Browsing Category

recovery

Articles, changes, pain, recovery, relationships, writing

Why We Stay: One Woman’s Lens Into Psychological Layers of Suffering Abuse

The country is abuzz about abuse again, and the talking heads and twittering fingers are asking why people stay in abusive relationships. Why is Janay Palmer Rice standing by her man even though he punched her in an elevator and dragged her body out? (And then she proceeded to marry him one month later.) Why did Rihanna have such a hard time leaving and subsequently going back to Chris Brown, even after the world saw her blood-crusted, bruised face after Brown crunched his knuckles into her eye socket? Why did Tina Turner take Ike Turner’s slaps and punches again and again?

Guess what? You’re not the only person to wonder this. People currently in abusive relationships and those who have successfully escaped them ask themselves that very same question. Why do/did I stay?

In order to truly understand the answer to that question, it’s helpful to think of abuse, whether it’s physical, sexual or emotional, as a series of tiny subconscious extensions of permissions. Each time he hits you or she tells you you’re worthless and you—for whatever reason—don’t take a stand right then and there that you will not tolerate such abuse, you’ve made a docile statement that it’s OK to treat you this way. Of course, it’s not OK and you don’t want it to happen—you never did and you never will. But each time it happens and there is no serious repercussion for the abuser, they are granted more permission and you’ve given them more rope to tug you around with, much like a master with a dejected mutt on a leash.

For victims of abuse, the internal question often is “How did I get here?” and one part of the puzzle is all of those tiny permissions.

So there you are, a scared, frightened pup on a leash, right? But that’s not all of who you are. You might be brave at work, pumping your fist in the air and demanding your employees follow the rules. You might never lead on about the troubles at home when hanging out with your girlfriends, and possibly even telling elaborate stories about what a good man you’ve got, how he spoils you like a princess. Or you’ve been so desecrated for so long that you no longer recognize your former spirit and you walk around with empty eyes, shoulders slack, wondering when you’ll have the courage to just walk out into the middle of the street and let a bus hit you because that would be easier than leaving.

Not everyone being abused is suicidal and not every survivor would agree with being likened to a gnarled stray dog, jerked around on a chain. In fact, the abused can get downright defensive about their situation, telling you things like, “You don’t know him like I do,” “You don’t know the whole story,” “I made him do this to me,” or “She’s a good person; this only happens when she’s stressed.” But in the quiet darkness or in their quick trips out alone, they’re lost in a reverie at the red light, wondering how their life spiraled out of control and what can possibly be done about this. If you leave, he’ll come looking for you. Maybe she’ll take the children and hurt them instead of you. Maybe he has all the financial control and you don’t have a dime to your name. Oh, and then the bone-crushing shame of admitting to anyone that your life has fallen apart—that you chose an abuser. There’s that, too.

We still exist in a world where the victim is blamed: A rape victim’s experiences of consensual sex are paraded in front of her in a courtroom as if an experience of forced sex isn’t as big of a deal if the victim wasn’t a wholesome virgin. A child molested again and again by an adult is outrageously asked what he did to encourage the abuser. An emotionally abused middle-aged woman is asked if she’s just being too sensitive. Talk show hosts say you must have provoked him. Friends say there’s no way that he could be so different behind closed doors—it’s you who is failing to see things as they are, not the friend.

And, then, if there are emotional ties between the abused and the abuser, it’s a thick, tangled web of thorny branches and it feels like no one can escape unscathed or at all.

***

But then, there’s hope.

Even prisoners of war, locked in dank cells for years, beaten routinely until they’ve lost both health and self, are miraculously able to retain hope.

And survivors of domestic abuse know that feeling all too well. The abuser doesn’t always abuse you. Oftentimes he’s sweet as pie, reminding you of why you fell in love with him. It can even feel like you’re being courted, receiving flowers, chocolates and poetic texts. And you wonder—for a moment, albeit fleeting—if you shouldn’t take the bait this time. But your sense of danger is warped now. He’s successfully convinced you that you’re not a victim, this isn’t abuse and you two are madly in love, and you can make this work. So you bite the apple, and ingest more of this charmer’s poison, waiting with hopeful baited breath for things to get better. But they don’t. And they won’t.

***

It’s a bit like falling down a rabbit hole when you choke down the forbidden dry, crusty cake, which turns everything upside down and suddenly you don’t know what is normal or OK even is anymore. It’s all an illusion. Is everyone laughing at you? Have you hidden the bruises—internal or external—enough? Is that a trick mirror you’re looking into? Is this really your life? Is your partner your friend when he says, “Come here, love. You know I can’t live without you.”? Or is he a foe, when he says, “Why do youmake me so angry? Why are you so fucking slow? Get out of my fucking way, you fat bitch!” as he kicks you to the ground, causing the plates in your hand which you couldn’t put away fast enough to collapse beside you, clattering in slow motion, sharp pieces flying. “Jesus, you’re so fucking clumsy!” as he takes one last swing at your head, rearing his leg back like

Beckham and pointing his toe right into your temple, making you so dizzy you’re unsure if this is even happening, and why, oh, why is it happening again? “Clean this mess up, bitch.” And he walks out the door while you hold back your anguished moan because between two bloody clumps of your hair you can see your children standing solemnly in the kitchen entrance, holding each other, curious, scared and masking their fear with false bravery at their tender ages, seeing too much, learning the wrong thing. And yet. You’ll stay for their sake.

***

As for those asking the abstract victim the inflammatory question of why stay, know that the very inquiry places blame on the struck, the raped, the broken.

“Why did you let him do that to you?” The haughty superiority in this question is enough to make us want to choke you, not the abuser. You think you could have done better? You think you would have fought back, run, gotten away, gotten help? You. Don’t. Know. Anything.

When are we going to start hashtags such as #handsoff or #wewillhelpyou or #leavethemcomehere? Instead of gnashing our teeth at each other on social media, how about extending your hand to someone in need? You don’t have to know them. Send comforters and comfort to women’s shelters. Show up for the soup kitchen line. Say something when your friend is entering into an odd relationship where she is giving up all power. Say something when that kid who used to have light dancing in his eyes is all burned out, can’t look you in the face and is struggling to hold his life together. Step in. Step up. Show up.

It is not enough to just tell a victim to “just leave.” It is always complicated. And she (or he) needs your help. We need your help. #helpusleave #wewillhelpyou #wecanbestrongtogether

Kirsten Ott Palladino is an award-winning editor and writer working on a memoir about surviving repeated gang rape, emotional and verbal abuse and child molestation. She’s the co-founder and editor in chief of equallywed.comthe world’s leading digital LGBTQ wedding magazine. She can be reached on Twitter at @kirstenop.

This was first published on The Manifest Station.

featured, healing, recovery

Thanksgiving through the years: an attempt at gratitude after a loss

thanksgiving

Every year, Thanksgiving gets a little sadder for me. All holidays do. I was born into a small family—a mother who is an only child, a father whose only sibling lives in another state, and one brother. Growing up in Athens, Ga., was a lesson in Spartan familial ties and my brother—older by 18 months—and I were fiercely close (sometimes we fought like angry rams but there was nothing we wouldn’t do for each other).

20131128-121708.jpg George and I became even closer after our parents divorced when I was 8, but there was so much we didn’t know how to talk to each other about: my mother’s increased nightly consumption of glass jugs of Carlo Rossi merlot and incessant sucking on menthol cigarettes; her live-in boyfriend freshly sprung from the county jail who filled our apartment with billowing clouds of marijuana smoke; the Playboy my dad awkwardly bought for my 10-year-old brother at the airport on our first Christmas trip without all four of us together (OK, maybe that was just awkward for me); the sexual assault I endured from a family friend; the chronic gang rapes I survived in high school (which started on Thanksgiving night, Nov. 28, in 1992 and ended in December 1993); and the strain of going back and forth between two parents’ houses, knowing somewhere deep down that we were loved, but the parental watchtower we desperately needed was sorely absent.

During this tumultuous period, George and I clung more to our friends than we did to each other, growing further apart after high school when I came out as a lesbian (he had married a devout Billy Graham follower and his slight societal discomfort with homosexuality leapt into a new dimension of hate when fueled by his then-pregnant wife’s disdain for me bringing my girlfriend around their expected child).

But we reunited, George and me. I wrote him a letter after a year of not speaking telling him that I missed him terribly. And so he called me. And that was it. We’ve been thick as thieves ever since. It really helped that he finally got a divorce. He called me a week before Thanksgiving in 2004 to tell me he and his wife were splitting up—their two children would stay with her and he had to move out over the holiday.

I trucked on down to Florida where he was living, and we spent Thanksgiving moving what little he was allowed to take from their condo into his new apartment. Then we went to Denny’s, one of the few eating establishments open to a couple of college-aged kids in soccer shorts and T-shirts, and had our Thanksgiving dinner—a cheese-and-veggie omelet for me, and Moons Over My Hammy for him.

George’s life was maddeningly heartbreaking after the split. His wife moved the children to Georgia, and he drove the 6-hour trip every other weekend to be with them. But he was a dedicated father and didn’t miss a legally afforded opportunity to see his son and daughter. We spent most of our Thanksgivings together when he was in town, especially with the children. Our grandmother gathered us up at a French restaurant outside of Atlanta to spend the day together, but in the blurry midst of laughter and turkey, there was always a layer of regret and pain, whether it was because we were choosing to be with my mom’s side of the family and not my dad’s, or because my mom couldn’t go too long without saying something wildly inappropriate, or because we knew George was going to have to return his children in just a few short hours. There was always something unsavory under the surface that no one quite knew how to handle, but we stuck together because what other choice is there than to cling to the family you have, no matter how wacky?

We were going about this turn-style life with pleasantries mixed with oddness when out of the blue, my father suffered a massive heart attack on Oct. 3, 2008. He was 61. My father was my biggest cheerleader, never had a harsh word to say about anyone, was loved by so many, took fairly good care of himself and poof, he was gone. George called me to tell me. My chest caved in where my heart once was whole. Broken and in disbelief, my fiancé Maria, drove me to my hometown, to my father and stepmother’s home. All I remember about that day after we arrived is crumbling into my brother’s arms when he stepped out of his cherry red SUV from his longer road trip. He held me so strongly against his chest, and I still feel his arms around me. It is my mental safe place.

The following month, Maria and I decided to put on Thanksgiving for several of our family members, including my brother and my stepmother, who has since become my true mother, a jewel of a human being. Despite having lost our dad almost two months prior, we came together from a place of love and the onset of peace at this Thanksgiving. As hard as it was for me to get through even one sentence without crying, I still found an immense sense of strength from our togetherness.

The following March, my mother withdrew further into her incomprehensible cycle of sheer meanness, and announced that she wasn’t coming to my wedding in June 2009. Lest you think it had anything to do with my sexuality, you’re wrong. That’s probably the thing she likes most about me: I’m different, which gives her more fodder for church gossip. And I’m pretty sure she had a crush on Maria. Anyway, that Thanksgiving, Maria and I were welcomed with open arms by her family, chowing down on a Southern feast, but my heart ached knowing that my mom didn’t want anything to do with me and the only one who might be able to make me feel better about it—to remind me that I was a wanted child—was my father, who I could only hope was somewhere better than this earth.

By the time Thanksgiving 2010 rolled around, I was a massive woman, waddling like a mother duck because I was carrying twin boys. My grandmother insisted Maria and I come to Thanksgiving at the French restaurant and see my mother. “Only if my stepmom can come too,” I responded. I positioned her between us at the table, and we made it through with only the occasional odd remark from my bio mom whom I hadn’t conversed with in more than a year and a half. My brother had gone to his new girlfriend’s family Thanksgiving, and I wished hard that he could be there to slice the palpable tension with some of his gut-busting humor.

By Thanksgiving 2011, my mother and I were working harder toward mending our relationship, and we again met at the French restaurant, where my stepfather, grandmother, Maria, George, his children, his girlfriend, Maria and our children all gathered at a large table and focused all our energy on the children while George and I whispered little jokes under our breath about our nutty family when we walked to the bountiful carving stations of duck and turkey (not to be confused with turducken). George and I could crack each other up with just a look, and his jokes lessened the burden on almost all that was wrong with my family.

He was so perfectly uncle-like with Maria’s and my sons. This was their first Thanksgiving, and they, especially baby B, had melted in George’s arms like butter on a hot sweet potato. Baby B looks just like George did as a toddler, and their bond was apparent not just to me, but to the entire family. I’ve always known that I wanted to marry a woman and have children with a woman, and I’ve known all along that our children would thrive with two moms and no father. But I believe very strongly in having a dependable and loving male figure in my children’s lives. Watching George with our boys on Thanksgiving Day reassured me that even though we didn’t have my dad around, we had George. And I remember the distinct feeling of comfort that George would be around as my sons became men, demonstrating how to be a successful and generous man, just as he was. A man we all loved to be around, a man that didn’t seem to have one enemy—even his ex-girlfriends all seem to flutter at the mere mention of his name.
But the universe had other plans for George.

Last Thanksgiving, my brother stayed home alone with what he thought was a horrible stomach flu. He sent me a cheerful text, not wanting me to worry. The morning after, he called an ambulance because he knew something was terribly wrong. A day later, he was put into a 9-week medicinally induced coma. He never came out of the hospital, and 14 weeks later after all those ups and downs, surgery after surgery, tears shed and a few rare smiles, my brave, sweet brother passed peacefully in the night.

It is heartbreakingly difficult this Thanksgiving, a holiday we always tried to spend together. But I am working hard on feeling gratitude in the midst of my grief 9 months after George’s passing.

So on this Thanksgiving, I am grateful for two beautiful, tender and silly boys I’m blessed to call mine, a crazy-smart wife who caters to almost all my crazy whims, a stepmother who has gracefully and lovingly stepped into the role of motherhood for me when mine has fully abandoned me after threatening to kill me the day George died, a few precious rock star friends who keep me sane and make me feel special, a loving aunt and uncle who have taken me under their wing, and my own life for I am truly thankful to just be alive. It’s a heavy-hearted way of expressing my gratitude, I know. But some years just aren’t lighthearted, glistening with candy-puffed rainbows. But I hope and pray that 2014 is that way–for all of us still lucky to be here. Happy Thanksgiving, my friends.

pain, recovery

For anyone who’s lost a child

I just discovered Ed Sheeran, a thoughtful singer who has this touching song, “Small Bump.” Here’s his official video. The perspective of the father dealing with the loss is profound because so often the mother is forced to handle it on her own while the rest of the world moves on quickly.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A_af256mnTE&w=560&h=315]

“Small Bump” by Ed Sheeran

[Verse 1:]
You’re just a small bump unborn, in four months you’re brought to life,
You might be left with my hair, but you’ll have your mother’s eyes,
I’ll hold your body in my hands, be as gentle as I can, but for now your scan of my unmade plans,
[one version:] A small bump in four months, you’re brought to life
[another version:] A small bump in four months, you’ll open your eyes

[Pre-Chorus:]
[one version:] I’ll whisper quietly, I’ll give you nothing but truth,
[another version:] I’ll hold you tightly, I’ll give you nothing but truth,
If you’re not inside me, I’ll put my future in you

[Chorus:]
You are my one and only.
You can wrap your fingers round my thumb and hold me tight.
Oh, you are my one and only.
You can wrap your fingers round my thumb and hold me tight.
And you’ll be alright.

[Verse 2:]
Oh, you’re just a small bump unknown, you’ll grow into your skin.
With a smile like hers and a dimple beneath your chin.
Finger nails the size of a half grain of rice,
And eyelids closed to be soon opened wide
A small bump, in four months you’ll open your eyes.

[Pre-Chorus:]
[one version:] And I’ll hold you tightly, I’ll give you nothing but truth,
[another version:] And I’ll hold you tightly, I’ll tell you nothing but truth,
If you’re not inside me, I’ll put my future in you

[Chorus:]
You are my one and only.
You can wrap your fingers round my thumb and hold me tight.
Oh, you are my one and only.
You can wrap your fingers round my thumb and hold me tight.
And you’ll be alright.

[Bridge:]
You can lie with me,
With your tiny feet
When you’re half asleep,
I’ll leave you be.
Right in front of me
For a couple weeks
So I can keep you safe.

[Chorus:]
‘Cause you are my one and only.
You can wrap your fingers round my thumb and hold me tight.
You are my one and only.
You can wrap your fingers round my thumb and hold me tight.
And you’ll be alright.

[Verse 4:]
‘Cause you were just a small bump unborn for four months then torn from life.
Maybe you were needed up there but we’re still unaware as why.

healing, moving on

Forgiveness is a gift to oneself

forgive-definition

“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” Lewis B. Smedes

In order to achieve mind-blowing, heart-fluttering, so-many-weights-lifted-I-feel-like-a-fluffy-cloud happiness, I need to learn how to forgive.

I’ve been working a great deal on the idea of forgiveness. The trouble for me has always been that no one has asked me for it. The people who have hurt me the most in my life – and I’m talking about heart-wrenching-this-shit-is-against-the-law type of hurt – haven’t begged for forgiveness. They haven’t even apologized. And one person is still active in my life, much to my psychological detriment, and I can’t get rid of them. Not currently, at least.

I always thought that to forgive meant to excuse, as if to say, “It’s OK that you hurt me. I don’t mind. I’m not worthy enough to be angry with you for hurting me. Heck, I probably deserved it. Maybe I was even asking for it.” I’ve known cognitively for quite some time that forgiveness isn’t about excusing someone’s behavior, but sometimes it is terribly hard to get your heart to believe what your brain is trying to tell it.

I can be pretty dense sometimes. Flighty. Head in the clouds. You know the type. But it has finally sunk in that in order to set myself fully free of hurt caused by someone else’s actions, I must forgive them. It isn’t a gift I’d be giving them. It will be for me.

Isn’t it interesting how when you’re enraged with someone for slighting you in some way, oftentimes it seems like they don’t even give you the pleasure of noticing or acknowledging your frustration? That’s because the only person you’re hurting with your anger and resentment is yourself. And so it’s time to bless and release. Let it go. Move on. Forgive.

So what does it mean to forgive?

Ever the English nerd, I looked it up on my favorite dictionary website: M-W.com. To forgive is to cease to feel resentment against someone or to give up resentment of or claim to requital for, meaning you’re not looking for retaliation.

Can I do this? It’s such a tall order. But that’s what I’m looking for so that my own heart can feel better. I only seek peace. Of course, I’d like to tell the people I’m angry with why I am angry with them. But I’ve gone through countless scenarios in my head of how that might go, and it never ends well. Even if they’re groveling at my feet, I will still feel horrible because it doesn’t take away the pain they caused me.

Only I can take it away from myself. Only I can free myself of the pain.

Psychologist Peter R. Breggin addressed this in an article in The Huffington Post last week, writing, “Forgiveness, as I understand it after all these decades on Earth, is about an attitude toward both ourselves and others. Forgiveness is an attitude of letting go of enmity and resentment and encouraging ourselves to feel genuinelove and empathy. It begins with kindness and understanding toward ourselves.

Forgiving ourselves allows us to recognize our own faults and then to correct them as much as we can without languishing in unforgiving guilt and shame. Guilt and shame actually make us less able to examine ourselves. We try to relieve these self-punishing attitudes by denying responsibility for any wrong actions. In a state of denial that protects us from guilt and shame, we cannot identify what we need change about ourselves.

Further in regard to ourselves, to forgive others is to make peace within ourselves. We give up anger and resentment and thereby become freer of spiritually-corrupting malice. We no longer give those who have hurt us the power to continue to do so by preoccupying us with their deeds.

In regard to others, forgiveness relieves us of the motivation to gratuitously harm others. We may still feel the necessity of taking self-protective actions that end up harming them, for example, by excluding them from our lives, but we have not done so out of malice. We have acted to protect ourselves or our families and not for the purpose of inflicting harm.

Similarly, people may be harmed in our political lives if we fight against their interests, but we are better off if we are motivated by the pursuit of ideals and principles rather than resentment. If we are trying to improve the world in some way, this difference in attitude enables us to behave more rationally and often results in our having a better impact.

Forgiveness also leaves room to welcome back friends or family when they have changed and are no longer a danger to us or our loved ones. The same is true in our political lives where, whenever possible, we try to let go of old resentments in order to accomplish a greater good.

Forgiveness ultimately empowers us by clarifying our minds. Unclouded by resentment, jealousy, or hate, it is far easier to make rational decisions about who can be trusted and who cannot be trusted, and about how to best improve our lives and the lives of others.

Forgiveness goes hand in hand with empathy. Empathy involves a caring and even loving response to another’s viewpoint and experience. It does not, however, mean that we approve or reward another person’s viewpoint and behavior. In my experience, when we approach other people in an open and receptive manner, if these people have bad intentions, it becomes much more readily apparent to us than when we approach them with suspicion and callousness.

People who are forgiving do not become vulnerable to individuals who have harmed them or have the intent to harm them. Forgiveness involves seeing people for who they are, both the good and the bad, while letting go of spiritually-corrupting negative emotions that make us anxious and keep us up at night, wasting our energy, which can be turned to better uses.

As a psychiatrist and psychotherapist, it’s apparent to me that the most forgiving people are the happiest and most effective, and that the least forgiving people are the most miserable and ineffective. A great deal of personal suffering, including what gets called mental illness, is rooted in an angry, unforgiving attitude toward oneself, other people, and the world.”

For years, I have counted myself among the happy and forgiving. But lately I have been struggling in a place of being unforgiving, tormented by anger and anxiety.

I know why. I know the source of all of it. But knowing why doesn’t make it go away. I have empathy toward the person I have anger for. I have compassion for them, too.

Writing this post makes me feel less anxious, as I call upon what it is that I want to do. I want to forgive one of the people who have hurt me the most. But it won’t be an easy journey and writing it down is only the first step.

Have you forgiven someone for something hugely terrible? How did you do it — and really make it stick to your heart for good?

a vision, recovery

Be the heroine, not the victim

I saw this online yesterday on OAASIS Oregon and Just Tell‘s Facebook pages (check out both incredible advocates for ending child sex abuse please!) and thought “YES, YES, YES!” This is already my mantra but the lauded, wonderful Nora Ephron (who will be greatly missed) put it into the perfect words for me. I am not a victim. I am a survivor. What I endured doesn’t define me, but it has certainly made me stronger.

The darling of the country music scene, Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland, sings with such a sexy twang, “I believe that happiness is something we create.” And I wave my hand in the air like a passionate churchgoer every time she preaches because it resonates in my soul.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gp5foT32tKM?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

Whether or not I’ve been slightly delusional in my ability to find happiness in spite of my adolescence, it has brought me comfort to be able to control my future, to be able to delight in a sunrise, to melt when my sons hug me, to find friends who like me no matter what, to find real love.

I am working through all the abuse I took for so long now that I am emotionally ready to do so. But I am not wallowing in any self-pity, though I do occasionally shed tears for the little girl lost inside of me. I am living a very full and blessed life that I am proud of and fulfilled by.