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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When I began sharing my story and my experiences of abuse, attempted homicide, gun violence, trauma and recovery I never imagined six years later there would be more, not fewer intimate partner homicides. I had some notion that hearing my story would make a difference. Changes would happen. Women would make different choices. Women would seek professional help from domestic violence advocates to see the signs and prepare safety plans and laws would pass to provide them protection to rebuild lives free the threats of abuse and violence.

My voice has literally been around the world and yet today, each day, it keeps happening. Over and over and over. Can anyone hear me? Is anyone listening?

I have known all along we are treating the symptom, women trying to stay safe, while the disease, controlling and abusive men, goes unchecked. Courts reduce charges and allow pleas. Shared custody is granted with abusive exes. Anger management classes substitute for meaningful intensive treatment of ingrained patterns of thinking and behavior. And guns have remained firmly in place where they present the biggest threat.

This week someone was listening. There was a victory worth celebrating in this relentless fight. Legislation passed in Virginia requiring an abuser surrender their guns when a protective order is issued. It carries significant consequences for those who don’t.

Really though, shouldn’t this have been part of the protective order process all along? Why did we have to grovel for this very simple protection? It is a drop of rain after a drought, a crumb tossed to an audience starving for a solution, being heard after shouting to deaf ears. Is it fail safe? No. It is something where there was nothing. I choose to believe it will make a difference.

The BBC, Surviving Survival: The Art and Science of Resilience, The Washington Post, Huffington Post, Richmond Times Dispatch, Finding Jenn’s Voice, Shameless Survivors, The United States House Steering & Policy Committee and Virginia General Assembly; colleges, universities, medical conferences. In all of these venues I have used my truth as precaution to others, as a wake up call, as a voice for others, as a catalyst to change. Yet today as I sit with the hole in my heart, an emptiness left from my experience of such profound and extraordinary and senseless loss, there is no satisfaction in the celebration of this hard fought victory.

This isn’t the end. It is one step on a thousand mile journey. I will continue to walk, putting one foot in front of the other because it is clear to me, after much initial resistance, that this is the path I am called to; to serve. I have to keep telling it until that of which I speak is little more than a memory, a shameful thing of the past in the United States and world.

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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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