The Companion

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

By a quirk of fate I have just finished a conversation with an eleven year old girl in the waiting room at the trauma therapist’s office.  My son had been sitting on my lap and went to the bathroom. She leaned over and quietly asked was I waiting to see Bobby (the therapist).  I answered my son was.  She said her mom and grandmother were in with him because she was having a very difficult time; she had been shot in the neck.  She asked was my son shot too?  I tell her that he had not been, but I had.  She asked where and I told her.  She asked does it still hurt-the bullet in her neck hurts all the time. I tell her I too have a bullet and point to my abdomen.

My eyes well up.  She was very reassuring, saying it was okay.  Her mom had been shot twice,  her brother four times, by her father. She noted it was not an accident-he did it on purpose. I understand the disbelief in her gaze and voice.

She was so soft spoken; barely audible.  Like maybe I’d take it from her and carry it away if she asked softly enough. Her brother is ten and has been in the hospital in intensive care over a month. I told her I’d pray for them all-especially her brother.

I am stunned. I think she’s stunned she shared it. This child and I share the reality that no matter how many times we tell the story, there is no relief; it is not taken away.  It is still ours, it is still real, we cannot make sense of it all. It is an unGodly bond she and I have, one which neither would choose, yet we seek solace in each others gaze.

I cannot help but be mad that her innocence has been stolen like my children’s. Clearly it is not looking good for her brother.  I hold it together because there is a room full of people, and there is her.  I try to process what this little girl has just told me.

As my son comes out I ask the therapist for a minute in his office to go over the paperwork needed to release records. I retell my experience in the waiting room.  He says their experience is much like ours, adding no further detail.  I don’t want to hear that.  I don’t want to know anyone else has to experience it, although I know it to be true.

As we drive home tears roll down my cheeks, and by the time I get here I go into the bedroom, close the door, and cry.  To think I was so upset when I realized today as the doctor was touching my right breast that the feeling isn’t there, and it may not be coming back.  For God’s sake I have a breast.  My children are physically unharmed, and I am walking around, surrounded by people who care for me. Yet I still cry. It is real all over again. Moving between mournful, grateful, angry tears. I remember crying this hard while I was in the hospital.  After all the visitors had left and I was alone.

I’ve cried a long time. I make myself get off the bed and out of the bedroom because I know I have to for the children. I doubt I’d move if they weren’t here. I get up and do the next thing.

I cannot shake it.  How quietly she spoke.  Her eyes.  Just looking into her eyes.  That it made no sense to her, that she could make no sense of any of it.  I can make no sense of it either.  I cry every time I think of her.  We were little comfort to one another.

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The Sister

Today I encountered my eleven year old again.  Her older sister is with her today.  We share our names.  Their grandmother, who has brought them, gets up and goes back with the therapist. I ask where their mom is and they say she is back in the hospital, explaining that the bullet which narrowly missed her temple is causing neurological problems and the doctors are trying to figure out what to do.  Her brother will leave the hospital for another next week where they will try to teach him to walk, and talk.  Maybe.  He was shot in the back of the head, arm, chest.  A fourth shot somewhere. Stomach?

She seems excited to see me, a fellow traveler a little farther down the road who has come back offering to show the way to move forward from the place she surely feels anchored.  I am happy to see a light in her eyes.  I ask how she is doing, and she says her pain has lessened since they went back in and took the bullet from her neck.  Her only remaining pain is her fractured spine.  It is amazing she can walk.

She excitedly shares my story with her sister.  It is an odd commonality that joins us.  I ask sister her age. She is thirteen.  My daughter’s age, I point out.  She remains very quiet, and somewhat suspicious, seemingly unhappy her sister is sharing so much information.  The eleven year old tells her my children were not shot.  As though to comfort sister.  She reiterates it a number of times as she shares sister was not either. I ask was she away from home when it happened, and she says no, she was there.  I try to process how that could be.

My son lays across some chairs and appears to be playing, and tuning us out.  I switch seats and sit next to sister so she is between eleven year old and me. Eleven year old says she had a bad feeling the day it happened, in March, as she and her brother played outside.  She thought they should stay out longer.  He was cold and wanted to go in.  She wishes he had listened to her. I assure her we cannot know the future. She says the father planned it. He told their mother while he was shooting her if he couldn’t have her no one else would, then as he shot the children he told them it was their mother’s fault he ‘had’ to do it. A child.

Quietly sister looks up. She says people think she’s lucky because she wasn’t shot. She says she wishes she had been, it would have been easier. She tells me after she has watched him shoot her family, he forces her down the hall and into a bedroom and rapes her. Then forces her to watch while he shoots himself, not before telling her she is to shoot him again after he’s done it to be sure he is dead.

I want to reach out and touch her, reassure her. Honestly I wanted to take her in my lap and wrap my arms so tightly around her and shield her from her own reality.  I want to absorb it and leave her with peace. I offer comfort by looking into her sad brown eyes with what I hope is a look of understanding, reassurance, empathy and kindness.

Eleven year old says her mom always says she wishes she could turn back the clock. We agree that isn’t possible. I offer that they have a chance to begin again. Each minute to start building something new. I promise them both that while it will never go away, they will one day learn to live with it. I promise them they will be happy again one day. I am confident of this because I am happy. Sister and I exchange cell numbers and agree we will text.

I cannot be detached. It is impossible for me not to feel her pain. Their pain. Their helplessness. My helplessness. I pray for the voice to encourage them to not let him kill their spirit and take away the life they have been mercifully given, the second chance to see all that is good and beautiful in this world.

My son chatters happily in the back seat on the way home. I try and try to focus on what he is saying, to grasp onto his words. I am grateful to hear his ebullience, yet I can’t listen. I try so hard, but I can’t hear anything but my silent scream at this senseless tragedy, coming to grips once again that only by the grace of God did I not come home that Sunday, when I left my children asleep that morning under his watch, to find them dead.

So by now you wonder, why do I share this raw pain for the world to read, the ugliness that neither you nor I nor anyone else really wants to see or know? We want the world to be nice and tidy and pleasant. Why would I lay bare my soul, expose it to the world on what should be a private journey through my pain to healing?

I died in secrecy and shame for years. I am finally alive again and I refuse to hide anymore, to be the victim. Not everyone has the friends to support them I am blessed to have. I infer a social conscience so that maybe, just maybe, you will seek to be equipped to help someone one day move from being a victim to survivor before they become a statistic.

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Anniversaries. The first thing that comes to mind is wedding anniversaries. Happy celebrations of times together, marking years of a shared life .

One week from today will be my first anniversary. Throughout this past year I have counted the mileposts, noting with each the events that punctuated the prior year. One would think each milepost would take me further away from it. Yet each day brings an event newly remembered; memories painfully experienced as if currently happening. As the approaching anniversary draws near the pain becomes so real it seems unbearable.

I struggle to be present yet my mind continues to look backward, to look for the clues I missed. Once again mourning a relationship, a marriage littered with signs of what was to come. A marriage full of denial of the damage that was taking place. I want to put it in reverse, I want a do over. I want to rewrite the scene, make it palatable. Write it so I can live without it haunting me day and night, so it does not permeate my soul.

I can’t help but wonder if I hadn’t decided to leave, to finally make the break I’d been so afraid of for so many years, would it still have happened. My reality is I was already dead emotionally; my spirit already broken over and over, each time healing less and less. It was only after I had virtually nothing left in me that I got serious about leaving. In preparing to leave I saw a chance at a future. I struggled so hard for so long to have the courage to open that door. I had finally resolved I was going to walk through it and not look back, never go back there. I never considered the cost of that freedom being so high.

As my anniversary approaches it is not the anticipation of a joyful celebration of  exchanged vows of love, commitment, of honoring one another. Rather it is the anniversary that marks the tragic ending to a turbulent relationship. The anniversary of one struggle ended, another begun. The before and after. A family torn apart, a family created. Holding on for survival, and finally, learning how to let go.

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We are traveling through Europe, the children and I. I wanted to make happy memories for them this first anniversary. To separate the event from Graham’s 11th birthday on Saturday. Children are very smart. You cannot fool them. We arrived on the 4th and as the day went on it was clear in some of the more quiet moments, such as dinner, that we all knew; we had not forgotten. Looking at them, a heavy silence hanging in the air, we all left one another to our own memories of the day. Graham keeps saying he wants to be home and have a normal birthday. I think even he understands his birthdays will be different now. After.

While we are gone the painting of the outside of our house is being completed. The painting started with my bedroom out of necessity. Then Natalie’s room for good cheer. The screened porch to clean it up, the family room to brighten it, the guest room, including new carpet and bed, the dining room, and finally the only thing left was the brick exterior. I think somehow like the trip, it is an attempt to both cover everything ugly as well as try to make something new from what we’ve been left. Steps on the road to move past it.

It has occurred to me to sell the house, move us away, start over, start fresh somewhere. If nothing else this trip has made me understand finally I can go to the ends of the world and it will follow me. It is part of me now. Thus I need to find a way to make some sort of peace within myself that bad things happen to good people. To accept I am not the horribly selfish, miserable, mentally disturbed person he insisted I was. To come to a place on the journey where I can co-exist with the pain, the dreams, the memories and quiet them rather than give into their pull and remain threatened by them.

I don’t imagine this will be overnight, or during the 10 days we will have been away. I’ll admit I had a bit of an Extreme Home Makeover fantasy. We would arrive home and our house, the events that occurred in it and our lives would be miraculously transformed. Then again, maybe it is not a fantasy to imagine things changed. Nothing stays the same. Today that is a welcomed fact.

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A very brave subject to discuss in an open forum.  Talking about sex as part of living with an abusive partner is difficult. What gives me the courage is talking with another survivor.

Sadly, she and I were leading almost parallel lives during the same period of time.  Our children were baptized together, go to the same school and also lead parallel lives.  As my story became public she had already exited her marriage and had begun making a life for herself and her daughter.  As I started sharing the rest of my story and what had been going on behind closed doors, she reached out to me.  We have begun to reconnect and recently met face to face.  We had a relatively short window between child activities so I was surprised when our comparison of experiences moved quickly on to the subject of sex.

We can read and talk about the damaging effects of name calling, social isolation, financial minipulation, and all the other controlling behaviors of an emotional abuser.  None is so intimately internalized and damaging as the experiences of having sex with him.

Making love is a time when two people lay bare their souls, express their love for one another and are quite possibly the most vulnerable they will ever be. I am certain I have 100% agreement with abused women there is not much love in our experience.  No tender loving  embrace, no romantic gestures, no sweet nothings whispered in your ear.

It is a demand. To the uninitiated one that might seem easy to ignore: just say no, don’t sleep with him. Realistically it is inevitable, sometimes forced. So we learn how to protect ourselves by burying any emotion and just being present physically. I developed an uncanny ability to detach during sex. In my mind I went other places. In healthy relationships sexual intimacy is a time to connect on a very deep level.  It is counter intuitive to feel nothing – neither positive nor negative. Our reality is vulnerability becomes a liability to survival.

Sex for the abuser is yet another opportunity to exert more control under the guise of loving us. The continual breaking down of self worth does not suddenly cease in bed. I knew any expression, gesture, emotion, even interest would be made ugly and used as a weapon outside the bedroom.  I was not free to express myself safely, and learned to not express myself at all.

As my rediscovered friend tells it “another thing that comes from loveless sex is beginning to believe that all I was worth, indeed, all I deserved was to be ‘put upon’. To be made fun of, to be called names, to be degraded…I thought that was all I deserved. The name calling started to ring in my head.”

It is easy to see why a lot of women may remain so scarred they will never take the chance again.  It is very risky but I am a dreamer and quite certain that love does cure all.  Not the kind of distorted control I knew. Real love. Kindness, affection, respect.  I live in hope that given the right teacher I can learn to trust again, allow myself the innocence of vulnerability, to let myself be loved.

“Yet I still dare to hope when I remember this.”
Lamentations 3:21 (NLT)

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