the self I am today.

Where I am now is better than one year ago, than even six months ago. This a truth I can’t possible lose sight of no matter how hard the day. No matter how hard.

Like ten years ago, though, there is so much uncertainty. So very much swimming through each day working to stay true and strong without knowing where I will end up even one day later. Where I will find the strength and wisdom to help her through this new reality.

But so much I do know.  The calm of my bedroom (the room most rife with tension and fear in the last four years before the final end) a constant, vivid reminder of what I know to be true and right. A nightly reminder that there really is nothing to miss in that life I believed in that didn’t ever actually exist.

I go into the living room and help my daughter take a real ‘selfie’ with her dolls and I start to pick up some of the chaos of this lazy Sunday and she kneels down to playfully slip me a fabric rose under a door as she hides her mermaid tail and giggles quietly.

I get to more doing, that moving prayer of those of us sitting with discomfort and trying to trust in time and intention to help us through. As Neko Case sings in the background.  As my daughter and I dance across the room. As the calm of my home, as it now exists, soothes us both into daydreams and worlds of magic and make-believe. As the late afternoon sun streams through the large west-facing window in the living room.

That list will have to wait. I’m not there yet. I want to be but we all know that want doesn’t give a shit about us. It comes when it comes. When it’s time.

I will be there someday. I know it.

Like I knew, ten years ago, that taking that leap, jumping without knowing what came next, would lead me to something I couldn’t imagine living without. Like I knew, without knowing, that life would change in unimaginable ways just by making the right, hard choices and staying strong and trusting in the process.

For now, I sing with Neko, wishing my voice was better than the one I have, and I help my daughter find the LOL doll she had minutes ago but now can’t find and I toast to all the things that will happen in the next ten years that I can’t possibly predict. Combing over Broken Cross I held onto you, haunted by the ghost of something new.

Something new.

 

Standing Solo

You have to say I am forgiven again and again
until it becomes the story you believe about yourself. 
– Cheryl Strayed

This morning, I stood alone in court, asking to take six little letters off of my daughter’s birth certificate. So she’ll hopefully never know they were there. So I will hopefully never have to tell her why they had to disappear. Never have to say out loud to her the reason she has three names where four used to be.

Her father, the person who picked that name and is the reason it has to be struck from my life and hers, was a no show.

He had to sign the form requesting the hearing. He had to sign it twice because I tried to file in 2017 but couldn’t bring myself to face a stranger with the story of why it needed to be changed and so the forms sat, in a drawer in the dining room, for two years, unfiled.  They sat in that drawer so long that the required forms had changed slightly and I had to have him sign the new ones.

When I presented him with the new papers this summer, he glared at me. He was mad. Irritated. Lashed out at me. But I held them in front of him and said please please please don’t make this harder.

I stood still and held them steady on the table in front of him and waited.

He signed.  He said he would show up to do the right thing.

I finally waited in line and wrote the painfully large check for the filing fee and got the officially stamped copy two months ago. I sent him the date and asked him to pay for the newspaper post. He refused and told me that this was my thing. Not his. Mine. 

He said some cruel things and stared at me with eyes that cut me to the bone and I had to leave work for ten minutes to cry in my car. As he watched me get into my car, sobbing, he posted on social media that he needed an academy award to hand to someone.

Four days ago, when I reminded him that the hearing was this week, he attacked me in email and said I never told him. Said if I paid him some money he’d see what he could do about showing up. Said I was harassing him and bullying him.

When I sent that dry, fact based reminder email four days ago, I had made the mistake of asking him to not salt the wound with any reply other than he would be there or he would not.  It was like I opened up my arm in front of a shark.

I know better.

Avalanches of salt.

Instantly, again, I was transported back.

To when I sat on my bed one summer day in 2016 and read email after email between him and another woman who he’d been secretly meeting with, who he’d been sexting with, who he’d asked for advice on how to propose, who he’d sent photos of the nursery I was making for our daughter, who he stopped off to meet with on work runs to only hug her while I was home nursing our daughter.

In the middle of those emails I learned that they were going to name their daughter that name if they had stayed together so many decades earlier when they had dated, when they had first been in love.

She brought it up to him and asked if that’s what we were going to name our daughter.  I could piece together that it had been days later when he added it to our name list and said he’d just been sitting around trying to think about musical names. That he’d just thought of that one and really liked it.

I remember the color of the comforter I sat on as I read that email and the way my leg had started cramping from sitting in that position for so long as my daughter napped and I excavated piles of information that I never ever wanted to know.

I struggled for months and months with what to do but I knew in my very core that that name had to go. So I had to stop pretending there was any way around it. I asked family to stop calling her by that name. I took down the birth announcement I had lovingly stuck to the refrigerator during her first week of life.

Her.  The most perfect and miraculous thing in my life could not possible remind me… for all of my life, for all of her life….of his lies and betrayals.

The name had to go.  The name has to go.

He begrudgingly agreed.  For years. He would get terse and short with me if it came up, but he would say, go do it -fine.

Today, though, there I stood: alone. Tears welled up in in my eyes.

I’d spent days praying – yes, praying – that his no-show would mean they’d grant the request instead of that it would be denied and I’d have to refile. Pay another $435 dollar fee and another $130 to post a public notice (public!) to give anyone a chance to object. Take him to court to make him show up and consent, again.

I received a call two days ago that her father hadn’t signed the form in all the required places. From the judge. The actual judge. My stomach fell.

No I said. He definitely signed it.

The judge looked again. I had missed a signature.

Oh, never mind he said. You can just sign it when you come.

I said, as I scrunched my face anxiously and braced myself, But he said he’s not coming now. I don’t know that it will matter if I show up.

I held my breath.

He signed the form. You’re good. You sign it when you’re here and it’ll be done.

I exhaled. I don’t even remember what I said next or how the conversation ended.

You can’t stop this now I thought. You can’t, also, take this from me. You can try but I can do this alone, now, without you. 

It is done. As with most things, without you.

I have forgiven a lot of him in the last four years. A lot. Way more than the incident that led to this court date. I tried for years to still make it work. Even now, as he’s attacked me on all fronts and posted lies about me online, I’ve held onto the knowledge that those things speak about him and not about me. I’ve pitied him the kind of life that makes people damage the ones who love them so easily and so thoroughly instead of dealing with their own pain.

But this? This. I don’t know. The simple fact he would extort me over this.

That he actually didn’t show up, fully believing, as I had for months now, that it would mean I had wasted all my time and money and would be stuck with that name attached to my most precious love. Knowing it would be the thing that hurts me the most.

Maybe someday.

Maybe someday, surely someday, I can forgive him for being so unable to deal with his own damage that he left me, alone and in tears, to have to decide what to do with these six letters that I want my daughter to never ever know. That he left me alone to send out a sterile courtroom prayer into the air that his deeds don’t have to taint the very thing that matters most to me.

So she never has to know that her mother’s love and faith and trust and what brought her beautiful stubborn intuitive self into this world was a yarnball of lies and deception and pain.

So she could hang onto the fantasy that things just didn’t work out.

I will always sugarcoat him for her. At least until she’s an adult and comes to me with questions and will, surely by then, have seen him for who he really is no matter how hard I try to shield her from that.

I will protect her image of him as long as I can – as I am doing now even when she looks up at me and says, of him, I hope he’s not lying, because my alert, attentive, smart little girl has already seen him lie too many times.

Even through those heartbreaking moments he will benefit from my maturity and integrity and my marrow-deep love for her. He’s not lying, sweetie, he just got confused.

But forgiveness?  Right now? For this loneliest of moments? My first time in front of a judge and for this humiliating reason? That kind of forgiveness feels like a make-believe planet in a make-believe show on a make-believe network right now.

As I have done before with some of the hardest things to forgive of him, I will float in the integrity of doing the right thing each day, minute by minute, and hope that a wash of understanding and forgiveness will come over me in an unexpected moment of reflection. That I will someday feel the lightness of the sharp pain suddenly not being there. The absence of that deep ache like wings, even if only momentarily.

That someday, eventually, I will be taken back to that hopeless lonely memory of my feet on that courtroom floor and my eyes damp and pleading, of me shaking as I signed the form in front of the judge and the clerk, first trying with a pen that wouldn’t work and then fumbling for another before finally scrawling my name on the required line.

Someday, eventually, I will remember all of that and think of how sad it is for him that he can’t be present to do the right things. I will forgive him the pain it caused me and my daughter. Because it was never really about us.

I will float in the daily doing of what is right and necessary, knowing that I will forgive, someday.

That I will forgive myself for needing to be in that courtroom, alone, sad and angry and lost (again), because of him.

That I will forgive myself.

 

Traveled Down This Road and Back Again

belly 2014

Sometime around 4am I drifted off to sleep. Just before that, I could hear Rose and Blanche and Sophia bantering back and forth.  I could see, when I opened my eyes slightly, as the swift kick of a muscle contraction yanked me out of near slumber, the bathroom light seeping into the hallway.  I could hear the boy snoring in the bedroom while I laid myself out on the couch, fidgeting fidgeting fidgeting with each pain. Self-exiled so that at least one of us could sleep.

I was forty. And pregnant for the first time. And despite hopes that this was one of those freakish not-miscarriages that feels just like a miscarriage – I was in the front end of my body saying nonononononono.

It wasn’t lost on me at all that the only thing to finally lull me to sleep in those wee hours of that first night was hours of back to back Golden Girls episodes.

Getting pregnant at 40 makes you acutely aware of how old you are. Everywhere you turn, there it is. Geriatric pregnancy. Statistics and data and those damn gray hairs in the roots you are too paranoid to dye right now.  

I didn’t feel old, though, lying on that couch, hoping against hope that this wasn’t what I knew it was. I was just a body in pain. A heart aching. I watched Rose dump a rude guy.  I watched Dorothy push that man out of their house.  I watched Sophia crack wise before the music ramped up for the credits.

Valentines Day that year was supposed to be an extraordinarily happy day.  By chance, my first prenatal appointment was scheduled for that morning.  We both thought: how perfect.  Instead, my first pregnancy ultrasound was three days earlier and to confirm that my uterus was emptying itself completely.

I decided young – at about twenty-two – that I wasn’t going to have children.  For a variety of reasons, really, but mostly because I didn’t know if I could handle the potential heartbreak that comes with parenting.  The soul crushing loss that looms over you the minute your heart opens that wide.

I spent nearly a decade and a half with someone who felt the same way, at least about having children. Our reasons were different, but our decision the same.  When I found myself single at thirty-six, I thought, I could change my mind and not have to discuss it. I can just decide for myself. But I better decide soon.

I went back and forth with myself. For three years I could feel the edge of the fence burrowing into me; my life will be great without kids and my life could be great with kids. Even when I found myself in love with someone who I knew would love to have another child, I kept the waffling to myself. What to do? What to say?

I couldn’t bear the thought of sharing my indecision and getting his hopes up only to land back at the same position I was in when I met him (& had, of course, shared with him only weeks into dating).

Even when we talked about it and decided to just leave it to fate – see what happens – I was of ten different minds about it. I knew if I got pregnant, I would be happy. Certainly terrified, but glad.

Despite being an old broad, it happened fast. Within a month of going off of the pill. The night I read pregnant on the test, I couldn’t sleep. I was wired. The boy: ecstatic, but not worried at all. He snored and I sat up in bed with my mind spinning and spinning and spinning. I worried enough for both of us. What am I doing? Holy shit, did I really really want this?

As I sat on the table in that doctor’s office at only eight weeks pregnant – or, I guess, unpregnant – weeping, I knew that I did really want it. And that was the scariest of all.  I want this.

I went home and dozed off more, the echos of Rose and Blanche and Dorothy in my head. I went back to work the next morning and the next, my body still twisting and cramping and ending what I hadn’t even been sure I could have.

***

Eleven months later I was at a small theater in San Francisco to see Trannyshack reenact Golden Girls’ episodes – a San Francisco Christmas tradition. I had been to see them two years before but this time I was 37 weeks pregnant.

I was swollen and huge and stone cold sober. The show, as usual, was flawless. I couldn’t help think about that night in February where the TV looped into my fitful sleep – smaller versions of these women sound-tracking my pain.

I teared up when the whole theater sang the theme song in unison as a man played it on a piano tucked off stage right.  I had heard that song at least a dozen times that long, painful night on the couch. So so many times.

I’m ready this time, I thought. Ready.

Pregnancy is the most miraculous and mundane thing. You are doing what millions and millions have done before you and yet – and yet – I was stopped in my tracks constantly by my own body making a human out of almost nothing.

In ten days, I would go into labor and push this little girl into the world, complete with all of my hopes and dreams and fears for her. The stone cold fear of what I would do if anything awful happens to her. The full knowledge that I can’t save her from pain or heartache or injury.  So much to fear when you crack your ribs open and let your heart fill all that space with so much love.

But that night – that night –  we were just one being about to be two, laughing and listening and singing the theme song along with a few hundred other people. My heart is true. My belly rising and falling with each chuckle. Her body jostled by the sound and the motion of my joy.

After the show, we stood in line to take pictures with the cast. When Dorothy saw my stomach, she gasped. How far along? Whoa! Well, Sophia can be your midwife, we’ll just clear that table and Rose can get you some hot water.

My tiny, nestled little water breathing daughter was deemed the youngest guest ever. What better title is there for the soon-to-be-born daughter of an old broad like me?

My prayer that night, carried out in laughs and giggles: may we be Dorothy and Sophia, bound even in the most fragile of times by pure love, tethered like we were in those moments in that theater, by blood and biology and magic, so usual and so miraculous.

Thank you for showing up when I thought my body would reject you, too.

Thank you for hanging on for the whole long road to birth.

Thank you for being the one.

Thank you for being….

In the Daylight Again

“Could it be I was the one
That you held so deep in the night?
On the back staircase
You fell to your knees with tears in your eyes
All that you suffered, all the disease
You couldn’t hide it, hide it from me.”
Salt and the Sea, Lumineers

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The second of three times that he walked out, it was late at night and my daughter had awoken to our raised voices. The first time ever. The last time ever.

And I had covered her ears, while I held her, and yelled at him to stop. Stop talking. Stop yelling. Stop spewing words and just breathe. All I said out loud was: Stop!

He left, clothes in hand and keys on the table. And texted me later that he wasn’t coming back.

Alone, I rubbed my daughter’s back and sang her to sleep. In the morning, when she asked about Daddy, I had to tell her he wasn’t going to come back to live in this house. And then all the other stuff you say, through the ache in your chest that makes it so hard to talk: he loves you tons, we both love you, that will never change.

And before you can get her dressed for preschool, she grabs you and cries. And you hold her and stay cool and calm as tears roll out of your eyes because you can’t believe, yet again, you are the one doing the actual work. Alone. Cleaning up the mess all alone.

She holds you and you hold her and you both cry. You tell her you know it’s sad and confusing. You tell her to use her words whenever she can so you can know what she’s thinking and feeling. Even if you’re really mad at me, you say, tell me and it’s ok. We have to really tell each other what we’re feeling, ok? Because we’ve got each other here and I want to always listen to what you have to say, ok?

She uses that line on you to try to get ice cream for dinner six days later and that’s when you finally feel in your bones that she will be ok – because you will listen, you will pay attention, you will make damn sure she gets through this as unscathed as possible. And she tells you, even when she doesn’t want ice cream: We’ve got each other here, Mama, we always will.

Still, you try to work things out while separated and finally hit a point, one night, where you realize that there’s no saving it because the old habits are back and even just the beginning of them has squashed the desire you had been hanging onto like a chemistry-driven life preserver. . . *poof* . . . gone.

And so you make that one last step apart. And wait for the wrath. And you don’t have to wait long. Seconds, really. And then you try to explain. But then, no longer on that disorienting planet of do I or Don’t I? Stay or Go? you are able to silence yourself. Finally, you don’t need to try to be understood. It never worked anyway. You failed at that effort over and over and over and over.

Now? Just protect your daughter from all the ways this new reality can harm her.

Now? You just focus in on that effort like an eccentric scientist in a house on a hill.

Now? Certainty.

Certainty.

In a rush you didn’t expect. With a fullness you couldn’t have even hoped for at any point in these last three years.

 

 

For three years, I haven’t been able to listen to music in the car when I’m alone without crying at some point. Some song will trigger something from the worst of the betrayals. Or some song will be about the kind of love you wish you had. The kind you thought you had until three years ago.  Something in some song will be like a time release pellet hiding in stealth to undo your calm and detached highway serenade.

So I avoided music when alone, even when I had to start a three hour round trip commute to another work location once or twice a week, and I gave in to audiobooks. Finally started in on podcasts. And for three years, unless I was driving somewhere far enough away that crying could be recovered from: I listened to people talk instead of sing. Hours and hours of talking. Music was only when other people were with me – like my heart and my eyes had shields that disappeared as soon as there was no one around.

The last few weeks have been a shitload of shit for me. I am having the kind of family issue back in my hometown that involves CPS and fighting to keep a three year old safe. I’m trying my best to help long distance and not feel helpless when he keeps getting yanked back and forth. When he’s picked up by police wandering, barefoot, with his younger sibling, on railroad tracks in the middle of the day.

And I’m having medical tests that not only scare me for what they could show, but also because *gawdblessAmerica* they’re so fucking expensive.

The weight of work responsibilities and family responsibilities and facing this health stress (both of body and wallet) have been swarming me like a hive of bees and I’ve been blowing smoke with every breath to keep them just barely at bay, just enough to finish each task at hand, carefully and fully and scared nearly to death that if I pause long enough to feel the weight, I will dissolve into thin air.

 

 

And then: the end.

Of this relationship trying to limp back into something it never really was: honest and healthy. Of the family I thought I was creating that I’ve chipped away at myself for three long years trying to create out of this mess. The future I wanted so badly for my daughter. A story fit for the “we came out of this stronger” cliché you see in every dumb self-help book (Yes, I read quite a few of those betrayal books in 2016 and tried, unsuccessfully, to burn one of them in our gas BBQ back in 2017, when he walked out for the first time).

Chipped away until I was sure all that was left of me was some sort of honeycombed skeleton on the downward slide to old age.

The. End.

The funny thing is, today, only six days into the official end of this era of my life, I listened to a whole record – twice through! – on my hour and a half commute today. Sang along with it.

And – no tears. Not even close.

When I realized this, I looked in the rear view mirror, as I stopped at a light, staring at my eyes to see if they were, shockingly, actually dry only to realize that I had forgotten to put concealer under my eyes. And yet: no bags.

I didn’t even wear concealer until a few weeks ago and I thought I had just hit a point where I was old and had bags. I knew I was under stress. And crying a lot over home life. But I really thought I had hit an under-eye-baggage tipping point. Like my chipped away self, I was sure I had done irreparable damage to my under eye real estate by pushing myself through all of these attempts to make a lie something honest, like you could actually see the work of it carved in dark semi-circles under my eyes.

I was instantly reminded of when I closed my café in 2010.

It was such a tough decision. I sunk so much time and money and heart, especially at the end, trying to get through the economic bullshit of the mid 2000s. My body ached. I had knee pains. Sometimes when I got home I couldn’t get back up off of the couch without groaning.

I was 35.

Part of the decision to not renew the lease and just count it as an expensive five year adventure that had so much good to it was that it had aged me to, maybe, 50. I believed I had sped up my own aging from all the physical work and stress that I could only see a future where I would feel 80 at 50.

I was so sure that I had permanently damaged my body that I needed to cut my losses then and not make it worse.

And then, about a week after being fully done with the whole dismantling of the space and selling off the pieces, I found myself fake-waltzing across my kitchen floor while cooking dinner. Singing along with a song and gliding across the floor in circles – coming back to the stove to stir a risotto and then gliding in a circle again, lost in the joy of a song and a body not completely exhausted.

I literally stopped, as though I had just seen myself for the first time in years, and teared up from joy. I wasn’t aching. My knee didn’t hurt. My shoulder wasn’t sore from tamping hundreds of pucks of espresso out of a portafilter for an eleven hour shift.

I was ok. Better than ok. I felt light.

Whatever sadness there had been in handing back those keys and abandoning the dream of watching those exact neighborhood kids grow up and out of the neighborhood – it had all been so so right. I could literally feel the rightness in my body only days after being so sure I was always going to feel too old.

 

 

I needed to let him walk out three times, even though after two I swore I would never let him do it a third time. I needed to try and try and try – even after three (!) different therapists (one who was our couples counselor) asked me, alone, some version of the same questions . . . why do you keep chipping away at yourself when this isn’t going to change and it’s not about willingness it’s about capability and why are you holding on so tight?

I needed to try and try and try and try again, because I loved him, sure. But more because I needed to know that whatever happened, it was the right thing for my daughter. And because I was, only barely subconsciously, terrified of the immediate aftermath more than the long term struggle. I was bartering with the devil in hopes he’d grant me my wish: let me find the magic spell to make this all whole again (even though I knew it had never actually been whole). Please. Help me not have to live through the terrifying in between time  – in between this loss of balance and the life I knew I really deserved.

I was hobbling myself to try to force what I wanted to be right for my daughter instead of what was.

I needed to keep giving myself away, piece by piece, so I knew I hadn’t left any option unturned.

And I really did believe, until today, that I had done real damage to myself, physically, that I had aged myself irrevocably. But that it was worth it, if only so I could look in my daughter’s eyes, whenever she was old enough to really, really ask, and say, without a doubt, that I had done everything I could, short of dying trying, to salvage the family I wanted and intended for her before having to let it go. I needed to know that sentence would be truer than true.

That I had done everything. 

Then. In that car today. I was singing without tears – some really tragic songs as a matter of fact. Some beautifully painful songs about love and family and addiction that are hitting me in a very soft spot right now.

I saw my eyes. Framed by the rectangle of the rear view mirror. And they looked fine.

Better than fine.

No tears. No bags. Like I had reversed the effects I’d noticed the week before in less time than it takes to reach the weekend.

I realized I was still waltzing. Lighter on my feet, truthfully, than I’d been in over three years.

Lighter.

And the speakers in the car went on: I’ll be your friend in the daylight again.

We’ve got this, my eyes said. Take the wheel and sing. You’re ok.

And I kept singing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Deny Me and Be Doomed ~ on self-hatred and public safety

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I am sick to my stomach.  I have been for days. The news out of Orlando is heartbreaking. So so heartbreaking. Early reports today that the shooter in Orlando may have been gay have hit me in a very particular way and added a whole new layer to my sadness. Of course, the killing of one group over another isn’t ever more or less sad, but these deaths struck me in a very specific way from the beginning – as school shootings hit parents in a very specific way – not that the deaths are more or less tragic, it’s just that the pain nestles into a soft spot you have inside of you – one so tender and deep that any poking at it can be felt through your whole body. It’s not just sadness or fear – it’s an aching that radiates through your entire being.

Those folks in Orlando are my people. I don’t know them – not a single one – but they are my folks. I am with a man now and have a baby, so people read me as straight and I just have to live with that as the default assumption. When I was with a woman, I was read as gay. Both are untrue but fighting that misconception daily takes an effort I don’t currently have time for – I have oatmeal to make and diapers to change and a job to make it to and a home to keep together. But I won’t shy away from the truth of who I am – or feel like it’s not still my fight. I can’t just pretend that who I am is inherently different because I fell in love with a man.  If I stay with this man for the rest of my life, I am still a queer woman. My past is not erased by my present.

Had this been in any number of other cities, these would be my friends, my kin, my clan. I would be attending funerals instead of just crying at home.

My gut reaction when I heard reports that two men kissing had so enraged the shooter that he armed up and went into that club was that he was overrun with self-loathing and was, most likely, queer. But just as I wasn’t going to assume it was an Islamic act of terrorism or an orchestrated attack on the gay community nationwide, I also wasn’t going to assume that my gut was right. After all, I tend to think that about a lot of people: anti-gay Republicans, reparative therapy gurus, vehemently anti-gay preachers.  Usually there’s a thread of truth in it.  But sometimes not.

And I don’t want to contribute to the frenzy of conclusion-jumping and information hand-picking that happens like an epidemic in these times of crisis. In times like this, when we are all afraid and sad and lost, we want answers. Fast. Easy. Easily organized and ready for filing in our mental libraries.  Ways to wrap up what we cannot fathom and put it away. Me, too.  I want that. My brain tries to tidy it all up.

My first instinct was that this man hated himself and who he was. It looks like I was probably right. Even though I didn’t know if I wanted to be or not. I only know that I wanted it to not have happened. Like a child caught lying, I wanted for time to roll back and for the story to change.

Self-loathing. So deep and hard and sharp that it’s part of one of the most tragic stories of our time. It’s not the whole story, for sure. In all of this gun talk and anti-Muslim rhetoric, though, I don’t want it to get lost that we live in a place that has historically made it difficult – what can feel at times impossible – to be ok with being queer if that’s what you wake up one day and have to face.  The weight of the air shifts around you and presses against your rib-cage and changes the very way you breathe.

As self-assured, as loud-mouthed, as unapologetic as I am (and have been) about the life that has been mine to live, I struggled with feelings of shame and embarrassment and – much to a shocked 24-year-old me: self-loathing.  I did not even come close to harming anyone else over it – perhaps, at least in part, because I knew there was nothing wrong with loving someone else whose body was much like mine. I knew it even though the discomfort wrapped around me like a vise.

I was in a city that wasn’t accepting. I was in a family that wasn’t accepting. I was in a country where, even if it was ‘ok’, it was still a joke, the punchline, the insult, the pejorative for something dumb or lame or weak. I live in a country that produces the Fred Phelps of this world, the Focus on the Family groups, the legislators who try to police your every move if you don’t fit the sexual norm, the ballots where the public votes for my very basic rights as a human.

I live in a country that says I am, at the very least, an aberration. It could be worse. The news tells me that all the time. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy here.

It’s exhausting. And lonely. And painful. Physically painful. To battle it out with yourself because you don’t know if you have it in you to battle it out with all those other people.

I never struggled with religion. Never. I did not have to carry that weight.

And yet.

The weight was almost unbearable for a short time in my twenties.  So spine-tingling painful that I still tear up writing about it.  When my  parents wouldn’t talk to me, wouldn’t let me in unless I changed, I had urges to literally just bang my head up against the wall. The world felt that hard and solid and unforgiving. Impermeable. Impassable. Impossible.

I never felt like God was against me. I can’t even imagine that weight. I may have never made it here, to this place in my life, had I had that struggle to deal with as well. A whole universe of forces against you.  Unimaginable.

I am not excusing that man’s behavior. In no way. It sickens me. It wrenches every cell of my being to imagine the pain of the people who knew and loved those who died that night. Or the pain and trauma of those who were ‘lucky’ enough to survive.  There was more at play in the time leading up to those shots than just self-loathing. He was clearly not a stable soul and no one thing can easily tie this up for us. But we can’t just gloss over the effects of being made to feel despicable and disgusting by the very groups and people who are supposed to love us and hold us afloat.

We have blame to hold ourselves, as a society, whether we are one of those people who hate or not, when we raise boys and girls who are so afraid of who they are that the internal pain can’t be held in.  Whether it’s Islam or Christianity or Judaism or Mormonism or JWism or Scientology or whatever other -isms that force a choice between the community and family that are all you’ve ever known or being true to the absolute fact of who you are at your very core. Whatever name or specific prayers or specific passages condemn those who simply want to live their lives to the fullest as queer people, even if there’s no religion, just the force of a family that will no longer keep you or let you in… as long as we let those things go and act like it’s not our problem, then we are helping to create the atmosphere that breeds a tragedy like what happened in Orlando last weekend.

I know people are fighting this fight – have been for decades and decades and decades now. And so much has improved.  But so much hasn’t.  It can’t be enough to just agree that everyone should be accepted for who they love. To say let love win. To say you’re an ally and raise your children to never make anyone else feel like they have to hide or be embarrassed about who they love.  It’s necessary – but not enough.  It may be enough for 2046 (I hope and pray that it is), but it’s not enough for 2016.

When it comes to religion, I don’t know the answers. If you’re raised Mormon, for example, and are gay then you have to decide between being yourself or suppressing it in order to stay with your family. For eternity. It’s easy for us non-aligned or atheist people to dismiss that – to say that they should just be who they are and leave the church. But it’s not easy to give up everything you’ve ever known and everyone you love.  Easy is about the furthest from what making that choice is actually like.

What do we offer those people? How do we fill that void? How do we change the world enough to give them hope and a safe place to be that’s also a place they want to be?  I don’t know.  I just know it’s our duty to try to figure that out. To try to bend the walls enough to make it possible.

It’s a matter of public safety.

It’s a matter of your safety. Your son’s safety. Your mother’s safety.

It may just decide whether someone you love makes it home safe one night.

It’s not personal. It can’t be anymore. It never should have been.

It’s everyone’s business.

Here come the selfish police . . .

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Robin Williams has apparently killed himself. Or at least the initial reports say that it’s most likely suicide.  And as the nation mourns one of its most famous funny men, the social media circus revs up again. Mostly, it is post after post about what this ‘stranger’ meant to someone, about how sad they are even though they did not know him.  Living in the San Francisco Bay Area, it is hard to escape the cloud of sadness – he was a hometown boy made big – made huge, really – and it seems every other person has had a personal encounter with him.

And not because people are lying – or stretching the truth- but because, by all local accounts, he was that kind of guy.  He was kind to people he didn’t know, people who served him, and he was generous with his time and his humor, in all kinds of situations. When someone so funny and so kind-hearted ends their own life, there is a distinct layer to the sadness – for everyone who hears it – an inability to reconcile that kindness with despair.

At the edge of that sad and somber mourning, though, is the same storm of callousness and rage that shows up whenever a celebrity kills themselves, whether by a decisive single act or by addiction. Cries of selfishness. Accusations of being unworthy of respect. Loud ramblings about how this choice is not an illness, but a flaw of character, a moral failing, a way to fail all those who loved him.

Never mind that selfish is rewarded in all kinds of American realms. I’m out to get mine.  I gotta look out for myself. That company was just trying to get the profit it earned. Don’t let anyone get in the way of what you deserve.

Does suicide feel selfish to those left behind? Absolutely. Does the family member of an addict feel their own feelings are being disregarded? Yes. Those left behind feel abandoned, discounted, not important enough.

But looking at the fish in the bowl doesn’t give us any sense of how it feels from the inside, of what the view is while looking from the inside out.

I don’t know the details of Robin Williams’ death and I’m not discussing his struggle specifically. I’m saying that unless you’ve been to the depths that make you seriously plot, plan and even start to execute your own death, then you just can’t know. And even then, you know what it feels like for you.

I can’t know. I can still empathize, imagine, try to understand how to remove my own selfish feelings about another person’s pain so that I can better understand what it is that gets someone to that irrevocable point in time. I can’t, though, even begin to surmise all of the ways that the decision does or does not feel selfish to the person in the throes of making that decision.

Some defenders of those struggling with depression, when faced with the selfish cry, claim that it’s like being angry or chastising someone who dies of cancer.  And I see the point being made – mental illness is an illness. Not a choice.  But the analogy has some major flaws and so I think, sometimes, it does more harm than good. At best, it fails to break through to someone who is convinced that suicide is selfish at its core.

I think suicide is more like someone with cancer who refuses treatment, or gives up on treatment, or who decides that the prognosis is too dire and they end their own life.  We, most of us, have more compassion for that suicidal choice. After all, they have cancer, not a character flaw that makes them weak and selfish. They are taking charge of their own life, choosing not to suffer.

At heart, all pain is equal if it feels insurmountable to the person suffering. Whether it is caused by cancer cells or a brain wired for despair. In either scenario – cancer patient or severely depressed person – the death is a means to end the pain.

There’s more to it, of course, nuance after nuance, but the act itself is an end to suffering and that seems to be its most attractive feature.

Death, any which way, is devastating for those left behind.  And when it’s a suicide, there’s a sadness that digs a whole different whole – one where the what ifs and the I wish I hads can bury the survivors in guilt and regret. And sometimes the way to unbury is to be angry. It’s a natural step in the grieving process.

Some people stay mired in that step. They carry that anger out to everyone who has felt so alone, so worthless, so full of ache and hurt that they ended their life.

If we could only end the stigma of mental illness, and by extension, depression, then people would have more compassion. That’s the party line. And I buy into it. The stigma keeps millions silent. Or, even if not totally silent, it creates a sort of public closet where only those closest to the individual know what is really going on.

I read an article today citing statistics showing that increased awareness of mental illness hasn’t decreased the stigma. Frightening statistics. Those of us who want to remove (or at least minimize) the stigma, who want to look at and treat mentally ill people like the full-fledged human beings that they are, we say awareness is key, that people breaking their silence will only help.

I don’t think that’s untrue. Since dealing with mental illness, very personally, in my own family, my awareness has led to even more compassion and understanding on my part. But I have also never been more afraid of becoming mentally ill than after my mother was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when she was 50.

Completely afraid.

If her, at this age, when am I ever safe?

It is this fear, that we all have, to some degree, that keeps us from being able to address this as we would any other disease.

I was afraid, to some degree, as soon as I became aware of the different kinds of crazy one could be – I used to wonder if I would be the one in my family to lose it. But years passed, as they do, and that fear passed.  Only to resurface when my mother leapt clear from the plane of reality – or so it felt at the time.

It was a traumatic time. For the whole family. Hard to comprehend for close friends of the family. People chiming in that she was just fine when we all knew she wasn’t.

I could lose my train of thought here, get mired in the details of what went wrong, what went right, how the whole mess of madness affected me and my family. But that’s not what I’m trying to get at here.

One of the things I had to come to terms with then – and yet again very recently as another very close family member was hospitalized for bipolar illness – is my own deep-down terror at the thought of losing my mind.

I’m afraid of cancer, of Alzheimer’s, of all sorts of terminal and/or chronic illnesses. But not in the way that I am of mental illness. My mind. It’s who I am – how I have always defined myself. And to be mad is to be dismissed, to be marginal, to be background noise in the everyday.

Unless you can hide it. Unless no one knows. Then, perhaps, you have hope of being taken seriously, of still being a real person worthy of someone else’s respect – not just pity, or even worse, scorn.

I don’t know any solutions. I do believe, though, that if we ignore the fear we all have, ignore the place inside of us that makes it hard to talk to each other about mental illness, the core of terror that makes us afraid to ask a depressed friend if she’s alright and really want an answer – if we can’t face and acknowledge that fear, we will always keep mental illness and those we see as mentally ill at an extended arm’s length away.

If we are guided by that fear, we will always be afraid to ask the real questions and listen to the real answers.

And so isolated people will remain alone to decide to end the pain on their own.

And people can call them selfish instead of looking at ways we all may have failed to reach out and help them see beyond the fish-eye lens of despair.

When do we stop counting on awareness to work as a magical salve and start figuring out how to engage with each other in ways that make working with, living with, sharing space with mentally ill people not seem awkward or uncomfortable or weird? Awareness is a big piece. So is visibility. So is acting past the fear.

How do we break through, as a whole, as a culture, and say yes, this shit is really scary without saying you are not whole? Without saying I am afraid of you?

Because, really, the most selfish thing we can do is let someone we care about suffer alone.