The Shadow Over Me

“Child abuse casts a shadow the length of a lifetime.”
Herbert Ward

I have lived my life in shadows.  In murky darkness and gloomy twilight.  Those shadows have clouded my vision, eroded my soul and short-circuited my thinking.  Memories have been whisk away into their depths, swallowed whole, emerging in bits and pieces at inopportune times, only to be digested yet again.  I cannot recall my past in a single linear timeline.  Instead, I see fragments reflected in shards, like a broken mirror scattered across the floor.  Nothing fits together, nor is it easy to grasp.  The sharp edges cut me deeply and I bleed profusely from the wounds.

But I bleed in secret.  I promised I would never tell.

I didn’t speak about the shadows until my father died.  With him gone from this world, there was no damage I could do him by reaching out for help.  I lost decades to the darkness with my mouth zipped shut and my heart surreptitiously oozing.  By the time I decided to tell, I had forgotten how to speak.

It has been a struggle for me to tell the story.  I can only reveal it a shard at a time.

When one exists in an opaque cloud, seeing oneself and the world realistically is an impossibility.  Experiences are distorted, as is self-image, if indeed, you are lucky enough to be left with one.  I was not left with a sense of self.  I believed myself to be nothing but an object, and not one of honor.  I was an object to be used and cast aside when the user was done with me.

Rebuilding a heart and soul is a quest akin to Don Quixote, charging windmills.  I have fought giants, attempting to put my world right, but the true monster is not the windmill I charge and fail to slay.  The true monster fathered me before striking me with fatal blows that changed the course of my journey forever.   It is much easier to hoist the lance and charge all manner of imaginary menaces than it would have been to face the one who abused and destroyed me.  I was but a child.  And then, when I escaped the monster’s grasp, I was a messy adult.  One who couldn’t speak the unspeakable.  And so, the unspeakable monster who did monstrous things walked free while I served time within my tiny, dark, and lonely cage, trying to slay the windmills that turned relentlessly within my own mind, blades slicing me into smaller and smaller pieces.

The shadows have grown long and darken with every passing year.

I longed for the warmth of a summer day filled with sunshine and soft breezes.  Instead, I have stooped and groveled beneath a cataclysmic eclipse that forever blocked the sun, freezing my heart and stealing my hope away little by little until not a drop remained.

Everything in my world has been darkened and drained of joy because everything inside of me was damaged and twisted by the fiend of a man from whose seed I have come.

I walk in the shadow of the valley of death.  My life has been spent in this valley, seeking refuge and escape.  The shadow has followed me through every day, every moment, every year, every occasion and it has spoiled and stolen every dream I ever had.  I have mounted my horse again and again, picked up lance after lance, charged and taken aim, only to find I was attacking a phantom without substance or form.

The only one I have managed to slay is me.

 

No Good Thing

A sliver of a moon

gives a sliver of light.

There’s a foul sign

in the sky tonight.

 

Nighttime has always evoked mixed emotions.

I like the anonymity it affords.  You can hide in it.  Relax your radar, let your smile slip, cry if you need to, all without being detected, chastised, chided or rejected.  You can simply “be.”  Allow the shadows to swallow you.  Drop pretenses and remove the mask.  Release the pressure and breathe without being evaluated, weighed.

With the light of day comes scrutiny and judgement.  Demands are made, standards are set and must be met.  Flaws are exposed and magnified.  The worst is laid bare and probed, then mercilessly dissected.

The dark keeps your secrets.  And forgives all flaws.

But the darkness is also treacherous.  You never know when you are about to walk off a cliff or if you are taking your last step on solid ground before plummeting into a pit from which there is no escape.  It keep all secrets; not yours alone.  It hides all who come to it.  All are welcome to take shelter in its impenetrable folds.

Even the monsters.

When I was a child, I feared those monsters.

I was convinced that Medusa appeared in one corner of my bedroom each third night of the full moon.  Terrified I would look at her and be turned to stone, I kept my eyes tightly scrunched closed with my head under the covers in case I forgot and inadvertently let an eyelid raise just enough to see her waiting there for me.  I was terrified of the ghosts who gathered and danced at the foot of my bed, anticipating opportunities to eat any fingers or toes that happened to slip over the edge of the mattress as I drifted into a troubled sleep.   Waiting to drag me away into the place of forever darkness.   I heard their footsteps as they wandered through the rooms and across the rafters, restlessly pacing, impatiently awaiting an opportunity to do me harm. Or to do me in.  And I was terrified of the shadow monsters who lived in my closet and under my bed.  Monsters who blended into the darkness, who came to life as dusk turned to night.

I feared…everything.  Everything that lurked in the night.  For the night was full of wraiths and apparitions, specters and banshees, all with malicious intent.

As I grew older, I realized monsters were real and they didn’t need to stay cloaked in inky shadows, only coming alive only when they couldn’t be fully seen.  I learned that they hid in the daylight, in plain sight, without fear of discovery.  And two of them slept in the bedroom across the hall from me.

There are monsters…and then, there are monsters.

The most terrifying monsters in my house were the ones who were not supposed to be monsters at all.  They wore a pleasant mask to hide their menace and evilness.  They knew how to smile at the right times. To say the right things.  To appear to be harmless, or even kind.

But when the mask came off, I saw them for who and what they were.  Even if there was only a sliver of moonlight to guide me.  Even with my eyes scrunched closed tightly.  I saw.

I escaped that house as soon as I could and fled the town where I grew up.  I fled that place where I was forced each day to struggle with blackness and shadows.  What I discovered was this: if you grow and live in the darkness, it doesn’t magically go away when you do.  When you have soaked in it, it goes deep.  It permeates your being.  The night burrows far underground inside of you, takes root and flourishes.

The shadows became my skin.   I was doomed to live my life shrouded in a thick, gloomy fog.

I discovered that you can run away, but you take yourself with you wherever you go.  So, though I escaped the haunted house of my childhood, the house of perpetual darkness where evil ruled and roamed, I could not escape myself.  Nor could I escape what it had made me. What I had become.  I had to make peace with the night.  I had to learn to embrace the dim sliver of light and live with the dark phantoms who now resided in my soul.

I learned to survive with a sliver of light, in shadows deep and cold and empty.

I learned to survive where monsters danced and cackled in victory.  Where I was harshly caressed by their terrifying whispers.  Haunted by an unseen presence.  Tormented by their icy fingers squeezing my heart.  Forever changed by those hideous shadows that darkened the landscape of my life and stole the sun from the sky.

 

The Last Innocent Game

I don’t remember the very last time my brother and I built a world out of Lego and played there in that imaginary land for hours without awareness of our actual surroundings.

I couldn’t tell you when we hit the beach ball over the roof the final time, whacking it as if it were a soft, enlarged version of a volleyball and the house was the net.

Nor do I recall the last time we donned Army surplus helmet liners and matching, tattered, green Army packs stuffed with hand-drawn maps, rock hand grenades, snacks (rations) and official orders compelling us to embark on mysterious adventures.  Pipe gun weapons with sanded wooden stocks were firmly clasped in hand by dirty fingers as we ran the neighborhood in search of spies, traitors or treasure.

I have no idea of the last time we climbed the cherry tree and sat hidden among the branches and leaves, munching ripe, juicy cherries while shooing daring, hungry birds away.  I can’t recall the last stalk of rhubarb we stole from our grandparent’s garden, the last time we sat in the middle of their blackberry bushes gorging on those delicious delicacies as our fingers and tongues were stained purple by the juice.  I don’t remember when we took our final summer bike ride through the back roads that snaked across the countryside surrounding the small town where we grew up.  I don’t know when we stopped creating our own board games because the “store-bought” versions were not challenging enough for our tastes.  Nor do I remember when we last said goodnight before setting off to our imaginary castles built high in the clouds in a distant, kinder world where we would sleep and dream innocent dreams as only children can.

I can’t remember when I played with my Barbie dolls for the last time.  Or the last time I ventured up the ladder of the tree house to travel through time while fighting many battles with the forces of evil.  Or perhaps it became a ship that sailed the seas.   I don’t know when I jumped rope the last time.  Dodged that final ball in a spirited game of dodge ball.  Kicked the last soccer ball down the football field next to our elementary school.  Climbed my last tree.  Drifted on an innertube down a crystal clear creek, never to again relax so completely.

I didn’t know these things would never happen again at the time.  I figured I would climb up into the tree house another weekend, ride my bike another summer, save the world when I accepted my next mission.  Yet somehow, without notice or ceremony, the Barbie dolls were stored in boxes that were never opened, the balls slowly deflated beneath the workbench in the garage, the tree house ladder rotted, and helmet liners were inexplicably misplaced, never to be found – or thought of – again.

At some point, without realizing it, a page had been turned, a milestone had been reached, a chapter had been completed.  And I played for the very last time.  One by one, the games of childhood dropped like leaves falling from the trees in autumn.  Until suddenly, the tree was completely bare.

It is the nature of time.  With its passage, we quietly transition from children to adults.  But when we take that last step as a child, we don’t recognize the significance.  We don’t even notice that the final thread of the cocoon has been cast aside and left behind.  We don’t understand that something has been done that can never be undone.

I do know the last time I played “fox and geese.”  It was a moment of passage, one I didn’t recognize so clearly at the time.  But, looking back, I can see this was the day I left the last vestiges of my childhood behind.  The day I surrendered to reality.  The day I could no longer pretend.

Most of my childhood memories are fractured.  Fading in and out.  Darkness between moments of chilling clarity.  This memory is no different in many ways.

It was almost Christmas.  My brother and I were on Christmas break, as was my father, a teacher at a school in a nearby city.  We woke to a beautiful, deep, delightful snow.  And we were appropriately thrilled, vibrating with excitement as we dressed for the cold with layers of socks, sweaters, pants, then boots, coats, hats and gloves.

My father, who was from Michigan, and who knew all the best winter weather games, was the one who suggested we play fox and geese.

He had to teach us the rules.  He, the teacher of so many lessons.

Afterward, we were cold, wet and exhausted.  We pulled off boots, shook the snow from our coats, laid soaked gloves on the washer and dryer along with socks that were damp in spite of our attempts at weather-proofing.  Then we headed to our rooms to change into dry clothing, with the expectation of later enjoying a warm mug of hot chocolate.

I remember the game, this game that I played only one time in my life when I was 10 or 11 years old, because of what came next.

This was the day I could no longer mask my father’s sexual abuse in fantasy.

In younger years, I created a caravan that came to my room each night.  The caravan was led by a man who always stopped to visit with me as the heavily-laden camels, laughing children, beautifully dressed women with bells on their fingers and toes, dogs, and other shadowy men slowly crossed the blankets of my bed.  The bed had somehow become endless stretches of sand that warmed beneath a hot sun.  And the line of the caravan stretched as far as I could see into the distant heat waves that rose from the  burning sand. When the final plodding camel had passed and the caravan was fading into the darkness behind me, the man would take his leave with a wave, a bow and a promise to return the next night.

The first time I saw these miniature people walking toward me, I was a terrified 4 or 5 year old child.  They visited for years and I slowly came to accept their presence.  But I never saw them again after playing fox and geese with my father.  They could no longer protect me from the truth of what he was doing.  The kisses, caresses, fingers in my vagina.  And worse.  Over time, he became more and more perverse.

That day, as I dried off in my room, he came in behind me.  And with promises of warming me, he did what he had been doing for years.  This time, I couldn’t fade into the desert sand or hide with the other laughing children of the caravan.  This time, the blankets were only blankets.  And I disintegrated.

That day, the child I had been was decimated, fragmented, destroyed.  And as I walked out of my room to claim my mug of hot chocolate, I left the broken child, along with the remnants of my soul, behind, laying on the floor in a bloody pile of shattered gore.

Whatever came after is lost in the darkness of the deep wounds I sustained.  Numbed by trauma, my world became about survival.  Even a castle in the clouds couldn’t protect me.

I don’t remember when I took the final step from childhood into adulthood.  I can’t recall the age at which I stopped building a town in the dirt in the crawl space beneath our house.  When I put the Mouse Trap game in the closet for the last time.  When I stopped believing in the magic of Christmas.  But I do know when the child in me finally succumbed to reality and there died an ugly death.  When the fantasies and lovely worlds my brother and I created in our minds were not enough to protect me from the damage, the knowledge, the truth.

I know the day I played my last innocent game.  That day when I learned to play fox and geese, realized I was the goose, and saw my soul devoured by my lustful, ravenous father.  The fox in disguise, unmasked.  The day my whole world turned upside down.  The day I lost everything.

 

Buds That Never Bloom

Summer has surrendered to fall, vanquished to memories of warmth, laughter and light.  Darkness and dampness have taken over, heralding in a regime of cold drizzle, shorter days and longer nights.  The times are changing along with the bright colors boldly displayed by dying leaves.  Leaves that refuse to give up without a fight.

I walked around my yard this past weekend, watching my dogs happily running and playing together.  I have many Rose of Sharon in my yard, hearty bushes that do well in the heat or cold, seemingly thriving on neglect.  I am not good with plants.  I can only coexist with those who do not need me.  Thus, we have made peace.  They bloom profusely from late spring through early fall in spite of me.  Often, branches heavily laden with buds and flowers have to be tied up to keep them from bowing their heads almost to the ground.  They provide food and shelter to bumblebees, hummingbirds and butterflies.  I enjoy their pastel blossoms, the way they dress up, flaunting their stylish beauty all summer long.

But toward the end of the season, during the early fall, they remove their colorful garb.  Buds, the next generation flowers that outwardly appear ready to pop open, further weigh those branches down.  Now, only random, rare florets appear.  One or two on a bush, spaced far apart in both time and distance.  Some bushes without blossoms are completely filled with weighty buds.  They struggle with this substantial burden, severely stooped beneath a heaviness of sadness and despair.

Winter is coming all too soon.

The buds turn yellow; then brown.  Loaded with potential.  But something has gone wrong.  The conditions are never adequate for the delicate petals to break free of the outer shell that entombs them.  They don’t receive some critical ingredient needed to flourish.  Needed to thrive.

I stare, awestruck.   Transfixed.  Broken.

I am like the bud on that slender branch.  So much potential.  I was born to be a glorious flower.  I had two parents, branches who gave birth to me.  But the things I needed to blossom were not available.  I did not receive the nurture, the care, that was needed for me to grow and bloom.  And so, as time passed, I slowly died.

Instead of nurturing sap, I was abused.  Instead of encouraging warmth from the sun, I was burned and fried.   Instead of guidance, I was left to navigate harsh weather and changing seasons alone.  I tried.  I tried to bloom anyway.  I had the potential to do , to become, to be something beautiful.  But I was never able to overcome the deficiencies or escape the labels and limitations placed on me during a critical stage of development.  I was never able to break free and dance in the wind.  I was never beautiful.  I was but a bud that dried up and fell, providing no joy or entertainment.  A disappointment, hard and defective.

I am a bud that never bloomed.  That never will.

I wanted to become a flower.  I wanted to break from the walls encasing me and taste sweet, glorious freedom.  I wanted to bloom.  To live.  To flourish.

But it is too late.  Frost nipped me in the bud.  And as winter approaches, I crack, turn dead brown and shrivel until little of the young, green sprout remains.  I am without life or beauty, grieving all the possibilities that will never be and dreams never realized.  I will not bloom.  And when spring comes, I will quietly fall from the newly wakened branch to which I’ve long clung, letting go of my last tiny ember of hope.  Thus, I will return to the dust from which I came.  I will depart without fanfare, making room for new tender buds that are yet to sprout, to bloom, to dance on gentle breezes, to flourish and thrive long after I have gone.

 

 

Don’t Slow Down

When I slow down, when I let the silence linger, turn off the TV and the chatter in my brain, when I stop streaming music or reading an endless flow of nonsensical, sometimes manipulative updates, occasionally deceptive posts and scams that plague Facebook, the pain corners me. Has its way with me.  Forces me to experience the full power of my raw, excruciating emotions.

I am very good at running.  When it comes to plastering on a smile and making it look like everything is wonderful, Facebook has nothing on me.  I am very good at telling myself lies so I don’t have to face reality.  I’m a master at running my brain around in circles, at circumnavigating the truth without touching it.  I’m very good at avoiding the pain and sidestepping the regret.  The disappointment.  The shame.  I’m good at convincing myself my life is worth living.  Until the silence stops me in my tracks and rubs my face in the emptiness of my existence.

In the darkness and silence, everything I’ve dreaded and deftly avoided captures me.  Surrounds me.  Body slams me into a wall and forces me to feel the agony and desolation I’ve strategically evaded.

Quiet is the enemy.  For silence is no fool.

Silence knows how to move in when distractions are at a lull.  It knows how to take advantage of the moment, sneaking up on me, overcoming all defenses.  And it uses its advantage to shine the truth like a laser beam that slices without mercy, taking aim through the smoke, shooting deadly arrows straight into the foundation of my fabricated reality.   It drives those arrows home where they deeply penetrate, massacring the most vulnerable places in my psyche.

The subconscious speaks in the quiet.  It speaks in a voice that can’t be drowned out.  Determined to be heard at last, it screams out, reverberating far into the cavernous regions of the soul.

When surrounded by the laughter of coworkers, the busyness of work and the white noise of life, nothing profound can penetrate those unfathomable regions of my being.  But when all the noise that masked the emptiness suddenly goes deadly still, the thoughts and feelings that were hidden and buried are jolted awake by that scream and then bubble to the surface where they slap me around.  Punch me in the gut until I can no longer stand.  They perforate my heart and pummel my weary mind.

There are no shadows to hide behind in the stillness.  No walls can protect.  No defenses can deflect the blows.  Clarity can be a curse.  Comprehension a lightning bolt that strikes hard and fast, stopping and felling me in my tracks.  Taking me down with one tremendous flash.

Thankfully, the beating doesn’t last.  The emergency protocol is initiated.  Well-oiled defense mechanisms operating on auxiliary power spring into action, numbing and plugging holes.  Turning up the white noise.  The blows become softer.  Clamor is restored.  Eventually, I’m able to get up and move on as if nothing terrible happened.  The pain is quickly returned to the deep grave from which it was aroused, once more carefully buried in the chasm where it can be contained without my heart sustaining further damage.

I do not mark the grave with a tombstone.  No headstone is placed above ground to remind me of what rests beneath the layers of my soul. Remembering is not the goal.  The goal is to forget.

I pick up the pace, running swiftly from the scene in spite of residual soreness, determined to distance myself from the truth Imprisoned within me.  I turn on some music.  Check Facebook as if my life depended on it.  Play a few mind-numbing computer games.  Stay busy.  Running faster and faster now.  Leaving the deafening silence in my dust.

My mind circles are humming once more.  I repeat a mantra as I gain speed.

Don’t slow down.  Keep moving.  Don’t look back.  Don’t slow down…

Big

I have always been the “big” girl.  I’ve played that role, though against my will, for most of my life.  I’ve been the biggest of my classmates, my church friends, my coworkers, my (ex) husband’s friends wives.  I was always the person others observed while exhibiting an expression of disbelief and horror.  As if I had leprosy.  Or worse.  They rejected me for my outer wrappings.  And had pity for my ex.

I was the freak.  The one who didn’t fit in.  Because I was big.  And that made me ugly.  Unworthy.  Disgusting.

The first time someone told me I was fat, I was 7 years old.  They told me I couldn’t be the princess.  Princesses were little and pretty.  Dainty.  Adorable.  They weren’t big.  They weren’t a fatty.  Like me.

Big girls never get the prince.

I hadn’t considered my size.  Not until that day.  I still remember where I was.  In my grandparent’s driveway.  Riding my bike around in circles as we haggled for a star role in our pretend game.  And when they told me I was too big to be the princess, unacceptable to play the role of the fair maiden the prince would rescue and fall in love with, I rode away with tears running down my cheeks.  Hidden away in a quiet place, I thought about what they said.  I started to compare myself to them.  And I realized they were right.  I was bigger, taller, looked older. There was nothing spindly or fragile about me.   I was not petite, girlish or cute.  Certainly not worthy of being rescued or loved.

By the time I graduated from high school, I was well on my way to being seriously overweight.   My band uniform pants were the largest size they made for junior girls.  Even my feet and hands were big.  And though I was no longer the tallest in my class, what I lacked in height, I made up for in bulk.   If anyone saw me at all, they quickly turned away.  To talk to the cute, popular girls.  The girls who were a size 3.  The princesses.

My parents told me I would be such a pretty girl, if only I would lose weight.  My great hair was my only redeeming feature.  And your hair can only buy you so much acceptability, even with your parents.

When you’re the big girl, you’re nothing at all.  And nothing can compensate for your repulsiveness.

I went on a diet for the first time before I started Junior High.  And my life has been one long diet ever since.  An endless battle, shunning the foods I enjoy and eating salads without dressing instead.  Of eating very little, yet still gaining weight.  Of watching others devour in one meal at least three times the amount of food I consume in a day…but they were still princesses because they never got big.  I ate only one healthy meal a day and still packed on the pounds.  Denied and starved myself only to be transformed into the wicked witch.

When you’re overweight, people don’t believe you when you tell them you don’t eat that much.  They think you’re lying.  They smirk and assume you eat in secret; eat massive amounts of fattening foods behind closed doors.  But it’s not true.  If only they would be forced to exist on the quantity of food I consume!  Then they would understand.  Wishful thinking.  Where is karma when you need it?

I have only been princess-sized twice.

In my late twenties, I began to strictly control what I ate because I couldn’t control anything else in my world.  I started walking.  Then running.  And then, I was running 13+ miles a day.  I weighed and measured my food, counted every calorie, refused to eat unless it was at times I deemed to be acceptable and only allowed myself small quantities of food, none of which was enjoyable.  I even counted calories in the gum I chewed.

Miraculously, I lost weight.  When I hit 90 pounds,  I started to feel really good about myself.  For the first time ever, I wasn’t a big girl.  I didn’t have to be ashamed because I took up too much space.

But it only lasted 6 years.  I broke my hip in two places, the result of the strain from all the exercise.  Turns out, I didn’t have big bones.  Turns out, my bones were on the small side.  You could see them pretty clearly at 86 pounds, the lowest weight I reached as an adult.  And I loved to look at those bones.  Because it meant I could be the princess.  It meant I wasn’t a big girl.  Nor an abomination.

I had never heard of anorexia.   Wasn’t until much later that I learned about eating disorders.  Took even longer before I realized I just might have had one.  One that abandoned me when I needed it the most.  For after I was forced to stop running, I started to gain weight.

I got bigger and bigger and bigger.  No matter how little I ate, how much I walked, the pounds accumulated.   I hated myself.  Was buried under layer after layer of shame and self-loathing.

My ex was ashamed of me too.  After years of living with his rejection, disgust and shaming, he finally decided to do some running himself.  He left me for someone younger, blonde and much, much thinner.

The switch suddenly flipped again a few years after he dumped me.  But this time, I learned a new trick.  I ate like a lumberjack, but threw up everything I ate.  Sometimes 5, 6, 10 times a day.  And I lost the weight; it all but melted off.  This time, I was older.  My body wasn’t as resilient.  I began to have some major physical problems about the time I hit 92 pounds.  Problems like not being able to stand up or walk without falling over. Crazy cramps from potassium depletion.  Irregular heartbeat.  Unable to control my muscles.

I slowly realized how dangerous my new friend could be.  It took a while because I hadn’t had any physical problems “before,” during my first encounter with anorexia.  But I didn’t care.  I downed electrolyte enhanced drinks, ate teaspoonfuls of salt and kept losing.  Staggering along the treacherous precipice while attempting not to fall off.

Just as suddenly, after 10 blissful years of freedom, the switch flipped again.  And when it flipped, I gained.  My greatest fear became reality.   I was nothing but a big girl in disguise.  And I was being unmasked in spite of starving myself.  Can’t fight who you are.  Can’t hide it forever.

The ugly, worthless, disgusting big girl revealed herself once more.  The despicable, stupid, piece of crap fatty began to take control.

But I can’t.  I don’t have the strength to keep fighting.  I simply can’t.  I can’t be THAT girl ever again.  The girl who is too big to be the princess.  The girl who is repulsive to the prince.  The 7 year old on the bike, rejected and teased for her size.  The big girl.  I can’t. I can’t live in that body.  I have reached the end of my ability to deal.  I can’t go back to that place. I can’t go back to being that person.

I won’t.

If I can’t be small enough to be the princess, I would rather die.

 

It Used to be My Sky

It used to be my sky.  I opened my eyes every day in the darkness and watched the sun rise in that sky.  I listened to the noise of traffic that roared continually beneath it.  I basked in the warmth and light that shone from it.  It was my sky.  It was the sky I loved.  The sky beneath which I wanted to live and to die.

The sun in that sky dressed up in the afternoon and went out to party in a magnificent display of glamour.  I enjoyed watching it slowly stroll down the horizon.  I loved the pageantry.

I chose that sky.  I chose the city beneath it as my home.  Chose it for the warmer weather. The mild winters it ushered in when it was frigid to the north and unbearable.  I watched the sky cradle and caress with warm breezes as it blew in short winters, shepherding them out with great haste.  Replacing the barren earth with abundant green. Painting the landscape with flowers of every color.  Watering them with gentle tears.

I loved that it only cried a few times a year.  Just enough times.  I chose this sky; treasured it.  And when I had to leave it behind, I lost my heart.

I gave that sky the best years of my life.  My youth departed below it.   Precious periods of my limited time that can’t be recaptured were squandered there, under its watchful eye.

I am jealous of those who remain, enjoying the sunrises and sunsets, the beauty, the gentle breezes.  I am jealous that everything in their life worked in their favor, allowing them to stay and live beneath my sky.

I’m jealous of the lives they have built in the city I selected.  A city big enough to get lost within, but not so big it overwhelmed and drained the soul.  There were always many great things to do under the clouds that float lazily across the deep blue dome above the streets and parks.  I walked in those parks.  Smelled the frilly, multi-colored flowers.   Ran the trails.  Felt the grass beneath my bare feet.  Rode my bike on those streets.  Worked there.  Shopped in the malls and quaint boutiques.  Fought the sometimes frustrating, but mostly navigable, flowing ribbons of traffic.

For a while, I had a life there.  A hard life.  But a life.

It was a life of struggle.  But there was hope. Because I believed anything could happen beneath that sky.  I believed a day would come when all the struggle would be worth the pain.

I fought to carve out a life.  I fought to shape hard, sharp stones into building blocks.  To create a existence of worth; one that had value.  The kind of life those around me live and still enjoy.  Those who still look up at my sky.

I had to leave it all behind.  Because I fought, but I lost.  I believed, but I believed in vain.

I lost the person I was going to grow old with.  I lost my job, my money, my home.  My friends, for the most part, faded away.  Like fog over a lake in the morning, when the sun rises and is gone without a trace.  I lost the belief that I could have a better future…or any kind of future.  I lost my hope.  And so, I lost my sky.  I had to leave it all behind me.

When I left, there was nothing much left of me beneath that sky.  Not much left with which to move forward.

My life sits within me, a massive ruin.  A pile of rubble and crumbs.  I will never be able to rebuild, to create something healthy or good  or beautiful from this wreckage.  The sky now above me is cold and steely.  Stormy, it cries often.  Massive tears fall out of the gray-blue.  They turn to icy snow when the temperature dips.  And it dips often.

I rent a tiny box of a house beneath this unfriendly sky and fight idiotic traffic, drivers that don’t know how to merge or turn corners or accelerate onto an expressway.  The streets are narrow and flow is inefficient.  There are few parks.  No trails.  It costs more to live in this place where I do not want to live under this sky that is not my sky.  There are fewer jobs and they all pay less.  It is a harsh existence here under this brutal firmament.  Harsh and painful.

I stand alone below this steely unyielding sky.  I have no partner.  No one carries my heart with them and I have not been honored with the opportunity to carry theirs.  The one thing I wanted beyond all things in this life is that:  to love and be loved.

But it was an unrealistic dream; one that will never become a reality.  Not under this, or any sky.  Not even beneath the one I reluctantly left behind.

 

Brain Damage

I waited a very long time to get help.  This was partially because it took me forever to get to a point in life where I could afford professional therapy.  It was certainly delayed by the pressure  my (then) husband used to avoid involvement, unpleasantness or difficulty.  He told I needed to act “normal” and “keep it to yourself” because he didn’t want to be bothered with the darkness and brokenness inside of me.  It was also somewhat attributable to the heavy sense of shame I carried within me.  Shame for being defective and dirty.  For being repulsive and unsightly by simply being.  Because I wasn’t like everyone else.  And since I was working 10 or 11 hours a day as I tried to prove my worth to various employers, it was also partially due to exhaustion and an inability to make time for myself.

I learned early I was undeserving of space, care and acceptance.  Abuse, particularly when you’re a child, drives that point deep.

In truth, I didn’t make a serious, “all in” attempt at healing until a few months after my father died.  Suddenly, it felt as though the time had come to deal with the festering wounds I continually attempted to hide beneath layers and layers of makeup and masks.

At the time, I didn’t realize there was any need to rush.  I didn’t understand healing might not be attainable if the wounds were left unattended for a long period.  I didn’t know coping mechanisms, shattered perceptions of worth and self were being cemented more permanently into place as I aged.  I thought healing would happen “someday” when the stars aligned and someone finally valued me.  I certainly didn’t know my brain might actually be working against me as I slogged through all the ruin.

Did you know that child sexual abuse actually causes brain damage?

I didn’t hear about the results of this body of research or its implications until I was years into the healing journey.  I was in weekly “talk therapy” sessions with a gifted psychologist, giving the process everything I had to give.  I journaled, prayed, attended workshops, went through a few abuse and sex abuse recovery groups, completed 2 different yearlong Celebrate Recovery groups and allowed a couple of different psychiatrists to experiment on me by prescribing every different antidepressant on the market in various combinations and in ever higher dosages. Nothing worked.

The most frustrating part for me was expending so much effort when I had little energy to spare, yet it changed nothing, in spite of all I put into it.  In spite of the time and money spent.  I became dejected  and deeply dismayed, occasionally shedding a few tears because of the lack of progress or results.  I knew I wasn’t a stupid person, so why couldn’t I grasp the information I was being given and bring it to life in my soul?  Why wasn’t I being transformed?

I’ve always felt damaged.  Like I’m faking it, hoping to someday make it.  But it never occurred to me my brain was the part of me that had probably sustained the most damage because of my abusive childhood.

I was told by my counselor that I needed to reprogram my thought processes.  I tried.  For years.  But I slowly began to realize, what I needed was more encompassing than this.  In actuality, the sexual abuse, in particular, overwhelmed and fried the circuitry in my brain.  What I need is not to be reprogramed.  I can load new thoughts all day long and run them through my head again and again, but it’s never going to make a difference if the program can’t run properly.  And it can’t.  Because the problem isn’t so much the program as it is the wiring.  It’s been incinerated.   Nothing is going to process and transmit the way it should with smoldering, shattered and scorched wiring.

It was a small relief to learn I wasn’t a failure for failing to reprogram my thinking.  Though hard to believe and comprehend, I started to glimpse the real problem.  It was deeper than poorly written and executed programming.  I had experienced a circuitry overload that burned my brain, creating a philological barrier, changing how I process data and interpret experiences.  The two hemispheres of my brain aren’t as integrated as the brains of people who haven’t gone through the trauma I survived as a child.  Perhaps this is due to an engulfing need to compartmentalize and isolate.  Or maybe it’s simply the way brain development is affected by continual trauma, abuse and intense stress during childhood.  Regardless, I have begun to realize I’m not merely fighting old, wrong programming.  I’m fighting a brain that has been singed, seared and annihilated by severe, horrific child abuse.  It’s no longer capable of making the connections I’ve long tried to make as I’ve sought to be healed.

Trauma is biologically encoded in the brain in a variety of ways. Considerable and often negative changes in structures like the hippocampus, and the coordination and integration of neural network functioning have been identified. The nervous systems of children who are abused runs on a constant high because of the continual anticipation of further danger. There are documented alterations in cortisol production in children with histories of abuse and neglect. And this state of chronic ‘hyper-arousal’ persists throughout adulthood, so even when the abuse and violence has ceased and the environment is “safe,” adults who experienced childhood abuse perceive the threat to be present; their fear is maintained and becomes pathological.

The brain is so damaged, it begins to dismantle us.

The experiences of childhood abuse cause changes that are reflected in physiological, psychological and interpersonal experiences.  Adaptation to trauma, especially early in life, becomes a “state of mind, brain, and body” around which subsequent experience organizes. Research has even documented significant changes on a genetic level.  Every function of mind, body, heart, soul, emotions, logic and even cell structure is altered by the abuse experienced in childhood.

The brain governs everything.  And when the brain is damaged, certain functions become impossible.

When I say I was forever changed by the abuse I survived during childhood, or explain that my path was eternally altered, I’m not speaking metaphorically.  The damage is comprehensive, large-scale and wide-ranging.

Who I was and who I was meant to be was obliterated before I entered grade school.  That destruction changed every fiber of my being and shaped me into someone far different than the person I was created to be and become.  My life and an ability to truly live and enjoy life was massacred by abuse.  My brain has been extensively damaged on a physical, as well as mental and emotional level, just as surely as if I had experienced a horrendous car crash that fractured my skull, leaving me barely alive and unbearably traumatized.

Brains don’t bounce back.  Once damaged, the consequences will be noted in various aspects, both minor and momentous.  The entire personality is altered.  Health, both emotional and physical, is compromised as various bodily and cognitive functions are short-circuited.  This is the gift my parents gave to me.  This is what I have been fighting against and attempting to overcome.

No wonder I am weary.  No wonder the results have been limited and the path too difficult to traverse.  No wonder I feel as if I’m damaged goods.   A failure.  My heart knows, even if my brain can no longer comprehend the extend of the mutilation.

My wiring has been short-circuited.  I’m trying to change what has already been radically, fatally altered.  I’m attempting to transform myself into a normal, healthy person, but I am not normal and my health has been broadly compromised.  My brain has been unspeakably damaged.  And it’s quite likely healing isn’t a reasonable expectation or probable outcome.

 

Child of Pain

The world that I was born into was a dark and lonely place.  I figured it out pretty early.  My life wasn’t like that of other kids.  My parents weren’t like their parents.  The things that happened behind closed, locked doors, out of sight of those my parents sought to fool and impress, were very unlike those experienced by most other children.

 

I was a child of pain.

 

The very first thing my eyes were able to see, blurry though the image might have been, were the faces of my parents.  The people who created me, so to speak.  They claimed they wanted me.  But these people who struggled to name me, who never really adjusted to having me, who were supposed to love and protect me, introduced me to a hostile, chaotic, dark world.  A planet where pain ruled and thrived.

 

Pain claimed me at birth and never let me go.

 

It became a way of life for me and it wore my canyons deep.  When I awoke, it greeted me.  And it held me as I would weep.  As my life went on, it became my song.  It was all I knew.  It was the way I grew.  It penetrated my bones and as my soul grew numb and cold, it wrote on my heart of stone. Marked me forever.

 

From the womb that bore me, that grew, ripped and tore me, to the abuse, the out-of-control screaming and hitting, the demands and expectations that I could never meet or fulfill, through all the ugly and despicable things I endured, I became pain.  Pain became me.

 

There was no safe place of laughter, no nurturing, no dinner conversations about my dreams…or my day.  My world was lists of chores, front and back, 30 items or more long that were supposed to be completed every evening before my parents got home.  It was straight A’s, or else, smiling on demand, keeping my mouth shut, and hiding from their violent outbursts whenever I could see them coming.  I didn’t laugh together with my parents or act silly and have fun with them.  Instead, I learned about secrets and how to keep them.  I learned about monsters who hide in plain sight, who wore masks of respectability, but who snuck into my room at night to rape and abuse me.  I learned about double standards, surviving the darkness and nightmares all alone, keeping my head down, and trying to do as many of those chores on the never-ending lists my mother made for me without complaint.  But nothing I was or did was good enough.

 

I learned slapping leaves a big red welt, but it fades pretty quickly.  I learned that you can be knocked across the room with one punch, but you can still get up, go to your room and do your homework.  I learned that being alone, totally and utterly alone, was crushing, but being with people who trampled and molested you was even worse.   I learned about the power of words to cut you to your core.  To leave you bleeding and deeply wounded.  I learned about pain.  Pain provided the only air I was allowed to breathe; to take into my lungs.  It was the blood that flowed through my veins.  It was my skin.  And my eyes.  For everywhere I looked, pain was there, waiting to take me down.

 

I stumbled through endless days, trying to avoid land mines.  Trying to stay alive…physically and emotionally.  I succeeded to a degree.  I physically endured.  But my body was the only part of me that made it out alive.

 

Child of pain.  It ate my soul and devoured my heart.  It permeated every fiber of my existence.

 

Fate spun her web made of poisoned thread.  I have a multitude of scars to show for it.

 

Once you are wounded and marked, once you have been saturated by pain, it doesn’t go away when finally you physically escape your abusers.  Abusers who gave you life, then sucked it right back out of you.  It stays with you.  Sometimes forever.  Once a child of pain, always a child of pain.  The scars don’t fade easily, if at all.  Pain enjoys torturing and destroying. Playing with you.   It finds you wherever you go, delighting in the chase.  There is no escape.

 

Some things cannot be repaired.  Some wounds can never be fully healed.  Some pain is so deep, you drown in it.  You are absorbed into it.  It changes you.  And once you know pain this intimately, you are joined with it forever until you become one with the agony and anguish.

 

Born into pain.  Living with the shame, sorrow and heartache, trying to build a life in spite of massive damage and debilitating brokenness.  Living with the emotional encumbrance, longing for escape, until death ultimately marks you, claims you and carries you away.

 

Child of pain.  Until death do us part.

 

Single

At my age, “married” is the most common marital status.  Singles groups are filled with those in their 20s and 30s…even a few in their 40s, but not with those in my age bracket.  People my age are beginning to enjoy their grandchildren or they’re traveling with their spouse as they celebrate 25+ years of marriage. So, when someone asks if I’m married and I tell them I am not, there’s always the sound of mild surprise in their voice when they ask their next question.  And the next question, without fail is this:  “widowed or divorced?”

I discovered early on, within mere weeks of my ex-husband’s departure, it was better to be widowed.

The end result is basically the same.  You’re alone and that’s not really what you wanted.  You’re left to pick up the pieces of what is left of your life, your dreams.  Now, you’re supposed to move on with humility and grace.  You have to fill out a lot of legal documents, switch accounts into your name, erasing the last traces of the person you loved.  Build new traditions and routines.  But the differences are significant.

My ex left me after years of belittling, rejecting and deriding me for not being the person of his dreams and for not living up to his expectations.  He “fell in love” with a younger, more beautiful and more lovely woman than I can ever hope to be.  She was to be the perfect wife.  One who cooked, who cleaned, who worked and made good money, who never had an opinion that contradicted his own and who was always ready for hot, dirty sex.

When a spouse dies, they aren’t leaving you because they want to.  They have no choice in the matter.  You might not have had the most perfect marriage overall, but for most women who are left to cope with the death of their husband, love was shared and parting is extremely painful.

What I found, having been dumped and not parted by death, is that I lost almost all of my friends when he left me.  They didn’t know how to relate to me as a single.  We had done “couple” things and now, those things were awkward.   In truth, they probably liked him more than they liked me.  He had a much more outgoing personality.  He was funny.  Not too deep, but lots of fun.  I, on the other hand, am introverted.  I spend vast amounts of energy hiding all my many deficiencies and the brokenness in my soul so as not to offend.   I work extremely hard to be normal.  This brokenness is the result of growing up with abusive parents who did a lot of damage.  Couple this with waiting too long to get professional help to recover and rebuild.  I’m deep; too deep for most.  I think and feel things most people never want to consider and I’ve experienced the kind of abuse they don’t want to know exists.  I try, but I know I’m not even close to epitomizing the definition of a “good time.”

They liked him more and they kind of figured he dumped me for good reasons.  So, life got very empty very quickly…and it wasn’t full to begin with.

I am well acquainted with a couple of women who lost their husbands when they were too young.  It was astounding to see how everyone rallied around them.  Yes, their life was also empty in a horrible way.   A loss is a loss and it’s always going to hurt deeply.  But they didn’t also lose all the other significant people who had been a part of their life and on whom they relied.  Those people were still there.  A lot.  They walked beside them as they cried and raged and vomited their grief.  They included them in events, ignoring the “fifth wheel” discomfort.  They reflected acceptance and let them know they were no less of a person, nor less worthy of love because of their loss.

Those ladies didn’t fill out all their legal forms alone.  Nor did they always have to wipe away their own tears.

If you reach a point where you long for love and dare to hope you can find someone with whom to share your life once more, I have also observed, though divorce is common, men tend to shy away when they find out you are single because your ex left you.  This is particularly true when you objectively share they “left for another woman.”  You’re then regarded as being tainted, defective and assumed to a bitch who got what was coming to you.  Why else would the guy you were married to have bailed?

But if you’re widowed…well, he didn’t want to leave you.  You were still prized, cherished and maybe even a little spoiled.  You were probably a real catch!   Some guy wanted you; wanted to be with you forever.  Which makes you someone worth pursuing, worth getting to know, and possibly, someone worth loving and sharing life.

I am single.  At an age where being single is a bit of a strike against you, right off the bat.  I am alone…and not by choice.  I was dumped.  And yes, I am flawed.  Deeply wounded with many faults and failings.  I see each one of my deficiencies…and oh, how I wish I could make myself into another person altogether.  I know I’m probably harder to love than that person who had never had to rebuild their soul from dust and ashes.  I keep hoping, if I dig around in those ashes long enough, I’ll find something within me that’s worth loving, even just a little.  I keep praying I’ll have something of value to give.  But what I’ve experienced is unending aloneness.  Struggling simply to survive.  Digging through those ashes by myself.  Because realistically, who is going to spend their time poking around in the dirt when there are beautiful gardens to explore and gorgeous landscapes to enjoy.

 

The World Through My Eyes