When Holidays Hurt

He always said I lived in a fantasy world. And I did. I created a place that was filled with happiness to share with the children, joy in my friendships, enthusiasm for my business ventures, wonder at the beauty in the world, faith all would be well.

But his poison would find a way to invade my world, leaving me feeling ridiculously stupid for believing I could stay in that place without being knocked down a few pegs, as he’d say. Such are the waves that pull me from peacefully moving forward and back into the dark abyss haunted by his voice and actions.

Growing up, I loved Christmas. My parents were of the spiritual truth over church attendance mindset. While church was not the centerpiece of my childhood Christmas, socializing was. My mother loved hosting a Christmas Eve open house, inviting neighbors for libation, food and good company. Christmas dinner was a time for the orphaned and otherwise disenfranchised to come into our home and share a meal, one which she began to prepare early in the day. Gifts were not the highlight, presence was.

Once my parents moved to Colorado, Christmas was increasingly isolating for me. The second year they lived there I spent Christmas Eve and day alone while he worked. He took any joy and anticipation I had away by refusing to participate in things I lined up or attend my friends’ holiday gatherings. We’d go to holiday parties, company parties, club parties where no one was ever the wiser that I was pretending all was well when it was actually awful.

Thanksgiving and Christmas, once favorite holidays, became synonymous with sadness and yearly culminations of the accumulated emotional pain I endured. He hated for me to decorate, complaining that I spent too much money and that I asked for help, insisting I should not buy him a gift though I took great pleasure in giving. He would threaten to not buy me a gift because of something I said, did, didn’t do, and sometimes followed through reminding me he told me he wouldn’t be getting me anything if I persisted. He complained about attending Christmas services at church. He was too tired, it was too hot, too crowded. When the kids came along he would leave the house in the middle of them opening presents, or be gone when they would awake; excited to open their presents. I had to answer their questions on where he went with lies because I didn’t usually know where he went.

After Christmas he would complain about having to see my relatives in Baltimore, presenting a laundry list of everything that was wrong with my family and ending in a tantrum that I should see them with the kids and let him stay at the hotel. There was always something. It was a lonely place.

The first Christmas after I was shot was filled with peace. A friend helped get the tree in the house and up in the stand. The kids and I decorated it and the house in a quiet welcome to the season. They were acolytes at the Christmas eve midnight service at our church. Though I feared Christmas morning they would miss him, the absence of arguing and pleading, of wondering when he might come back, the gratitude for having survived, were unexpected gifts that year.

We’ve managed to do unconventional things since to celebrate. While I still eschew holiday parties, we do try to go out to dinner Christmas Eve or to the movies Christmas day. Even now I am still fragilely perched. PTSD slyly intrudes even on the best of days, keeping me stuck in a twilight where I can’t quite access the brightness of the sun and the darkness is eerily visible.

I don’t know the answers on how to quiet the voices and move fully into the light. I only know how grateful I am that I am free, that we are free, and how saddened I am for those who are still trying to navigate holidays without losing their sanity or lives.

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I Am Hillary

The election is over, and now the work begins to heal from the hurt. I’m not referring to a nation, I am speaking exclusively about my own challenges with those in my life, who knowing everything I have been through, still supported a hate filled, sadistic man.

To look at the truth which surrounded every part of who he is and deny it, to ignore clear and consistent signs that this individual abuses power, to look away and not just make excuses but feed into his impunity to treat others as little more than pawns in his game, to dismiss his heartlessness leaves me feeling battered and re-victimized.

For most it was an election. For me, it was everything I had lived with on a daily basis in my marriage, in my face again; front and center for the last eighteen months. Every day, it felt hauntingly familiar and personal. He was not someone running for office, he was someone I knew intimately.

The name calling, the mocking, the verbal attacks, the sexual assaults, the victim blaming, the entitled belief system, considering himself smarter than getting caught, bragging that he could do whatever he wants without repercussion or consequence and the actuality of that, the lies denying what he said and did despite irrefutable documentation, the bigotry, the two faced-ness, the smear campaigns; all stirred deep injuries from a past I try to leave behind every day.

He is my husband. Any small misstep, any slip of tongue, shortcoming or change of mind brought up over, and over, and over; mercilessly thrown in my face and used as its own weapon to beat me down. Despite it all, I rose.

I am Hillary. I have fought tirelessly, trying to stay the course and not succumb to the hate being spewed at me by those I did nothing to harm. I am not perfect. I have done the best I could. I have made mistakes. I have had lapses in judgment. I’ve made decisions with the information I had. I have said the wrong things. I have behaved in ways I’ve regretted. I know contrition. I have tried to make amends. I have been held to a standard of perfection that diverts attention from the decent person I try to be.

The challenge that lies before me is how do I move forward from here to find a place for those who looked away from goodness and truth to enable someone to perpetuate hate, as happened in my own life? How do I forget the betrayal of those who continued to believe and support him, the oxygen that fed a flame and supplied a narcissist; in the face of the overwhelming evidence of who he was? How will these wounds heal over when the source, revealed, remains unchanged? Is there any going home again or has this, too, forever changed me?

He won’t simply go away if I stay off social media, or turn the news off as my therapist suggested to minimize my PTSD. He is once again in my home, poisoning everything. It is the dividing line of friendship, the new battleground in the fight for personal peace.

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Déjà Vu

As I sat down this morning in my sunny living room, coffee in hand, I was transported back seven years ago to my then my husband greeting me with “Good morning”, barely looking up from the newspaper he read.

I vividly recall sitting quietly for a few minutes, mustering the courage to tell him I wanted a divorce. As someone who doesn’t give up easily, this was an enormous defeat in my eyes at the time. The months leading up to the decision were filled with example after example why my singular efforts to make the marriage work would continue to be futile. I’d finally accepted we needed to live apart.

“Can you put your paper down?” Moving the paper to the side, peering over his glasses, he looked over and asked “What’s going on?” When I asked him if he was happy, he replied cheerfully “You know me, I am always happy!” It struck me as almost comical how out of touch he was with how he actually acted, which was not only unhappy, but unhappy about every single thing any of us in the house did, and very vocal about it.

I continued “I’m not, and I haven’t been and you know we haven’t been for a long time. I think we need to talk about separating.” Any doubt as to whether my perception was askew was immediately quelled when he reacted angrily exclaiming “You’d deprive your children of a father?”

I took a minute to try to make sense of what he’d said. “How would divorce deprive them of a father? You’ll always be their father.” His response was that if I ‘left him’ he’d never want to see any of us again.

I had grown accustomed to this sort of extreme nonsensical thinking and responses, and continued on unemotionally. “Well, that would be your choice, not ours.”

Realizing his first assertion didn’t elicit a reaction in me, he tried another tactic. Not skipping a beat, he glared at me and with a controlled calm voice he declared “If you think you are leaving with the kids, I will go for full custody, and you’ll never see them again.”

“Wait, you just finished saying you’d never see them again. Now you want full custody?” I stood up to leave the room, realizing there was no possibility of working out a reasonable arrangement with him.

As the summer progressed, he refused to leave the house, insisting I leave instead, with nothing of course. Despite his continued verbal attacks and controlling nature, it never occurred to me that the shotguns he kept behind the bedroom door and the hand guns he kept in a closet should be removed from the house until a few weeks later when I walked in on him in the dark putting bullets in a gun.

After that night I demanded all the guns be removed from the house. There was no making a request to law enforcement, there was no legal way to have them removed, there was only me asking someone who proved to be unreasonable in all other matters to get rid of them, on his word.

It’s hard to fathom someone you have spent your entire adult life with, the father of your children, will shoot to kill you. When it happened I believed I was unique, that it wasn’t about the gun, it was about him. These seven years later it’s excruciatingly clear that it is the combination of people like him who have access to a gun. It is the enticement of a detached, clean way to create devastating destruction that lures someone like him to carry out the final act of control. The statistics bear it out, just as I am living proof of it, yet no amount of awareness erases the reality my life, as blessed as I am to be here against all odds, will never be the same and the dividing line was at the intersection of a gun.

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I am navigating the day on the heels of a terrible dream in which I am at a pool with people from my other life, my former life. A swimsuit cover up falls open to expose my pronounced scars and a comment is made he should have “just done everyone a favor and finished the job”. My heart drops as I shrink; withdrawing, defeated, embarrassed that everyone has not only seen the scars, but heard the comment and not called it out.

My children are at the pool and I sense they are torn between keeping the peace so they can enjoy those who have been absent from their lives these six years, and defending me. I attempt to defend myself but quickly retreat, feeling a familiar inescapability that although he’s gone, his power and cruelty outlives him. The others at the pool call to the children to join them and I make the painful decision that they must see for themselves, helplessly watching as they jump in the pool as I walk away to protect myself.

As I am prone to do after difficult dreams, I awoke and immediately began a project. Focused on the excitement of traveling to see my best friend who I’ve known since eighth grade, I went about looking for a particular item to pack. In searching for it, I digressed to anxiously cleaning out drawers of business cards and old receipts, the familiar physical purging of churning negative emotions.

Sorting through a stack of old cards I found a chilling reminder, a punctuation of sorts, to my dream. On the back of one of my own cards, the words M Johnson you are a cruel man are written in a child’s handwriting. It sends chills down my spine, especially to find it this day. Though on another day I might find a place in my heart to be kinder in my assessment of why did what he did, today I am reminded of what was likely always a distorted filter that I looked through.

While as babies we may all have been born good, that doesn’t translate to adults being able to access an inherent good. However sad the experiences that shape the minds and hearts of those who perpetrate violence and evil, there is no denying that anyone who comes near these people runs the risk of being destroyed in one way or another. We can’t love it out of them, we can’t save them from themselves, we can’t demonstrate that goodness prevails and dispel their darkness.

In the end, we can only save ourselves.

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Interacting with survivors of many different types and levels of trauma has brought enormous appreciation of how far I’ve come since the shooting. While it has been affirming and healing to interact with all survivors, especially those of gun violence, it is perhaps the survivors of tornadoes with whom I most identify. I did not lose my dwelling or belongings in the vortex of the storm that hit my home, but in many ways the devastation left in its wake feels similar.

There were warnings everywhere of the pending storm. I took prudent precautions but I couldn’t imagine it actually hitting me. When it did hit it felt like everything I’d known was leveled. There was so much loss that day, so much unrecoverable. We are a species of roots. Pulled up and tossed around by forces beyond our control, separated from those roots and that which make us who we are, we’re left disoriented; feeling groundless and unanchored, grasping for meaning.

My storm erased a life I’d built, and in some ways my identity of who I was. Attachments to ideals, dreams, outcomes, were ripped away from me. I’ve had to pick through the fragments of what was left of my former life and figure out a way to somehow move forward to create a stable foundation for a new kind of home for the children and me, creating something sustainable out of the destruction.

There is no going home again to the career I once felt passionate about or the security I once enjoyed of people and places. It was hard to see at the time that out of the ashes rises the Phoenix. Knowing how or where to begin is daunting. Yet we do. We all start with the first thing and the rest comes.

My role as an advocate, a coach of sorts, is one that was never remotely on my radar. Now I can’t imagine not following the calling of working with trauma survivors and those who have survived the forces of violence in their lives. I know the road to recovery can feel very frightening and lonely. If I can be of encouragement and companion a small fraction of those on that road, however briefly, in their journey forward I am content I have done enough.

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in. I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me…Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

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