The Fantasy

I am having a coffee in a corner cafe in DC while my teenagers sleep in. I notice a father gently sweep his toddler into his arms and kiss the top of her head, then replace her little feet onto the floor. As he zips her coat she throws her arms around him and he hugs her as he once again kisses her still baby fine brown hair. I can’t look away. The scene stirs a dormant melancholy from the pit of my stomach.

I want desperately to remember holding my toddlers so lovingly. Instead the image that comes is that of sitting in a chair recording a video message of love to my small children, to be played in the event of my death. To acknowledge that I knew, or had some sense of what was to come when I set about with determination to be sure my children would remember me, disturbs me.

I didn’t want to believe the words, threats. I didn’t want to know, didn’t want my view of the world tarnished. I wanted to believe all people are good. I insisted on believing the man I married was good and that was all just a bad dream and he would one day sweep us up in his loving arms. Yet somewhere inside I knew. As it simmered in the background, waiting to consume us, I could not give my children that father, nor be the cheery happy girl I once was.

For that my sweet children, who I love more than anyone or thing in life, I am sorry. You deserved so much more than you received from both your parents, together and separately. I didn’t risk leaving because I wanted you to know me and know how much I loved you before I died. I wanted to impart the beauty of life and the completeness of a mother’s love. I wanted to watch you grow up and be who you are destined to be. I wanted to be your mother and I wrongly believed all the nastiness and threats would just go away if I ignored it.

Who I became was not who I set out to be and in the constant maneuvering to accommodate peace there was no peace at all. I only managed to leave two beautiful souls to fend for themselves.

As I look at that dad and his daughter walk out hand in hand I know my chance to do it the way I’d hoped has passed, and with that comes the mourning of a mountain of mistakes I’ve made that can never be undone.

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The Pull of the Ocean

One of the most healing opportunities I have been blessed with on this journey has been to connect with other survivors. There are intimate partner/domestic violence survivors. There are intimate homicide survivors. The former could have easily been the latter, and with every news report of those whose lives were ripped away by a partner or ex who killed them, all of us have a profound sense that we narrowly escaped.

Survivors are pulled back under by events hauntingly familiar to our own. With every report of another episode of lethal gun violence, those of us who survived are keenly brought into the moment we experienced bullets. Logic would say it is over. But is it ever really over when it is repeated on front pages daily?

Part of connecting with other intimate partner violence survivors has been the affinity of ‘me, too!’ We experienced many of the same abuses, most of which have been so consistent in abusive relationships they have been documented in the Duluth Power and Control Wheel which was created based on the similarities of virtually all those in violent relationships. Violence is (simply) the tool used to perpetuate the control.

We share residual after-effects as survivors too. PTSD, hyper vigilance, complex trauma responses and emotional liability, physical reminders such as scars, nerve damage, leaking brain fluid, compromised mobility, traumatic brain injury and impaired cognition from extreme blood loss or strangulation; all go with the territory of being a survivor. Perhaps the most unsettling after affect for me is that of recurring depressive moods, a pervasive sadness at an unrecoverable loss of myself as I once knew me within a larger profound indescribable loss.

Different than a classic depression, which is continuous over a period of time, these depressive moods can come after periods of happiness, joy, peace and contentment. Much like the abuse that created the syndrome, the moods hit us from behind like a rogue wave, just when we are feeling peaceful, comfortable. When we feel like we’re improving, on solid emotional ground and our lives are starting to come back together, these waves knock us down and draw us backward into the abyss of hopelessness, feeling overwhelmed, with a sense of both inescapability and inevitability, as though we’ll never get free. The same dark thoughts pervaded our relationships.

Where others cycle up and down over a steady midline base, it feels like our baseline has been reset well below the norm. One seemingly small event is emotionally interpreted as catastrophic. Our logic tells us one thing, yet the mood is reactive, like an autonomic response. If you have ever been pulled under and away by a wave in the ocean, or struggled in a riptide, you have the sense of what it feels like. Naturally occurring diurnal rhythms, monthly cycles and seasonal changes tend to send our low phases particularly far down. The key, then, seems to be trying to get closer to ‘normal’ baseline once again.

The moods pass sometimes in the same day, sometimes over several days, but it is extremely difficult to sit with because it is extremely difficult to function during. It helps to remember we are free and it will pass, that it’s just going to feel yukky for as long as it feels yukky. Being kind to ourselves during these periods is helpful. We’ve been through things most people cannot imagine and we’ve experienced them repeatedly.

As the days shorten, the angle of the sun is noticeably lower and the moon rises from behind the trees; a snapshot my mind seems to have embedded as dangerous. No reassurance I am safe can override the foreboding sense of impending danger as the weeks lead up to the anniversary of that day, which this year falls on a Sunday again.

I’m heading back for more EMDR therapy in the hopes of regaining some degree of coping. I don’t feel I have the luxury of time to waste immobilized for a morning, let alone a day, especially on what were once my favorite fall days. It is a gift to be here. The days are numbered. I am desperate to live the life I missed.

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No Woman Is An Island

As we navigate yet another sharp turn in the road without a positive male role model in their lives, without the benefit of connection of the extended family in grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins that I flourished in, deeply connected as a child and young adult, I once again feel inadequate and isolated on the island of being the sole provider of everything for my children.

While I am emotionally supported by friends, my children are adrift in a vast sea where I am the only life raft in sight.

I have tried to help them navigate emotionally. The time has come for me to acknowledge that I have used my entire bandwidth over the last few years between them, my own challenges, and trying to make social changes to prevent others from experiencing our same fate. Juggling it all with providing for us financially has been a balancing act that I have not been too terribly successful with.

I am currently evaluating career possibilities that could incorporate my talents as well as accommodate my residual deficits, which I have finally accepted will continue to challenge me moving forward. Yet an unsettling feeling percolates just below the surface. I recognize it as the feeling I had the day I made the decision to move out and leave my children with their abusive father to preserve my own life. Then I reasoned I’d get out and come back and fight for them once I was out, but it felt like I was abandoning them to sink or swim on their own.

As the last five years have flown by, so, too, has my time of influence narrowed. They are not out of the woods. They still struggle. I feel like I, their lifeline, will be further abandoning them to their own devices, especially my 15-year-old, when I take on the additional responsibilities while further drawing from my limited energy to engage in the hours that comprised a typical work week ‘before’. Though I have tried my very best to guide them, somewhere in the depths I feel like I am failing them further.

It occurs to me that many of our society’s ills are born of lone mothers trying to survive emotionally and financially and raise healthy children in the absence of involved fathers and extended family. The most successful adults had solid family units growing up. Those at risk tend to have fractured and broken families.

In a perfect world I could create a life that allows the luxury of time with children, producing income, and taking care of myself. Raising two traumatized kids to adulthood and self-sufficiency has and will continue to be a top priority. Providing for them and looking towards my own future looks much like the tightrope traversed by a flying Wallenda. One misstep can have disastrous effects. It becomes paramount to move forward carefully.

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Browsing through a morning of posts on Facebook, I see a picture of a youth soccer team captioned as the season’s final game won. I look closer at the sweet faces of nine-year old boys and think how innocent they all are. How untouched by life. Thrilled they won. Excited they played soccer. Being silly.

Then it hit me my son was just nine. He was a happy sweet boy playing soccer one day, then the next he was trying to convince someone he flagged down on the road his mother had been shot and to call 911. Like a punch in the stomach, I had to catch my breath as I stared at the picture. I cried. He was just a little boy, much like those little boys in the picture, until suddenly he wasn’t. And I will always mourn that loss.

I wonder what it must feel like for him. Shortly after I was discharged from the hospital I had asked him how he was doing. He non-emotionally declared ‘I am the man of the house now’. When I reminded him he was still just my little boy and I knew he must be very sad about losing his dad, he flatly stated “I’m over it.”

That early interaction has defined all others. He is unwilling to communicate any of his feelings about his father or what happened. When I inquire, he shuts me down by insisting he does not want to talk about it with me. I will try again another day but for now leave it until he is ready, yet I always wonder how he can possibly not have so many conflicted feelings that it perhaps is too overwhelming to delve into any one of them.

It is one thing to hate me, to be so possessive or obsessed, or whatever it is that would make a man want to kill the woman he professes to love, the mother of his children. It is quite another to be so cruel and heartless he’d destroy his children by robbing them of their innocence, their sense of safety and security, and leave them with disparate images of who he was and what love is. I might have forgiven him my own trauma, but I find it impossible to dismiss the pain which he inflicted on them.

I am grateful to have survived to love my children. To show them what love is, how it feels, to unwrap those images. Yet every year my son’s birthday will be connected to the shooting. Every. Single. Year. The mental picture of a joyous, carefree nine-year old at his birthday party is a stark contrast to the lifetime he aged in those few minutes the following day.

With my dying breath I will fight for my children, and for all children so they can live in healthy, loving and safe homes. I don’t even think it’s a mission anymore, it has become such a part of me, with God’s help, to change the landscape so this can happen.graham soccer

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Birth Days

I was walking at the park by the river on a warm evening. I think it was this time of year. Seeing no one the better part of the walk, when I encountered an EMT in uniform towards the end he seemed oddly out of context. He held a flower and as we exchanged passing hellos he stopped, holding out the flower to me, which I initially thought might be for someone behind me or that he would be taking it to a girlfriend. As I received it, I looked up to thank him and our eyes connected. I paused. I recognized his eyes.

Police cars lined all the streets near my house and the twenty-nine officers on the scene included the SWAT team. The EMTs had to wait outside the perimeter for the signal it was safe to come in to assess and begin to treat me. This is what he told me. I only remember endless sirens echoing down the road, on and on and on as I drifted away. My heart races and I still panic when I hear sirens.

I don’t normally think about the end on my birthday but it has weighed on me all month leading up to today. I’d wasted so much energy, so much love, so much life at that point. For brief moments now I forget that end also marked a new beginning. A beginning which might have only lasted a few minutes, or days, but it has lasted these few years. Still, in those ever brief moments, I forget it’s a gift.

Gratitude is commingled with an urgency, an obsession to capture every second and make it count. I struggle to do the daily things, the mundane, the meaningless tasks that make up life without being laid low that I am squandering this chance to live. I struggle to assign importance. It was none of it important in what looked like those final few minutes. I knew only those I loved and cared for were important.

How do I re-engage? How do I resume? What do I resume? I am reassembling something to find integral pieces are missing. When I have successfully improvised one piece, another space appears. I move forward anyway, because time propels us forward. And I made it. I made it through another day, another year.

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