The Cancer of Abuse

I was first sexually assaulted when I was 12, by a brother-in-law. He was close to 30 at the time. My mom was sick and dying and I didn’t tell anyone. I was embarrassed and scared and knew it was wrong. But I also knew no one would believe me. So I just stayed quiet. That brother-in-law did it several times over the course of a couple of years before I was finally able to be in a position to not be around him alone.

When I was 16, a guy who was 27 “courted” me and made me feel like I was the most special person on the planet. By that time both of my parents had died and I just wanted, needed someone to love me. I was an easy victim and this guy told me all the things I wanted to hear. All so he could have sex with me. Yes, it was consensual. But I was too naïve to know it was wrong. My brothers knew it was wrong and they tried to stop it. But my brothers had never shown me any love. They had only acted in a way that showed me I was a burden in their lives. Why would I listen to them? Eventually this abuser grew tired of me and found a new plaything.

Looking back I now understand it was only a natural progression in my life that I would marry someone who was an abuser. At first he was super sweet and loving. It wasn’t until about a month before our wedding when I first saw how destructive his anger was. Again, I knew it was wrong but I was embarrassed and afraid. I should have walked away but instead he apologized and said it would never happen again. I believed him and I married him.  

In many ways his abuse was the worst because it didn’t leave bruises. Similar to a frog in water that slowly gets warmer and warmer, the abuse was gradual and I didn’t see it happening. It started out as controlling behaviors, being jealous for no reason, getting angry and blaming it all on me. He limited my access to money and to other people. And he clearly made it known who was the boss in our marriage bed. I totally bought into his declarations that I was the one causing all the problems. I was the one doing things that made him angry. Everything that was wrong was my fault.

It took me YEARS to figure out it wasn’t me and another five years to safely exit the marriage. And I went through intensive counseling to heal the wounds. I suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of all of the abuse in my life and I’ve managed to deal with it well. I am in a much better place in life now. I have a husband who loves me and respects me. My life and my daughters’ lives are not threatened on a daily basis. I feel safe at home, at work, in my community. I get a good night’s sleep every night with both eyes closed.  

About a year ago, some darkness slipped into my life when the news media blew up with coverage about Donald Trump and the Access Hollywood video. Another black cloud appeared when this man who had bragged about sexually assaulting women was elected as our country’s president. I was physically ill for several days. Yet, I was persuaded to give Trump a chance. “That happened years ago. He’s different now.” Anyone who’s ever been abused knows from first-hand experience that the abuser doesn’t change. The abuser just gets smarter and learns to conceal it better. But I respect the office of the presidency so I gave him a chance. By January, Trump was in the public eye a lot and so much of his behavior and actions and words told me this man hadn’t changed. Watching him interact with his wife made me cringe. I could easily imagine things that have probably happened in their marriage, in their home.

Things settled down a little after the Inauguration, as other issues flooded the news headlines. And then the saga at Fox News blew up with Roger Ailes followed by Bill O’Reilly. When the Harvey Weinstein story broke this fall, my anxiety ticked up several notches. Sexual assault or abuse was in the daily headlines. There was nowhere to hide from it, unless I went completely off grid. I tried that for a couple of days and it didn’t work. So I dusted off my “tricks” for dealing with anxiety and PTSD and was holding my own until this week. This thing with Roy Moore just pushed me over the edge. It had to be the circumstances of that 14-year-old girl being approached in a courthouse by a prosecutor, a man of the law, someone who was “safe” and they were in a “safe” place. It was too close to home for me. I had been 12 and it was a family member and we were in a “safe” place.

I’ve learned over the years that I have to talk about what happened. It’s the only way to allow the horror to escape from my mind and spirit. Usually when I talk about it I minimize the details. That’s a natural reaction according to the experts. But minimizing it causes other problems, so I have to be careful and make sure I tell my story in all of its gory detail. It’s hard. I physically shake when I talk about it in that depth of detail. I’ve forgotten so many things that have happened over the course of my life but I can remember all the minute details of where I was, what I was wearing, how much light there was in the room, what the sounds were, what the room smelled like, when it first happened to me at 12. I remember like it happened yesterday. And as difficult as it is for me to talk about it, it’s just as difficult for someone to listen to my story. I know this to be true, so I am very careful in making sure the person is qualified and “safe” for me to talk to. I cannot fathom the stories such professionals have heard. Certainly they are trained to listen but it has to be so challenging. I am grateful for these people. I would not be alive today without their help.

None of us knows what the future holds. In the coming days and weeks we will hear more about Roy Moore and his victim. We may possibly hear more in regard to Trump. Surely we have not heard the last of the Weinstein story and others like him in the music and film industries. I am bracing myself as best I can. I know all too well, it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

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Are you passionate?

I’ve never thought of myself as a passionate person. I don’t know why not, I just never have. At times in my life people have teased me about “getting my Irish up” but I never made the connection to passion. I always felt it was their way of telling me I needed to be mindful of my frustration and to toe the line.

Yesterday I had a conversation with my daughter Rose. We were talking about my current battle with depression and she rightly pointed out all the things that are out of balance in my life. She brought to mind the ongoing battle I face in keeping communication channels open amongst my four daughters. She honored the love I have for my husband and the nurturing I’ve provided for the last six months as he’s fought heart health issues. She called me a patriot and mentioned how I’ve been upset for nearly a year about the fact that our country elected a man without integrity or morals. And she recognized the stress I carry every day in my quest to dig out of an enormous financial hole that is almost ten years old. She brought to mind many things in my life that I feel passionately about and how nearly all of those things are in a state of weakness or under attack. She called me passionate.

Webster’s declares a passionate person as one who is capable of, affected by, or expressing intense feeling and defines passion as intense, driving, or overmastering of feeling or conviction.

In a sense, it is humbling to be known as someone driven by conviction. For my whole life I’ve thought of such people as heroes. Mother Teresa was a woman of conviction. She was criticized for many things but praised for her service to those with AIDS, leprosy, and tuberculosis and for her life-long devotion to the poorest of the poor. John McCain is a man of conviction. His duty and honor to others outshines anyone else I can think of in recent service to our country. His ability to survive five torturous years as a POW speaks of his courage and character. These are two examples of my heroes. Two people passionate about their beliefs that they took action impacting many.

To be driven by your convictions means you face challenges despite your fears. It means you make a decision for the good of the whole and take action despite a rapidly and ever-changing world around you. It means you are strong despite your weariness and the hardships you face. You are passionate.

It is an honor to have one of my daughters recognize that I am also one driven by my convictions, that I am passionate.

Reading Between the Behaviors

As part of my job, I am required to complete extensive training each year on a variety of topics but usually on the laws and regulations that govern the industry in which I work. This month’s training was on the topic of culture and identity, a slightly different topic from the norm but important nevertheless since my employer takes ethics very seriously and instills a culture of inclusion for all of its employees.

Two questions were asked to begin the training: What identity do you have? How many cultures do you belong to? Simple answers are the first things that come to mind but the real answers are much more complex. For example, in terms of identity I think of myself as a wife, mother, grandmother. Those are my first thoughts. But I also can identify as sister, youngest sibling, aunt, working woman, baby boomer, survivor, writer. Actually, there are many more labels that can be applied depending on the context I find myself in when needing to self-identify.

The culture thing was a little trickier for me. When asked how many cultures I am a part of, I naively answered one. As it turns out, I am a part of several since I am a white, college graduate, middle-aged, employed, married, hearing-impaired, female, American. Each one of those characteristics places me into a unique group. And each one of those groups to which I belong has its own rules and values that drive my behaviors. If a culture values hard work, behaviors will look like focusing on goals, being organized and determined, striving for success. If a culture values family, behaviors will look like respecting elders, honoring parents, offering support and encouragement to siblings.

As “one nation”, the United States is a diverse blend of communities and cultures, all sharing experiences and common influences. Our lives are governed by the same laws, systems, and processes, and yet we behave in ways that we learned from our cultural identities, based on who we identify as and how important certain values are to us.

Think of the community in which you live. How many cultures are reflected in that community? How different are the values and behaviors among all of the cultures that exist? Do you consider your community successful? Do cultures co-exist easily or is there a constant tension?

What happens when a culture is mired in despair and hopelessness, if common values are focused around the mere act to survive? How does a community blend that set of values with the values of its other cultures that don’t have to worry about survival and instead focus on achievements and success? Can members of “successful” cultures even comprehend the lives of those in other cultures just trying to live to see another day?

Cultural differences influence how we are treated simply in how others identify us or in how we self-identify. As a white person I never thought I would be subjected to profiling in America. It never used to matter that I was a woman. I was told I could grow up to be anything I wanted and I taught my daughters the same thing. But things changed during last year’s presidential campaigns and election. The Women’s March and other protests caused some men to start treating me differently, labeling me emotional, hysterical even, simply because I am a female and despite the fact that I didn’t participate in any of those events. As a citizen of the United States, I never thought I would live in a country ruled by a dictator. I still don’t, but the fear is real now when before I couldn’t imagine it. Right before my very eyes I’ve witnessed the man in the office of President of the United States knowingly lie and mislead people, blatantly and strategically breaking ethical and moral bounds if not legal ones. If a culture begins to allow lies and deceits and ambiguity, what rules and values do those behaviors create?

I am embarrassed to admit I am married to someone who defends Trump’s every word. I try to justify it by saying my husband doesn’t get it, he doesn’t understand women, he’s from the “old school”. But what do my words and my behavior say to the culture of women to which I belong? When my husband defends Trump by saying it’s within the President’s authority to pardon anyone he wants, what does that say about the values and rules we have in our home?

I am an American. I am a woman. Nothing will change those identities. But I have fear today that I didn’t have a year ago, that I never imagined I would feel, ever. How do I stay a member of my cultural groups when their values and behaviors are changing in catastrophic ways that I disagree with? These sweeping changes carry the potential to destroy the America I love and crack the foundation of my marriage and my home. How does one maneuver through a minefield like the one that has sprouted up around us?

Inner Voice

Call it intuition, or conscience, or knowing, or being in touch with the Universe. The fact is, many people hear an inner voice. Of those who do, some consider it a gift while others call it a curse. For some people the voice is loud and can’t be turned off. Others struggle to hear it because it is so quiet.

I’ve been aware of my inner voice for as long as I can remember. At times it’s been loud but mostly it’s been quiet and subtle. I have to strain sometimes to hear it and even then I don’t always interpret the message accurately. When I was younger the voice scared me. No one in my life ever talked about having an inner voice and I was afraid to say anything about mine out of fear that it would confirm my worst fear—that I was crazy. Over time I learned to trust my inner voice, understanding it was trying to guide me. I also discovered that I cannot will it to speak. On my darkest days I would call upon it to tell me what to do but the voice would be silent. It only spoke when it wanted to speak. I guess that’s the curse of my inner voice.

At times I’ve found it quite a struggle to interpret my inner voice’s message. Some messages made no sense at all so I would ask for more details only to be met with silence. Some messages were very clear but completely illogical and not anything I would ever consider acting upon. Once in a while I’d hit the jackpot and get a clearly communicated message that gave me the guidance I needed so that I could take action and find myself in a better place. Those moments are affirmation that I need to continue to listen and trust. And there have been enough of them to prove my inner voice is not just a coincidence and not a whimsy message being tugged through my brain like an ad being pulled through the air by a small plane. And so there’s the rub. My inner voice has been proven. It’s not one hundred percent accurate—or perhaps it’s more correct to say my interpretations are not always accurate—but it’s been correct enough times that it cannot be discarded nor ignored. So I’ve learned to hear and interpret the message to the best of my ability and take appropriate action.

For the last several weeks my inner voice has repeatedly told me I need to clean house, as in declutter and get rid of all the extra stuff sitting around. We have a big house and there’s a lot of extra stuff. It embarrasses me tremendously to admit it, but there are about one hundred boxes in our basement that haven’t been touched since the day we moved in ten years ago. Many of them are files from my husband’s career, correspondence and other papers, some of which have value. The only one who can really determine the valuable papers from those that need to go in the trash is my husband, and unfortunately he’s not too thrilled with my Decluttering Project. Other boxes contain a lot of knick-knacks and household goods that were extras and duplicates from having blended two households. These are easy for me to go through, but it still takes time. And I know some of these items are things my daughters will want. So I’m being careful to go through everything with them in mind. It’s a big project and it’s going to take a while. But I’ve started it, and I’ll keep working at it. The message was loud and clear: Just do it!

Needless to say there is a humungous mess in my basement that can’t be hidden from my family and some of them have been asking me questions. One of my daughters understands the concept of an inner voice and I believe she hears one as well. So it was easy to explain to her that I’m doing it because my inner voice told me to. She doesn’t question that. But my other daughters and my husband don’t believe in inner voices and they have become alarmed and want to know the Why. And that’s a problem because I don’t know why, other than I am feeling a very strong “demand” that I do this now and to get it done quickly. I have speculated about the Why and a couple of possible answers scare me (and my husband as well) so I’m going to ignore them. Instead I’ve done my best to placate my family by explaining this is long overdue and I’m tired of tripping over boxes. While that reasoning isn’t necessarily a lie, I know I don’t believe it so why should they. And they don’t. So I’ve taken another approach, and that’s answering a question with an even more important question.

Why does any household need eight extra sets of sheets, three wine decanter sets, five different sets of wine glasses (along with an assortment of matching sets of twos and threes), two punch bowl sets, eighteen flower vases, three dozen mismatched coffee mugs, thirteen kitchen aprons, and two room-sized rugs unrolled for ten years?

It’s the last item that gets them distracted and they forget about the Why. “You’ve been hiding not one but two room-sized rugs? What do they look like? How big are they? Can I have one?”

The Bully

There wasn’t any specific reason why I took a mental trip to the past, and yet there were a thousand reasons why. Usually I avoid thinking about any of the abuse I suffered, but sometimes thoughts just creep through like a spider moving in and out of a crack in the floorboards.

My ex-husband was a master at it. His bruises went deep to the soul but they left no marks on the surface. He worked the graveyard shift and I used to silently count down the hours until he would leave for work. I treasured my nights without him at home and I dreaded his nights off. After a while I used to dread any hour he was home when I or the kids were awake. I never knew when he was going to blow so I would run scenarios through my head. If he blows today, this person is off work and we can go there. Plan B. Plan C. Sometimes all the way to Plan F. The girls and I got so attuned to his body language that we knew he was going to blow before he did, and we could give ourselves a little lead time to get to a place of safety.

Once you learn to read that body language, you can’t turn it off unless you close your eyes. So without even thinking about it, you find yourself reading it in others who exhibit it. Perfect strangers even. Once I was grocery shopping and encountered a man who was oozing anger so silently that he was odiferous. Instantly I became ill and had to run outside to vomit in a garbage can. I so desperately wanted to go back and talk to his wife, to find out how I could help her break free. But I didn’t. I understood all too well that if she was in his presence, she could not be approached.

Several months ago I encountered another bully, an influential person who liked his ego to be stroked often. It bothered me to have a bully rise to the top and be in the brightest spotlight of all, caught on video nearly every day and appearing in my living room on the evening news. I watched in horror as he mocked a disabled reporter. Even more horrifying was watching others defend the bully, trying to tell me he wasn’t making a mockery of the disabled person. I watched the bully knowingly lie, escalate falsehoods and advance conspiracies, manipulate a mob, and incite violence. He called others names to their faces. He publicly falsely accused others of breaking the law. He was disrespectful to his wife in public, caught twisting her arm to cause pain. And she, like the woman in the grocery store, silently spoke just as loudly with her body language. Even my grown children could hear their body language. Sadly, many people could not hear it or would not.

And now it appears some people, some very smart and conniving people, played with that bully, manipulated that bully, to the point that now the bully is desperate and paranoid. On one hand, it’s a welcome sight to watch a bully get a taste of his own medicine. But on the other hand, there is no escaping the fear of what is to come when he blows.

Do I Know You?

Like many people, occasionally I find myself sifting through my social media and networking “friends” to remind myself of how I met that person, why I connected with that person, and whether or not I still want to be connected. Given our new president and the current political divide in our country, I’ve found myself doing this a little more often in recent weeks. I’m guessing some of my “friends” have been wondering the same about me since I’ve become more outspoken about recent events. It’s sad, but I admit that I thought some of my friends had more compassion and more courage, enough that they would speak out against a bully or a dictator. And I was shocked when some of my friends made generalizations and assumed I was “one of those” just because I believe in improving human rights for all. In fact, a couple of times I wondered, “Who are you? Do I know you? I mean, do I REALLY know you? And do you really know me?”

Generally it takes me a very long time to make friends but when I do, I make friends for life. So when something happens to cause a friendship to fade, I find myself unsettled. Did I say something I shouldn’t have? Did I not say something when I should have? I find the whole process of a “deep dive” to determine what caused the end of a friendship to be disheartening and disappointing. I have a lot of questions and usually I can come up with answers. Unfortunately, sometimes there is no clear understanding of why a friendship died and I can’t help but wonder if maybe I didn’t know that person as well as I thought.

In my former job, I worked with a few people on a daily basis and got to know them very well. One woman frequently vented (and joked) about her mother’s dementia. Another woman shared her struggles as she tended to her father who was recuperating from a broken hip, then grieved openly when he was diagnosed with cancer shortly after. He died a few months later. She had to take a bit of time off of work during all of that and we all pitched in to carry her load. Sharing those kinds of sorrows create friendship bonds, or so I thought. I guess I was naïve in thinking that because we had “suffered” together, we could continue to be friends even though I crossed over to a different company. But since I am no longer on the team and don’t see those people on a daily basis anymore, they’ve stopped including me. Out of sight, out of mind I guess.

I’m reminded of when one of my brothers went through a nasty divorce many years ago and his friends chose sides. My brother joked about how he was grateful that the divorce left him with six friends, enough for pallbearers when his time would come. I laughed at the time, but stopped laughing when I went through my own divorce and came out with less than six friends.

It’s easy to make friends when your kids are young. They make friends at school and you get to know those parents and you all end up at school events together, or you live in the same neighborhoods and take turns watching each other’s kids or carpooling to games or dances. But what do you do when all your kids are grown? How do you make new friends then?

Perhaps instead of making new friends, I should focus my effort on sustaining the good friendships that I have by reaching out more often. But what do you do about those friends who don’t reciprocate when you reach out and work to maintain a friendship? Some friends are satisfied with the standard, “How are you? Good. Me too. No, nothing’s new. Great catching up! Talk to you soon.” I’m finding that no longer satisfies me. I know we’re all tired and overworked, but aren’t we supposed to be there for each other? Share our struggles and our successes?

What it all comes down to is, I value my friends who share the trivial along with the grand, who are not afraid to cry amidst laughter, who dance with me when no one else is on the dance floor, and who take turns at being the initiator of our conversations. I want the friend who asks me how I am and then waits to hear the answer. And I want to be that kind of friend in return.

Six or Half Dozen

Six. A finite number. Definitive. While it’s more than one, it’s a singular entity. Six. Complete logic and order. Monochrome. You know exactly what you’re getting. Six.

On the other hand, half a dozen is ambiguous. Do you have exactly six, or do you have a little more than five or slightly less than seven? There are multiples with half a dozen. Is there chaos? Were there more and now you’re on the downslide? Or are you on the upswing, gaining more and more? Assumptions are made with half a dozen, but they depend on the context. Do you see potential or failure? And while one person may assume a positive grouping in half a dozen, another might see a doomsday prediction. Dichotomy. Half a dozen.

I asked for six. Half a dozen were served.