Ten years ago tomorrow, I stood, alone, in the kitchen of a man I thought I loved, after he’d already left for work, and looked around and took one deep, deep breath that I exhaled in several short bursts and said, out loud up toward the ceiling of his tiny, perfect little house: I can’t do this. It’s too hard.
I felt like my ribcage was being stretched by an impossible pressure in my trunk.
I looked at my feet and told them to move. I really did. Out loud.
I moved one leg at a time and drove the eleven hours back to California to live for the first time in nearly a decade.
I felt like I had to do it. I had to come back.
But I hadn’t faced until recently, as I have done the deep, deep accounting of my life that has to be done to heal from and continue to survive the effects of someone else’s abusive rage, I didn’t really want to come back. Not in my bones.
I picked up my two tiny dogs, those little creatures who made it through so much with me and who’ve both since passed, and I clipped them in their dog car seat and backed out of that Oregon man’s driveway.
I drove eleven hours that day. Straight to the room I was renting for five weeks in Oakland.
My Prius hatchback was crammed with clothes and houseplants and everything I needed until I had permanent housing (which ended up taking an endless-feeling five months).
My ear drum had ruptured a week before and I had a bag of cotton balls on the passenger seat and an old, disposable coffee cup filling up with bloody, wet cotton balls in one of the cup holders. Ruptured ear drums leak. Did you know that? I didn’t.
The mountain passes crossing from Southern Oregon into Northern California brought on sounds I could only liken to old radio broadcasts if they had also been spoken by aliens. There were crackles and clicks and pops that had nothing to do with the music coming out of the speakers.
It somehow felt fitting that my body was making itself heard as I crossed the state line and left a place I had fallen deeply in love with and headed for a place I’d lived in most of my life.
I got to West Oakland and I unloaded my car that night, after eleven hours of driving, because it was all essential and I didn’t know if sitting was going to make that pressure in my chest rev up to an unbearable volume again.
Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote about a day ten years before that post (almost exactly one year before me driving to California) when I closed my cafe. In that post I touched on the move and how I had no idea what was coming.
A year ago, in that post, I used the word abuse for the first time in reference to my own life.
In that post I talk about being stopped dead in my tracks by an article that listed forgiving yourself as a necessary step to healing.
I could hardly type the word abuse. I was nowhere near ready to forgive myself. For what happened (& was still happening, is still happening to me) but also for the life that word means for my daughter.
I cry typing the end of that line. I still have to pause and get a tissue and clear my eyes before I can continue typing about how her life is affected by that reality. How facing that fact has changed how I see my choice to become a mother.
But I have done it. And I keep doing it. Over and over and over.
I have forgiven myself.
That spitfire I birthed – without numbing agents and fully alert – deserves better. But better wasn’t in the cards for her. So she can exist – and I can have her in my life – or she can not exist.
There is no abuse-free option for her exactly. But there is still a good life to be had. It just takes some lessons I wish she didn’t have to learn.
How I keep the promise I made to her as I held her on my chest and we stared into each other’s eyes in those first few minutes of her life has changed. But the promise hasn’t.
I promise to always work to do what’s best for you.
I started a memoir over a year ago and I have had it on a hold for many, many months. The question I started with was how did I get in that situation? What was broken that let me let him in?
I gave myself a hard time early on in the quarantine about my lack of work on that project. I know now that the reason I stalled, paused, about a hundred pages into that project is that all the learning and healing and connecting/listening to other survivors has made me come to believe that I was asking the wrong question.
What happened to me has so much less to do with what’s wrong – what’s broken – and has everything to do with what was not broken – what wasn’t broken yet.
But that’s a big digression from the matter at hand – this anniversary I’m marking – and I am working on a post about the way that talking about codependency and the like as ways to understand our abuse is another way to blame the victim.
Ten years ago tonight, I was an Oregon resident. I was spending one last night with a man I didn’t want to leave. I had stolen a few extra days so my eardrum could heal a little and was spending my last night hiding out at his little house in a little Oregon town and I was pretending that my whole world wasn’t about to change.
Being in his house in his small town was the limbo I needed before going from home to home-to-be.
I took a hot bath in his clawfoot tub and I slept next to him, pretending we were just going to go on like this the next day. And the next. And the next.
I wish I remembered what we ate. It was probably pasta.
I wish I remembered what we drank. It was probably beer. Maybe whiskey.
I remember that there was a small silver bowl full of water in the kitchen for my dogs.
I remember that I looked out the front curtains once to make sure the dome light was off in my car, a sudden paranoid fear of trouble happening the next day.
I remember waking up early to be with him as he got ready for work.
I remember that ache in my chest and the fluttery, outward pressure of it.
Ten years ago me had no idea that tonight me would feel a similar panic in my chest.
Tonight it was thinking about my six year old daughter telling me two days ago that when daddy says you’re the badder one, I’m starting to believe it.
This panic has been, at times over the last year, an intermittent companion.
Tonight me, though, is light years ahead of one year ago me.
One year ago me could not have imagined the almost immediate calmness I could channel.
One year ago me couldn’t fathom forgiveness, let alone the trust I have now that these waves will come – my daughter is forced to live, part-time, in a wash of gaslighting and confusion – but I know, I know, that she will be ok.
When I woke up in the middle of the night two nights ago ruminating on her statement and the conversation we had about what she sees or hears and what is real, the mantra that got me back to sleep was: We’re ok and we will be no matter what.
We’re ok and we will be no matter what.
I have court in April for the motion I filed after x tried to drive us off the road and punched my car last fall. So I’m deep in prep mode. And that’s an odd space to be in – you have to be in the mess, mentally, to log it and track it and prepare, but you also have to try to not be in it, so you can live calmly and with joy. So you aren’t swimming in the sea of fear you were treading in at the beginning of healing.
Tonight, I felt deeply – in that way that vibrates in your marrow – that we are ok. And that we will be.
No matter what he does. No matter what the judge says.
Earlier this week, my daughter started to fight about putting her shoes on in the morning.
Since that car episode, she’s struggled so hard with rage and anger and meltdowns that involve violence and destruction. I’ve struggled with being afraid for her, with being afraid of her actions, struggled to not see her father’s rage-filled eyes in her fiercely mad glare.
I make it through those struggles by remembering that, in those moments, she’s scared. Deeply, deeply scared.
I understand the ways that unrecognized or unacknowledged fear can manifest in unhealthy and scary ways.
I can help her with that.
That morning, I sayed calm and told her I was going to put my shoes on and be ready to go in a few minutes. I walked in another room and inhaled through my nose and exhaled through my mouth a few times. Centered myself in case this escalated into rage.
I walked back into the hallway ready to calmly explain that it was time to go and offer to help with her shoes but she was sitting cross-legged on the hallway floor with her arms bent at the elbow and her tiny hands raised to head level in a faux yogi pose and she was doing exactly the kind of breathing I had just finished doing in the other room.
She put her shoes on and we hugged and we went out the door and still had time to get coffee and hot chocolate before work and school.
I don’t ignore that pushing out on my ribcage anymore.
I breathe through it.
I see it.
I make friends with it and teach my daughter how to do the same.
We are ok. And we will be no matter what.
Ten years ago tonight, I couldn’t see this me. But she was there, split eardrum and all.
She’s here now.
One year ago me is more grateful for that than I can express.
We are ok.