Labeled

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After a night I would like to forget, I was shaken to receive a phone call from a victims’ advocacy group.

I remembered previously telling a friend that the treatment I suffered in my marriage was not clear cut abuse. She had not been convinced.

I had been through hell, but I was not a victim.

As an ELA teacher and an avid reader, I believe in the transformative power of words. Every September, I have my students complete an I Am poem, and I model my own. It is a compelling activity. The words we choose allow us to define ourselves.

I am a mother. A teacher. A runner. A writer. A daughter. A sister. A cousin. A friend.

I am empathetic, intelligent, and funny. I am a work in progress.

I, like many of my pre-teen students, take pride in listing my roles and traits. There is something about seeing a list of intangible concepts on paper that give those qualities tangibility and meaning.

On the other hand, as a middle school teacher, I also understand the drawbacks of labels. Labels reduce our three dimensional selves to one word and make it easy to pigeonhole or stereotype people. And I had.

I am a professional. I am educated. I am middle class. I couldn’t possibly be a victim of abuse. Victims are weak. Victims are vulnerable. Victims are pitiful. I refused to identify myself as a victim.

Every morning, I woke early, exercised, completed my household chores, dressed, and got my babies out the door, typically before 7:15. I went to work and masqueraded as a normal person, even though that morning my husband didn’t arrive home until I was leaving. Or my husband refused to get out of bed because he came home intoxicated at 2 am. Or the night before, I found bar or strip club receipts, again. Or I uncovered yet another lie. I went to work and masqueraded as a functioning person, when, in reality, my life was falling apart.

But our family photos on Fakebook were beautiful, and I always wiped my tears, redid my makeup, and put on a smile before attending a party. I looked normal. But my life wasn’t.

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”

Abuse insidiously propagates in the dark spaces created by fear, shame, and silence. My own abuse resided in that darkness. For so long, I was embarrassed to share the painful secrets of my marriage. When I finally began to open up, I saw horror and sadness reflected in my friends’ faces. Mine were not the problems of a typical marriage.

The stigma of being a victim also prevented me from calling the police, even though I should have multiple times. One day, replaying an incident that had made me feel powerless and weak, I vowed if I was locked out of my house again, I would call the police. When I was and I did, at least four police cars showed up at my door in my middle class suburb; my neighbors texted to make sure we hadn’t been robbed. No one could have imagined that their jovial neighbor was vicious behind closed doors.

My husband told the police he locked me out because I was belligerent. It was for my own good. Most of my marriage I weighed less than half of my husband’s weight. And if belligerence means meekly crying because your marriage is a wreck, his description was an accurate one. I was so exhausted by the litany of paperwork to be completed that I couldn’t imagine having to also press charges.

Then, as is often the case, the abuse ceased momentarily and, subsequently, intensified. The marriage counselor had often said I would need a push to get me to end my marriage. I did not know it would be a literal one. Or that for months afterwards, my son would remember and discuss the incident he had witnessed.

When I began to see a new therapist and revealed to her the inner workings of my failed marriage, she explained that I had been a victim of abuse. I started to cry because I still was not ready to admit the truth. She said, “I want you to know because you need time to heal and be kind to yourself. If you don’t want to say you are a victim, you can say you were victimized.”

She described Dr. Lenore Walker’s cycle of abuse theory. The theory asserts that abuse cycles through three stages: tension building, acute battering, and the honeymoon/reconciliation phase. The cycle of abuse explained the box worth of apology cards I had received since having my children. Of course, a genuine apology holds with it the promise of attempting to refrain from the offending behavior. I had received boxes of platitudes, a manipulation so I would stay despite abuse.When I started to further explore domestic abuse, I realized my perception differed greatly from the reality. Domestic abuse can vary; it may include violence, sexual, or financial abuse, but it always involves the use of power and control to intimidate and subjugate victims. The more I read the descriptions of abuse, the more accurately they matched many unhappy and horrific moments of my marriage.

Ultimately, with a wonderful support system, I found the courage and the strength to break through my own prejudices and fears and free myself.

People talk about walking out of a marriage.

Walking out of a marriage is not an accurate depiction of my journey. Instead I crawled my way out.

I had been buried alive. There was a heavy weight on my chest. I was suffocating. Scared. Alone. In the dark. I began digging, scratching, and clawing my way out. The silence was thunderous. I was screaming into blackness, choking on dirt, and spitting out mud. Finally emerging with my spirit scarred but still intact. I was no longer a victim.

Sometimes labels, even the ones we reject, empower us.

I was a victim of domestic abuse. I am a survivor of domestic abuse. I continue to be a work in progress.

How Running Saved My Life

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Over ten years ago, as I approached 30, I pledged to enter a new decade thinner than I currently was. I had spent my 20s, working, traveling, going out to eat and drink, like many of my contemporaries. While I had been jogging on and off for several years already, I decided to increase my mileage and use jogging to prevent the weight gain that people told me my 30s would inevitably bring.

I started small, and, as the years passed, I began to enter longer and longer races. I ran several half marathons and even finished one marathon, but I still considered myself a jogger or, more accurately, a plodder. If I set my goal on the finish line, I would get there, albeit very, very slowly.

At some point, I must have separated commitment from speed, and I began to call myself a runner. The label actually helped define me and became more important as my responsibilities grew. Post-marriage and motherhood, running became a part of my bones, muscles, and sinew. Running held me together on the days I was falling apart.

I had become a runner. Days were better if they started with a pre-dawn run. Cold, heat, rain, and even snow did not stop me. I was committed.

Runs are not always easy or scenic, and so runners are tough. Runners are strong. They set their sights on a goal. Some runs, they crush their PRs. Other times, they are just grateful to finish. Either way, flying or crawling, the end goal is the same: cross the finish line, and so runners are tenacious and resilient. I was a runner.

There is something about the mundane task of pounding the pavement that helps me both to escape my life temporarily and to gain insight about it. I envision the therapeutic appeal of running, the way running dulls the edges of my raw emotions but gives me clarity, to the creation of sea glass, the rhythmic pounding of the ocean turning jagged sharp edges into an object of beauty.

I used to enjoy running alone, but as I grew older, I started to enjoy running with a partner as well. Sometimes being less in your head is better, especially when your head and heart are filled with hopes and dreams for a happy, fulfilled marriage and a calm, safe family life and the reality is the antithesis: an ugly, dark, chaotic place.

But still I approached my marriage, the way any runner would. I set my sights on a goal: keeping my marriage together. I was strong. I held on tight. I was determined to make it work despite all odds, namely my husband. I was tenacious, and I refused to admit defeat, though most of the time I was barely capable of crawling. I continued to hope and pray for my marriage to work. I cried and begged my husband to change for our children and me. It was an exhausting course, physically and mentally, but I persevered. It took a toll on me. I began to feel lost and disoriented. I was not the me I wanted to be.

It was on a run with a friend, a month after my 40th birthday, that I realized my marriage was hopeless. My husband was incapable of change. I had done something I did not know was possible, I had outrun hope.

As I said the words aloud, I felt lighter. I started to feel less fettered by the heartbreak, heartache, and disappointments that had become the norm. I was not yet 1000 pounds lighter, but I was on my way.

Six months later, I filed for divorce.

“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”-Semisonic

Traversing an Unexpected Path

“Children always choose their mothers,” a psychic once told me. She believed that from the spirit world, unborn children made this decision which would then impact the rest of their lives. I forgot about the reading until I had my own children. Then I adopted her belief and often say to my children, “Thank you for choosing me.”

Because becoming a mother is indefinable. It is an honor, a challenge, and a paramount responsibility. It is amazing, frightening, difficult, rewarding, and emotional. The highs are highs and the lows are lows, and the emotions I feel as a mother can change instantaneously. And nothing can adequately prepare a woman for the experience of motherhood.

However unprepared for motherhood I may have been, my plan was never to be a single mother. I married and waited several years before I became pregnant. During my pregnancies, the images I played in my head always included my husband and me as parents and partners. When my daughter was born, I was excited about embarking upon life as a family.

Becoming a mother made me vulnerable in a way I had never been. I felt as if my heart was now carried by another being, and her well being was inextricably tied to me. Eighteen months later, my son was born. I had been so frightened I would never love anyone the way I loved my daughter, but hearts are expansive and much to my surprise, mine doubled in order to include my son. I was more vulnerable than before as my heart was now shared by two little people.

Motherhood suited me. Instinctually, I knew what to do to care for my babies. And if I didn’t, I turned to my mother, my sister, and my friends for advice and support. The one person who could never be relied upon was my husband. He, physically and emotionally, began to abandon the marriage as soon as we had a child. When my son was born, he disappeared. One friend best described his abandonment when she said, “You are growing up; your husband has grown down.”

Most of the time, we have choices. I chose to embrace parenthood. My husband did not make the same choice. I love the imagery from the Robert Frost poem, “The Path Not Taken.” It is empowering to imagine oneself standing at a fork in the road and making a difficult choice. But sometimes one does not get to make a choice. A path has already been predetermined. That is how I feel about the path of single motherhood. It is not one I chose, but one upon which I was forced.

The path of single motherhood can be lonely, especially because my idea of a family always included a mother, a father and children. I actually had never considered any other version. However, that was not to be. And so I walk a path, I never imagined. And there is always beauty in the unexpected. The view from this vantage point, no less stunning than from the one I had originally pictured.

Most days, I have confidence in my role as a single mother. There are days I feel lonely and scared but never for very long. I am not perfect, but my children will have to the opportunity to witness my strength and courage in the face of the unexpected.

And so, I don’t need to be a psychic to realize I have made many good choices. Over the summer, my daughter threw a penny into a fountain and made a wish. She came running back and said, “Mama, I wished for a mom like you.”

Shattered

My marriage fell apart piece by piece. It was singularly the saddest experience of my life and left me feeling broken in a way that is indescribable.  Shattered. 

I had walked down the aisle blissfully naive. Hopeful. Whole. Perfect. Full of expectations and dreams for the future: a long happy life ahead filled with babies, a beautiful home, and treasured memories. 

Often, life does not play out as we imagine.  I ignorantly believed at 32 that marriage meant happily ever after. And so I was woefully unprepared for the destruction that lay ahead. 

Every late night arrival home, every unanswered phone call, every ignored text, every found receipt, every lie just broke another piece of my heart and chipped away at my marriage and my being. 

Eight years and two beautiful babies later, my marriage was ruined, the life I wanted destroyed, and my heart in splinters. 

I cried…a lot, and I was so fearful that I would never stop.  That I would never recover. That I had been irrevocably altered. That I would never feel hopeful, whole, or perfect again. I cried for what I had lost. I cried for who I had become. And I cried for the me I once was. 

In the middle of my worst days, I read a Facebook post about kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing shattered porcelain with liquid gold. In some cases, repairs take months, but the scars ultimately give the repaired object a higher value.

And I have come to see the wisdom in this Japanese art. Yes, I was shattered and defeated for a very long time. I am not the naive 32 year old I once was who believed a life of perfect bliss lay ahead. 

Now, I picture my splintered heart held together by hundreds of threads of gold. I am imperfect, but I am not broken anymore. And beauty lies in both my fragility and my strength as I begin to repair my heart and rebuild a new, different life.

Losing 1000 Pounds

2017 was the year I tried to lose 1000 pounds.

Weight I have carried a long time.
Weight difficult to drop.
Weight that holds me down.

2017: The hardest year of my life or so I thought. The year I turned 40. The year I gave up any hope that my marriage could be repaired. The year I started divorce proceedings.

2018 had to be smoother or so I thought. When New Year’s arrived, I wrote my resolutions as I do every year. This year they were a bit different. Gone were the typical eat healthier, exercise more, and lose weight promises I had made every year until that point. With bigger challenges ahead, I designed intentions instead:

Thrive don’t just survive
Don’t look back, move forward
Care for myself
Be a more patient, present parent
Travel lighter

Travel lighter: My marriage in recent years had been so painful, so disappointing, so heartbreaking, and had taken such a toll on me emotionally and mentally. After beginning the divorce proceedings, I silently cheered myself that I was a 1000 pounds lighter between my husband, his morbidly obese parents who were an integral part in the failure of my marriage, and the weight of a stressful and unhappy situation. 1000 pounds lighter.

It had taken me such a long time to find the courage and strength to even initiate a divorce that I had incorrectly imagined the next step would become tremendously easier.

Once again, I was wrong. There has not been one step on the path that has been easy. Even the parts that the attorneys promised would be simple and quick have been difficult.

I should have known. It turns our that if a man is oppositional during marriage, he will be even more so in divorce. I should have known.

Join me as I write to make sense out of mess and heartbreak, as I try to find hope again, and as I travel 1000 pounds lighter.