Friday, December 3, 2010

New Traditions

Traditions never seem more important than during a holiday season. There are symbols to embrace, special foods and rituals for all faiths.  Woven into those, are our personal family traditions. After divorce, those usually change. Sometimes, drastically.
I’m thinking about the first Christmas after I left the violence. It fell on my family of origin’s “off” year, the one when siblings were committed to go to their in-laws and my parents, snowbirds, to the warmth of the southern states. Trying to ease my guilt over leaving my ex, (why we feel guilty when we are trying to stop the cycle of abuse is beyond me) I allowed my children to go with him that first Christmas. Meaning, on a family oriented holiday, I would be - alone. 
I knew I’d feel relief that I didn’t have to spend the time in anguish, waiting for the big blowup that would decimate the night. The midnight service at my new church was a given, a personal tradition. But there were many hours to fill before the service started. How would I like to spend that time? That was a difficult question since I hadn’t acknowledged my own likes and dislikes in many years.  I needed some new Christmas Eve traditions.
After my children left with their father, I set about creating my evening, starting with a trip to the grocery store for a steak to broil and potato to bake. Christmas music on the radio accompanied me as I prepared a delicious meal that I ate at a lovely place setting with my best china and crystal. As I sipped a glass of wine and enjoyed my dinner, I felt at peace. Gratefulness filled me and I began thanking God for guiding me and being with me through all the pain and struggle. My kids and I were living without a lot, but you can’t put a dollar amount on how it feels to come home to a safe place where you can be who you are, say how you feel and know you are loved and cherished.
After dinner, I watched my favorite Christmas movie, It’s a Wonderful Life. Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey learns the truth that every life matters. As someone who’d been repeatedly told she was worthless, this movie touched me deeply.
That week we received 36 inches of snow. “The most we’ve seen in years,” the forecasters said. But it was beautiful. White and blue diamonds glistened in the moonlight. My breath crystalized in air so cold it stung my nostrils as I trotted out to my very frosty car and started her up.
I love Christmas Eve late-night services, church filled with music, poinsettias and candles. The story of hope and promise unfolded and I was awed once again. As I tipped my candle to accept the flame from my neighbor, I remembered my favorite Christmas image. My children at 4 and 6 years old, each clutching a candle. So proud to be allowed to hold one. Their faces bathed in the soft light as we lifted glowing candles against the darkness and sang Silent Night. The memory filled me with joy.
When the service ended, church members called Merry Christmas to each other as we drifted into the cold, star-covered morning. I drove home still wrapped snugly in the warmth of Christmas carols and the promise of hope for the future. 
That Christmas Eve was a blessing and remains a fond memory.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Had He Changed

Suppose he had changed? It struck me as I was about to sit behind my desk the other day. Let me just say, I would not swap my current life or husband for anything or anyone. Even Robert Redford. (sorry Bob.) This is just a hypothetical question.
Suppose, if just before I left - say a month- my former partner had come to me and said, “Wife, I am truly sorry for the way I’ve been treating you. I was wrong. I’m sorry.”
First, I would have wondered what he was up to. Is he toying with me again? Is this another opportunity for him to build up false hopes in me, only to pull the rug out from under me? This would have been the first apology I'd ever received from him. Usually he said things like “If only you had...” or “You needed to be knocked you off your pedestal.” So, toward the end of our relationship, his apology would have come too late.
Let’s take the apology and insert it at ten years into the relationship. We’ll also use a few of the techniques from batterer’s treatment. 
He says, “Joanna (he calls me by name to prove he sees me as a living, breathing human being) I know I have treated you terribly (he acknowledges that his behavior was wrong.) I have called you a worthless woman, slapped you, broken your eardrum, pinned you against the wall and choked you with my arm across your neck...” (He goes on listing all his offenses against me and, maybe, ones against our children, too.) He finishes with, “I am deeply sorry for my past behavior and will prove that I will never again do those things to you. I’m going into treatment. My therapist will report my progress to you. You can contact him/her at any time to verify that I am attending appointments and working my program.” 
At ten years, I might have taken him up on that. But then what? In all honesty, within me, anger and resentment would have simmered and sounded like this, “Oh, sure, now you say this. You put me thorough ten years of hell and now you become Mister Wonderful? How come you suddenly got it? Why now and not nine years ago? Why’d you even start abusing me? If you see this now, you must have known what you were doing all along.” Those thoughts would have turned up the heat under my resentment. Rage would have kicked in.
Trusting is crucial in a relationship. I don’t think that after ten years of abuse I could have trusted that it would never happen again. And how could I trust that his kind words or actions was genuine when they hadn’t been before? Or feel safe opening my heart and sharing my feelings, knowing that he might laugh them off or use them to hurt me? How could I stop walking on eggshells around him when all I’ve known is that one misstep on my part causes him to explode? I couldn’t help but think, How will he make me pay for having to be kind to me? It’s hard to rebuild a broken trust. And besides, I don’t want someone who treats me good because he feels forced to, but because it’s in his nature to treat others with kindness.
Then I’d need to forgive. That takes work. Abusers usually expect victims to accept their apology and instantly wipe the slate clean, forget all the pain and and become vulnerable again. Forgiveness doesn’t work that way. If a batterer is truly sorry, he/she may understand this. The point is, forgiveness takes time and moves at it’s own pace. 
I’m not sure that ten years into the relationship, even if I had wanted to forgive, I could have moved past the anger and resentment. Every kind action from him would have become a stab in my heart. Why did you wait so long to turn around?  
Trauma is not forgotten.  Victims of abuse remember what happened. Yes, we may minimize and deny for a time. But deep down, we know. The hard part is learning to deal with those memories. Seeing him every day would have been a constant reminder of the pain. I believe it’s easier to forgive abuse from a distance than up close, especially if trust cannot be restored.
I have never doubted that It was better that I ended this relationship. Thinking about what might have been if he’d changed made me examine myself. Who knows what my smoldering rage would have conjured up to punish him? That’s a scary thought. That’s not who I want to be.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The 4 Pound Dilemma

Last week, I stepped on the scale at the doctor’s office, wishing I’d worn lighter (weight-wise) clothing. I’d forgotten that I’d be weighed. (That attests to the fact that my life had been so busy, my mind had not always engaged with the details of upcoming activities.) What women doesn’t choose her clothing carefully when she knows she will be stepping on a scale? Okay, maybe Paris Hilton, but I wouldn’t count on it.
The numbers flickered, a digital frenzy, and stopped at 4 pounds less than I expected. Wait, did I read that right? Is that really what I saw? Were my eyes giving out? After all, I’m 60 now. I asked the nurse to confirm the number. She did.
Suddenly, I felt better! I stood taller. My step was lighter. I was floating over the loss of 4 pounds. I couldn’t believe how good I felt about myself. What changed in that flutter-of-an-eyelash moment when the numbers popped up? 
I thought I had a handle on my relationship with my body when I tossed out my at-home scale a couple years ago. No more would a number dictate how I felt about myself. I would love my body with all its sags, rolls and wrinkles. I’d eat as right as I could, do yoga, walk and not fret about weight. While the walking had been sporadic, apparently that plan worked for me. But, I wouldn’t have known it if I hadn’t stepped on that scale. 
Over the next couple days, I kept asking myself why the number on a scale held so much power in my life? Had I kept my old scale and weighed in once a week, would I have felt this good for the last year, year-and-a-half? Probably not. Most likely, I would have decided that I needed to lose an additional 4 pounds. 
As I continued to think about it, I found myself saying things like --
 “I could lose 5 more pounds. Then I’d look and feel even better.” 
“The weight loss is probably because I’m not walking as often as I used to. I lost muscle weight. The fat is still there.” 
“Oh s***, now that I know my weight is in a good range, I’ll probably relax and overeat.” 
I am still obsessing over weight!
During this process, I managed to kill my high from the doctor’s office. Bummer.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

What is in Your Top Left-Hand Coat Pocket?

In “The Language of Life,” poet, Coleman Barks tell the following story to Bill Moyers:
Nasruddin is on a train and the conductor comes to pick up the tickets, but Nasruddin can’t find his ticket. He looks in his pants pocket, he looks in his briefcase, he looks in his suitcase, he starts looking in other peoples’ suitcases, but he can’t find his ticket. Finally the conductor says, “Nasruddin, I know you’ve got your ticket. Most people keep theirs in their top left-hand coat pocket. Why don’t you look there?” And Nasruddin says, “Don’t even mention that. If it’s not there I have no hope. 
There have been times in my life, more than I care to mention, when the fear of not being able to succeed kept me from even trying. (i.e. I’ve spent too much time avoiding a blank newly stretched canvas, terrified that I couldn’t bring to that canvas the image that was in my head.)  Better to think, “I could have been,” than to know I wasn’t good enough, smart enough, or talented enough to reach my goal.  
A lot of us feel this way. It’s the paralyzing fear that we will discover we are not who we hope we are. And if we aren’t who we hope we are, who are we? Do we really want to know the answer to that question? Is that why we look for our train ticket in other people’s suitcases, even though we know full well it’s not there?
On the other hand, If we do reach our goal, what will we do next? Is our career over? Will everyone expect more from us than we can provide?  (Figure skaters are already doing quadruples. Will they be doing pentaruples, next? Or octoruples?) Success can hurdle us upward until we eventually reach the top of our ability. Then what?
By fumbling around and making excuses while we search for our ticket, we don’t have to face what may happen. We can hold onto hope. Had I clung to hope and not acted on my desire to write, But He’ll Change would never have been published. I would not be talking on Facebook and through emails with the most extraordinary and courageous women I’ve ever met. Women who experienced what it means to do the thing you fear most and succeed.
If you have a deep and persistent passion, one that fills your heart with ecstasy just thinking about it, there’s a good chance that passion is what you are meant to be doing with your life. And if that is so, all your life experiences have prepared you for this very moment, this decision point. You have to do the work (I’m not promising you that it’ll be easy,) but first, you have to reach in your pocket and pull out that ticket, taking a chance that the positive outcome you hope for will become your reality. 
And, hey, even if you don’t end up where you thought you would, it doesn’t mean you’re a failure, it means you are one step closer to where you should be. Thomas Edison said, “I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.”

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Let Me Fall

One of my favorite songs is Let Me Fall, from Cirque du Soleil. It’s sung by Josh Groban. The hunting melody and Groban’s resonant tenor voice is as delicious as the first bite of my dad’s Sunday morning, paper-thin, Swedish pancakes, drenched in real butter and New England maple syrup. 
It’s the yearning in the song, the sweet ache of desire, that speaks to me through the words, 
“Let me fall, Let me climb
There’s a moment when fear and dreams must collide.
Someone I am, is waiting for courage
The one I want, the one I will become will catch me
So Let me fall, If I must fall...” 
I would love to have seen the Cirque du Soliel performance to this song. Was it a trapeze act? Imagine the flyer teetering some 50 feet up in the air on a tiny slat, she jumps to grasp the trapeze. She thrusts herself forward, then back, then forward again. Releasing her grip on the bar, she throws her legs over her head and tucks in, spinning - one, two, three summersaults. She reaches for the hands of the catcher, trusting that they will be exactly where they were at each practice. 
The audience gasps. 
Hands clasp wrists. 
The audience goes wild, applauding and shouting!
Did you notice that I mentioned the practice? These acrobats didn’t start by doing this 50 feet in the air. However, I bet, for the flyer, that first time felt like they were way-the-heck up there. 
That’s how I felt after leaving an abusive relationship. Living with domestic abuse doesn’t change the core of who you are, but it skews your view of who you are. The abuser tramples your self-esteem into the ground, then snuffs it out as if it were a cigarette butt. He (or she) teaches you that if you make a mistake, you will pay dearly. (And all the while, they keep changing the rules to ensure you make plenty of mistakes.) As a result, I’d freeze, paralyzed, when faced with a decision. 
Let me just say, the beginning trapeze artist has a safety belt with ropes held tightly by guys with biceps the size of Texas. I too, had a support base that was my life line. But still, teetering on the brink of my new life, I had to find the courage to throw my arms wide and leap. I had to push through the fear to take that step.
 There was plenty of faltering and falling on my journey. But, like the flyer, over time and with practice, I’ve learned to release the trapeze, spin in the air and reach out, clasping wrists with my catcher. Heart pounding, I look up to see that my catcher is me, the one I will become. Isn’t that the point? With each leap of faith, with each fall, we grow more into the one who we are meant to be. 

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Moving Myself Up the "People Who Deserve Happiness" List



Have you found yourself at the bottom of, or left off of, the People Who Deserve Happiness list? Let me clarify what I mean by happiness. It’s the right to do that which feeds your spirit -- what you believe you were placed on this tiny amazing planet, in this tiny remarkable place, to do. I know happiness is the journey, not the destination. I’m talking about the right to pursue your dream, your mission. Whatever it be. (If you believe you were meant to be a serial killer, child -or any kind of - abuser, or if you’re an aspiring dictator - I’m not talking to you. Go away.)
Many of us were raised using shame and guilt. “If you were a good girl/boy, you would (or wouldn’t)....” We were told that no one would like us if we didn’t keep our room clean, our mouths shut, and put others first. There’s the rub. We were indoctrinated to put our needs and wants on hold, while helping other achieve theirs. The result for us -- a free-fall to the bottom of, or off of, the People Who Deserve Happiness list.
From there it was an easy step for me to marry a controlling man who expected his needs to be met on demand. When I’d ask, “Hey, what about me? When is it my turn?” He’d call me selfish and uppity. He made it clear that “my time” would never come.
Eventually, I quit asking. 
When I left my abuser, I didn’t know what I wanted or needed. It took time to rediscover my passion in life -- then to feel that pursuing my passion was equally as important as it was for others to pursue theirs. It was a process of learning to feel comfortable taking care of myself. How do I not become a bully? When are my needs top priority? When do I acquiesce to others and for how long?
Let’s let this blog be a place where we can talk about how we are relearning to value ourselves, feed our spirits, and grow into our intended selves. How we can claim our happiness, while still respecting, caring for and loving others. And, of course, let’s discuss any of your questions or thoughts related to my book, “But He’ll Change; End the Thinking that Keeps You in an Abusive Relationship.”
I hope you will join me on this journey.