TRIGGER WARNING: SEXUAL ASSAULT/VIOLENCE
Dear Mrs. X,
The last time I searched the internet for your husband, you weren’t there. But then again, I only searched for his whereabouts: what state, what city, where he was working, how close or how far he was from me. Tiny glimpses into his life via public information via Google. At the time, I wasn’t prepared to see his face, I wanted to know where he was. This was several years ago, so maybe it was before you had met him. Or maybe I just didn’t search thoroughly enough to find you. Nevertheless, here you are and there he is. And now I see, baby makes three. I’m relieved to see that she has your eyes. I know that might sound rude coming from a stranger, but be grateful she wasn’t born with his. His kind of eyes have a way of unraveling someone.
I write this wondering… does your heart beat super fast when he’s next to you? Does he make your hands tremble? Do your knees get weak? Are you at a loss for words? Does he take your breath away? He was able to make my body react just like that, physically shaking me to my core, but I suspect it’s for a very different reason, one you might find hard to believe.
Can I ask you to do something? Yes, right now please if you will. I want you to paint a picture in your mind’s eye for me.
You’re on your quiet street in somewhere-suburbia Maryland, it’s the middle of the afternoon on a Saturday, you have a stroller in tow with your baby sleeping soundly within. It’s a day like any other. The sun is shining and there is a light breeze wafting scents of charcoal and BBQ chicken through the air. You’re waving hello to your neighbor in the blue house, number 106, when a flash of orange catches your eye from the peripheral. You turn your head to see a mammoth Siberian Tiger sauntering down the sidewalk opposing you, in broad daylight, slowly making its way to the cul de sac at the end of your street when it stops and turns its gaze towards you and your sleeping child. Freeze frame your face in that moment. Brow furrowed, jaw dropped, mouth open in the shape of an O, unable to let out the scream trapped inside your throat. Hold on to that along with the flood of thoughts racing through your mind the moment you see the unimaginable before your very own eyes.
It couldn’t be real, right? You’d blink a few times to make sure what you were seeing was really there, that your eyes weren’t playing tricks on you, that the Siberian Tiger was not a figment of your imagination from sleep deprivation as a new mother. Your would-be reaction in that moment was my real-life reaction when I saw your family photo. When I saw him with you and your baby. Remove husband – insert Siberian Tiger. Unbelievable. Out of place. Disturbing. Dangerous. Wrong. A wild animal posing as the picture perfect family man. He doesn’t belong there. He doesn’t belong there at all.
I guess it could have gone either way for your husband Mrs. X. He hits a fork in the road of life. One path leading to your typical school-job-promotion-house-wife-baby-maybe-more-babies -throw in a dog-or two-kind of life. And the opposing path – one more lonesome, dark and solitary, becoming identifiable in society as one to flag with red. The creep you steer clear of. The one you’re not surprised to find in a newspaper headline for collecting corpses in his basement. It’s a terrifying thought to me that he has turned out to be the former – charming, lovable, charismatic, the devil disguised as Daddy.
I had hoped he wouldn’t turn out like this. So… normal. White picket fence, all-American, average Joe shit – wearing the same mask he did so long ago, replacing popular collegiate basketball All Star with father and family man. It’s not what I wished for. Though, my wish for your husband is something you would not appreciate. From the outside looking in, it seems like such a cookie cutter life. But isn’t it true? That the stealthiest of spies create the best cover stories to hide who they really are? That their lives depend on the lies they tell.
I find it hard to believe that among the countless discussions you’ve had together over the years, that I would be among them. That if you ever asked out of sheer curiosity about what his life was like before you, that he offered to tell you everything, openly and honestly. If you asked him how many women he had slept with, that the number given to you included the girl who never gave him her consent.
Would you believe me if I told you that your husband is a rapist? And that I know this because he raped me. That the hands that hold yours so tenderly are the same hands that wrapped around my neck? Squeezed so hard that they left bruises of individual fingers and palms on my throat and wrists. That the eyes which gaze so lovingly into yours were the ones that when looking at me reflected zero emotion – only darkness. A darkness that swallowed me whole. I only ever recognized relief inside of them. Relief presenting itself in the glorious moment he realized I wasn’t dead. Something I might have missed if those eyes weren’t the very first thing my vision adjusted to in the blue-black of his A-frame bedroom, his face only inches away from my own, making sure I was still breathing.
Those eyes that draw you in and steal your heart happen to be the most horrific things to me. They’re just two dead orbs floating on the face of a demon. His voice sent ripples down my spine, an evil serpent hissing obscenities as he squeezed my face with vice-like force, pulling it close to his. His laughter saluting the tiny hairs at the nape of my neck. His grin panic inducing, something most vile. No teeth, all fangs. His hands not like the ones you know, those of a gentle giant, soothing and safe. His almost seven foot something stature was the monster from my real-life nightmare.
Here’s where you might come undone. Crumple my letter with one hand and ball your other hand into a fist. Your chest might be heavy. Your face might be flushed. You might be saying to yourself: “You liar. You bitch. You’re making this up! Can you believe this woman? The audacity. The nerve. That’s not my husband! He would NEVER. Of all the things to accuse someone of! She has to be one of those psycho-bitch radical feminists drunk off this #metoo movement damning the entire male race to hell! Meddling in the lives of others… waiting years to come forward with bullshit lies! Well, you should have said something back when it happened, that is, if it happened at all. If I was assaulted… I would have done this, I would have said that… I certainly would not have kept quiet…
Mrs. X, are you finished now? I know this must be hard to read and even harder to process. I get it. And honestly, I can’t refute your argument. In truth, I wish I had said something sooner. I wish I had done something, anything, in the hours, days, and weeks after that night but I didn’t. All I did was survive in the best way I knew how. And now here we are.
And if it isn’t anger and outrage you feel towards me, then it might be shock and terror towards your husband. Maybe both. I don’t presume to know how you might take this. I don’t expect you to believe me. I’m unsure whether this letter will change nothing or change everything. Or if it would have been better for you if I had never written at all.
I wonder, if you aren’t condemning me as a liar that you are in fact, considering the thought that your husband could be a rapist. And if you could believe, to any degree, that what I am telling you is true, I wonder if you would prefer me to correct myself and say that your husband was a rapist, not is a rapist. Because my assault is past tense. Past tense in the timeline of your lives and in mine. Would it soften the blow? Would it make it easier to process? Would you then be able to compartmentalize your husband? In a past life, he raped me. But in his new life, he didn’t rape anyone, certainly not you.
Well Mrs. X I’m sorry, but I can’t do that. You can’t. He can’t. No one can. No matter how much this truth steers you away from your current reality, from the perception of the man you love, it is still fact. Even now, on this very day, after all the years that have passed since that night, and the years he has since been with you, and even if he never laid a hand on any other girl or woman after me, I will refuse to say was. Once you cross a fucking line like that, you can never go back.
If you murder someone, you are a murderer for the rest of your life, even if you never kill again. The same rule applies here. If you rape someone, you are a rapist. Even if you only do it once and choose to never do it again. It changes nothing. The act of rape, whether it’s singular or plural, is a choice that cannot be dissolved or diluted by time. There is no expiration date on the truth of such things, regardless of what you know or what you choose to believe. There is a permanent brand on the man you know and love. It remains on his person like a tattoo, only on the inside. He carries it with him, even if no one else can see it. He shall remain a rapist for the whole of his life, whether the truth is out there or not. But I think it’s about damn time it’s out in the open.
I’m not saying people can’t change. They most certainly can. But there are choices we make that shouldn’t be forgotten, no less forgiven. We may confess them privately to the higher powers but that judgement day remains pending until our death. We don’t always pay for our sins here on Earth. Some things shouldn’t be allowed a “free pass” by our friends, by our family, by the collective of society because “he’s not that way with me,” or “that’s not the man I know and love”, or “he has such a bright future ahead of him,” “he was young and stupid” or “he made a mistake” and the list of unjustifiable excuses goes on. The truth deserves to be spoken. It is necessary. Because more often than not, it won’t come from the mouths of the guilty.
If we had the chance to replay that night, I hope that he would make a different choice – a better one. A choice that spared me years of silent suffering and the loss of so much time that I will never get back. One that spared me years of confusion, guilt, shame, rage, and sadness. One that alters this memory of ours that I must carry with me until I die. But I suspect Mrs. X, that if your husband was given the opportunity, he would choose to rape me and he would revel in it, just as he did before.
I don’t know where to tell you to go from here. I don’t know what you will do with the information I have given you. It is not my intent to dismantle your life or your marriage, though something like this might do that very thing. From what I can see, you look so happy. I really hope that’s true.
I cannot tell you that your husband is a good man. I know for a fact that he is not. The secrets and the past he left behind paved the way for your current existence: happy and in love, with a growing family of your own. For me, where his path crossed with mine, it paved the way for a whole other kind of life. But I’m not writing for your pity or your sympathy, I’m writing for the possibility that up until this moment, you had no idea what he has done, no idea what he is capable of. Or maybe, you do.
I will always wonder what goes on behind your closed doors. If you are okay. If you are safe. If you are as happy as you seem to be on social media. That his violence against women started and stopped with me, that his need and want to take without asking didn’t fester and grow, that the sexual thrill and the power he felt in those hours with me was a one time guilty pleasure of his. I truly hope I was the only one.
But just in case I’m not Mrs. X, I had to tell you. I had to tell you the truth about your husband. I hope he isn’t anything like the man I know. I really, really do. Because that means you will never know him like I do. It means there’s a chance that there aren’t other women out there like me. It means that maybe my worst fear hasn’t come true, the fear that my silence has made me an accessory to someone else’s trauma. An accessory to a predator and his life of sexual violence. That if only I had done something, if only I had found my voice sooner, it might have spared others from a kind of pain I wouldn’t wish upon anyone.
Because deep down something tells me, that under the guise of doting husband, beloved son, successful law enforcement professional and caring father, that the devil still lies beneath, hiding in plain sight, as heinous as the day he revealed his true nature. That to you, he may be Superman. But to me, he is Lex Luther in a Clark Kent suit. A villain posing as an everyday superhero and everyone around him, including you, is completely fucking duped. But I see him. I have lived through what he has spent a lifetime concealing. I know that monsters are real and that often times they disguise themselves as husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons. And our biggest weapon in the war against them, is to speak the truth.
TRIGGER WARNING – Suicidal Ideations
I’m in the passenger seat of the truck, gazing out the window, as it pops up in my mind. It feels like a craving for ice cream or pizza. Or a daydream about someplace warm when we’re stuck in the middle of winter. But it isn’t those things so I can’t tell him about it. Not today. These thoughts that infiltrate our ride are as natural to me as breathing. But they shouldn’t be. I don’t think they should be there at all.
At first, I think to myself, “I wish I wasn’t here anymore.” And that thought precedes varying scenes of no particular order that play out in my mind until my attention to them is interrupted, back to the place where I should be – in the truck, with him, on this beautiful summer day.
I am sitting in my kitchen, wearing only a white t-shirt and a pair of underwear, loading my 9mm over a bowl of cereal. I see the sun shining through the windows above the sink. They’re cracked open ever so slightly so the fresh air can creep in and the cats can listen for the birds. It is the one and only acceptable reason they are allowed on the kitchen counter. I am in the dark, taking a spoonful of Honeycombs, chewing slowly, savoring their sweet, swallowing their soggy. I dip the spoon back in and watch the combs float around in the almond milk like dusty gold life preservers. I exhale… then I blow a round into my temple.
I’m sitting in the bedroom, cross-legged on the floor, with an amber bottle of pills in the web of my legs, eating out of it by the handful as I would a bag of Skittles, washing it down with the finest of whiskeys because this is a special occasion and I deserve a great tasting liquor. My sight becomes obscured by the puffiness around my eyes, but I can still read the quote emblazoned in black ink on my right thigh through the blur of tears: “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.” Don’t let the bastards grind you down. Well let me tell you, I am ground the fuck down. I have become my own undoing. I have unraveled my own string. I am the only bastard here. I suspect he will find the cats sleeping next to my body, crumpled up like an old ragdoll.
I’m up on my tippy toes, securing an orange extension cord from one of the exposed beams in my basement. I am thinking of him, smiling and laughing at me from across the room when he catches me stirring the noodles over the stove on the tips of these very same toes. My heels are always off the ground when I’m standing. It’s an unconscious thing I do that I never even noticed, until there was him. He calls attention to it since he thinks it’s the most adorable thing in the world. It makes him smile which makes me smile. I push off the chair. The feeling of choking for air would not be foreign but at least today, the anxiety and panic are absent. The tightness around my throat would be like a welcomed hug. I would shave my legs and paint my toes for the occasion. Mauve – the only color nail polish I own therefore it’s my favorite by default.
I am walking into the woods with nothing but my favorite stuffed animal. After some time, I nestle under a mammoth tree and look up at its branches swaying in the wind, enjoying the rustle of its leaves. How old and wise you are tree. I wonder your age. How many others have sat beneath you and welcomed your shade on a day like today? I am without shoes and in a summer dress – something bright and breezy. After my rest, I move towards the summit. The wind now blows through my hair and the sun is kissing my skin, blazing bright after I break through the canopy. The sky is an ocean in reverse, with only scattered tufts of white to break up the endless blue. The mountains and valleys ripple on for miles as if they were Braille carved for the gods to read, describing the beauty that lies below them here on Earth. The spectacular view makes my heart beat like a war drum and my skin ripple with goosebumps.
I can hear birds chirping in the distance, but there’s one in particular that stands out, the familiar caw of the crow. Aww, my friends, you are here with me, aren’t you? I smile. This is the home I run to when my world and my mind are both collapsing in on me. The woods. It makes sense to be here. I dig my toes into the soft earth before they move for the crest of the crag, the lumps and bumps of rock hugging the tender skin of my underfoot. I breathe in the fresh air. I want to fill my lungs with its purity, untainted here by man-made waste. I stretch my arms out wide. I scream as loud as I can. I am sounding my barbaric yawp for you, Mr. Keating. Oh Captain, my Captain. Though I do not turn around, I can see all that is behind me. But the only thing I long for is the feeling of freedom that’s in front of me. I step off. What I leave behind is a small stuffed black bear on the edge of the precipice to let him know, he was loved, even still.
The images are jarred by the sound of his voice. I can hear him singing softly alongside the radio, “My… my… hey… hey… rock and roll is here to stay…” His voice transports me back into the truck. I look over at him, sitting there in the driver’s seat, looking out at the road ahead. I watch him glance over and smile as he reaches to grab my hand. I squeeze his and smile in return. Man… I could lost in that smile, those eyes – an epic sea of green. The thoughts dissipate. I start to sing along too. “It’s better to burn out, than to fade away, my… my… hey… hey…”
Here’s the funny part: I am happy today. I was happy the day before, and the day before that, and I will be happy tomorrow. It is only now, at 33 years old, that I feel my life has truly begun. I don’t want to die. Not really. Not after all the shit I’ve been through that has led me here, to this day, to this life. Most days, I’m terrified of the thought of death because I am looking forward to the future. I want more time. I feel like I am finally living – not just surviving, not just existing. And most days, I am embracing life with my whole heart and yet, I still think these things. Not always to this degree, but here they are just the same, showing up unexpected, unwanted.
It pisses me the fuck off.
What right do I have to feel these things when this is my life? When I have the most imperfectly perfect love with my best friend? When I have a great career? Awesome friends? When I am in good health? When I am no longer living paycheck to paycheck or bouncing from place to place or living under the dysfunctional, abusive ghost of my mother? When months can go by now without thoughts of my rape lingering in the periphery? That night, constantly drawing my focus away as if it were a thickly woven spider’s web suspended in front of my eyes or a mosquito relentlessly buzzing in my ear.
I have to ask then, what in the actual fuck is wrong with me?
This is where I tell you about the infinite sadness. It is what I have come to call it. It lives on despite everything around me. It has taken up permanent residence inside of me for a lot of reasons I can understand and others that I really don’t and probably never will. It plants weeds with deep roots that have no cause. There are days, or weeks, or months I think I’ve plucked them all away for good, but they always come back, unlike some of my perennials, which pisses me off even more.
The infinite sadness is one that seeps into your bones and blood like a systemic infection. It takes hold and consumes – a plague on your human house. It aches with a dull chronicity that couples with interludes of intense pain as if it were a decayed tooth you ignored for far too long – sensitive to the cold, sensitive to the heat, sensitive to the hard, but also to the sweet. All you can handle is the soft, which makes you feel like a fucking baby, weak and vulnerable. Even with the soft, it still throbs, a small reminder that it’s not going anywhere. There isn’t a doctor in the world with a cure. Because it’s not a tooth to pull or a skin tag to burn off or even a limb to amputate. It burrows a hole in an inoperable space that no one can touch, not even you.
If sadness were a force of nature, it would be fog, rolling in as silent as the inside of a casket, coating all that’s in your line of sight with low lying clouds and mist that are thicker than a chocolate milkshake. You get the same kind of feeling you would if you were lost in the middle of nowhere in a foreign place with nothing but the clothes on your back – denial, frustration, panic, hopelessness, resignation – in that particular order.
It was a “Come to Jesus” moment for me, if I believed in God… realizing that I might be living with depression and anxiety of the permanent variety. The kind that remains even when your life is together. The one skeleton that never leaves your closet. The one piece of laundry that no matter how many times you wash it, it never comes clean. How you haven’t seen it in quite some time, but just as your sitting down to a home cooked meal with the one you love, it shows up at your door like a Jehovah’s Witness peddling its religion – interrupting.
I realized there is not a damn thing I, or someone else, can do to eradicate the sadness despite how happy I am – most of the time. That I might carry this with me until I die. And when I die, I might be dying partially or wholly in its grip – the seemingly endless discomfort of a smothering wet blanket.
It is only then, that I will have my reprieve, that I might find some relief. Maybe it’s not so much daydreaming about dying, but more of a longing for the end of feeling, the end of thinking, the end of doing.
The end of misplaced, unwanted irrational thoughts, the end of over analyzing, the end of second guessing, the end of obsessing over fictional scenarios that don’t exist, the end of wishing I wasn’t this way, the end of feeling this ridiculous madness for no fucking reason, the end of saying things out of character because of it, the end of feeling like I never do enough, the end of feeling like I will never be enough, the end of my disappointment from thinking it would all just go away the more my life improved and the happier I became, the end of waiting for the ball to drop because sometimes this life doesn’t feel real and the rug will soon be pulled from underneath me and I’ll go back to drowning in a huge pile of shit because true happiness was always a foreign concept to me, the end of brawling an invisible enemy inside my mind that never waves the white flag of surrender as life goes on around me with my outer shell looking completely normal.
There is no mystical cure, even when we are taking the best care of ourselves that we can. And if you aren’t familiar with battling this beast, it might be hard to relate to or to understand. It’s why I’m telling you about it.
It could show up because of something or because of nothing. It isn’t circumstantial nor is it discriminatory. It has many forms, of varying degrees, not always as severe as daydreaming about the end of your life. Sometimes it is the color red and it manifests into anger. Or sometimes it’s blinding white panic, there and gone in a few minutes.
However it comes, it tricks itself into your mind like Houdini and stays there until it leaves again. It might only be a few fleeting moments, sometimes just a day, maybe a week, and if it’s really feeling like a vindictive bitch, it could take up residence for a month or more, illegally squatting on your private mental property.
I am aware it is there as it is a part of me, and has been for some time. I can’t recall exactly when it first attached itself. I am the host and it is the parasite. It is an ongoing struggle to exterminate this invader of happiness with no one around me knowing unless I open my mouth to talk about the things that none of us really ever want to say out loud because people might think we’re insane. “Hey babe, let me tell you about the ways I thought about dying today out of nowhere.” Yep. Sounds insane.
But this is the real shit. Truth. Life. Mine. Yours. You might love someone who has felt this before or this someone might be you. It isn’t always sunshine and rainbows and glitter and unicorns and social media posts about how fucking great our lives are, our kids are, our spouses are, our jobs, our travels, our social lives. Or maybe… life really is that great and all those things are as awesome as we say they are, but we keep the dark parts of ourselves hidden from everyone else. You show off a shiny new car, right? Not an old rust bucket.
No one wants to hear about how sometimes our minds are mud and grit and our thoughts go against the grain, or our minds are green and pink or brown and black and our feelings clash with our reality. Do they?
Sadness is a boulder flung into still water. We shouldn’t rock the boat. Depression is a thunderstorm. We can’t rain on someone’s happiness parade. Out of sight, out of mind. But out of who’s mind exactly?
I know these are the things we aren’t really supposed to talk about unless they’re behind the closed doors of a therapy session in private. The things that make people upset or angry or confused or afraid. The things that make people look at you differently perhaps. But I have always valued the truth, and in truth, lives transparency and vulnerability. There also lies this brutality that is often dark and disturbing and intense and yes, often times sad. But what is needed, what is necessary, is compassion and empathy. A willingness to become aware, to understand, to help.
Depression and anxiety are monsters. But they aren’t supposed to stay hiding under the bed. It’s time to turn on the light. Because we should be fighting them together. Because this isn’t make-believe. It’s real. And if it’s real, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. And it’s about fucking time we know that.
At 12 years old, I was tall enough to position myself between my bed and the door, pushing my feet against its metal frame and jamming my shoulders in, using my upper body as a human barricade. I wasn’t permitted to have a lock. As I got older, my mother’s drunken harassment increased. The nights I had no energy to fight, I would try to shut her out this way. She’d shove all her weight against the door in an attempt to force it open as she met with my resistance. It would enrage her. Like a banshee, she would scream from the other side – how much she hated me, couldn’t stand the sight of me, how she wished she had an abortion, that I was worthless, that I was nothing – all in an attempt to provoke her desired reaction. I would beg her to just leave me alone, my heart pounding and my ears drumming, my exhausted mind winding tighter and tighter. Eventually, on the nights she ran through her verbal gambit of hate and received nothing in return, she would retreat downstairs to resume drinking. Only then could I try to go to sleep.
But one night, after about 5 minutes of silence, I heard an unfamiliar sound coming from the other side. Boom. Boom. BOOM! I stood up and whipped open the door. I caught her mid-swing with a ball-peen hammer, the outside of the door riddled with holes, the floor covered in smashed particle board. “YOU”, she spat. The hammer was suspended in the air like a balloon above my head. Panicked, I shoved her away from me. She doubled back, unable to catch her balance and went flailing to the ground. She cracked her head off the opposing wall. Her eyes were bloodshot and wild. She glared up at me, her knuckles turning white from her grip on the hammer. “Jesus mom, what the fuck…” I sighed in resignation, turned around, and closed what was left of my door, leaving her lying there in the hallway.
In our family, words were weapons. They were carefully crafted for maximum damage. Words helped to deflect, guilt, punish, torture, or even entertain at someone else’s expense. They were to be used to your advantage. Stop at nothing to manipulate an argument in your favor if you found yourself on the losing end.
Feelings were self motivated. Your own always mattered the most, even if they were unjustified or irrational. You were never to question if you were wrong. It was never about seeing both sides. There was only ever one side. Coming to an understanding was unheard of. Compromise was bullshit. What came first was your ego, your pride, your own self righteousness. It was how YOU felt, it was how someone else made YOU feel, it was how angry YOU were in that moment, it was what you did because of SOMEONE ELSE. Fuck being sorry.
Words were also used to spew insecurities. Every irrational thought based on your own internal doubt, disillusionment, mistrust, denial or jealousy would be voiced out loud. It was perfectly acceptable to project your own self-loathing and misery onto others. Make YOUR insecurities THEIR problem.
You were free to speak and act as you saw fit without taking any responsibility, especially if you were fucked up – physically, mentally, emotionally, recreationally – all of the above. If you lied, you were to defend that lie to the death, even if you were caught red-handed with irrefutable proof. But, if it was someone else who did the same to you? WATCH THE FUCK OUT.
My mother’s world was not a nurturing place. It left me in a constant state of fear and hurt as far back as I can remember. It was as if I was always sitting on the edge of something cold and sharp. It was a place where mothers were uncaring, emotionally and psychologically abusive, manipulative – borderline psychopath. Where they would chase handfuls of Xanax with a case of Coors Light. I wasn’t kept at home as a child, as her daughter. I was there as something small to pick on and abuse for the times when she actually paid attention to me. I was trapped in her warped version of loveless motherhood.
I ran away to move in with my father, they divorced when I was eleven. My mother was becoming more volatile, more unstable. Home was an unbearable place to be. I had to get out. What I didn’t know was that I would be trading one kind of survival for another. Neglect, abuse, and indifference were replaced with extortion, broken promises and financial hardship. I wasn’t unable to escape the stranglehold of addiction and the chaos it caused.
Being with my father meant living in a constant state of struggle. It didn’t matter how much he worked, how much money he made. He was financially irresponsible. And he too, was an addict. Years of doctor prescribed pain medications from multiple shoulder surgeries rapidly morphed into a problem he couldn’t manage. His motivation to work tirelessly revolved around obtaining those pills. Little white lines on the coffee table took precedence over stacks of bills on the kitchen table. As the years went by and his addiction got worse, he couldn’t function without them. He needed more, then more, and then even more. Coming home was like playing Russian Roulette. Were the lights still on? Was there heat? Would there be an all-out brawl over who ate the last Oreo cookie? Was he going to demand more money?
Sometimes, if I didn’t give the amount he asked for, my father would scream so loud I couldn’t understand what he was saying. Other times, he would give me a silent treatment as harsh as the Arctic tundra. We only spoke when his anger fizzled out. I could feel the rage like static electricity in the air between us. He would keep things uncomfortable and cruel until I caved or he needed something – whichever came first. I OWED it to him to help whenever he asked solely based on the fact that I was his kid. But moving out on my own, even after I turned 18, meant I would be abandoning him, betraying him. If he could just get straightened out, just catch a break, just get ahead, this time it would get better. He promised. I just had to believe him. And I always did. Because I loved him, because he was all I had.
My permanent escape happened some 12 years later. I left my father without notice in our dilapidated rental house that sat at the end of Crown Ave in South Side. It was the only place we could find on such short notice after the sheriff removed us from our home, now property of the bank. It felt like we were living there as squatters, drifters, vagabonds. Only 6 months had passed since we moved in when I walked up onto its crooked porch to find an eviction notice taped to the door. I wasn’t surprised to see it there.
As I stepped inside, I glanced up into the giant, crumbling hole in the ceiling. Through it, you could glimpse into the upstairs bathroom and see its peeling wallpaper and exposed pipes. I went to the kitchen, moving through the cabinets one by one, same with the fridge, as if one of these times food would magically appear when I opened the door. I didn’t bother to call my dad about the eviction. I knew he knew it was coming. I couldn’t live like this, couldn’t go through this again. Days later, I found my own hole in the wall that I could afford, leaving my father behind for the last time.
My father’s world was not a forgiving place. It was abrasive, a coarse sandpaper, all grit. I lived inside the friction. It was a world where fathers raised daughters like sons. No fluff. No whining. No crying. No displays of affection or I love you’s. Love was money. Love was sucking it the fuck up. Sensitivity was for babies. Patience was nonexistent. Stress was a permanent mood. Bury your pain, never deal with it directly. Bottling it up meant it would eventually explode without warning but that was okay, even if it was directed at the innocent. Anger was the exception to the emotional rule.
Family loyalty meant I must ignore and excuse alcoholism and drug addiction – understand that they would be chosen over me and placed above everything else. But we were never to call it addiction, that would make it a problem. Calling it that put an unnecessary elephant in the room that just made things uncomfortable. Alcohol and drugs weren’t problems, they were the solution. They were what helped you cope with life – all its tragedies and misfortunes, especially the self-induced ones. Destroying others was a necessary casualty if they got in the way of your own wants and needs. Loyalty meant I was to embrace the chaos, accept dysfunction and excuse the never ending toxicity and shitty behavior, even as a child.
To me, love always hurt. I associated it with pain and lies. I began to feel as though love itself was a weakness. It can and will be used against me. It was full of conditions, most that were impossible to live up to, or that changed at a moment’s notice, or were applicable to some but not to all, especially not me. Love made me malleable, easily coerced. Love wasn’t protection. It was something to defend myself against.
It gave me a thick skin and a sharp bite. I grew up starved, confused and angry. Hackles always raised, ready to go for the jugular. I became unforgiving. Untrusting. Reactionary. Unable to tolerate what I believed was weakness within myself and dismissing love as cruel stupidity. Rage and resentment grew from it all.
It was a long, hard road realizing that there was, in fact, another way. I found it through a hellish journey that I took all on my own, one that questioned everything I knew, even myself. I had to start taking responsibility for me. Quit hurting myself. Quit hurting others. Stop using my pain as a suit of armor or a weapon of war. Separate from my demons to start gaining control of them. Stop trying to bury my past. I needed to dig it up. Sit with it. Move through it. Grow from it, for the better. Discover that love exists in a gentler, kinder form – without manipulation, dishonesty, and betrayal. And that I could find it – in myself and in the right people. Come to terms with the environment I grew up in and the person that I became because of it. Understand that it wasn’t my fault that my family did fucked up shit. But it would be my fault if I continued to repeat our history.
I had left my past behind. I had banished what toxicity I could from my life. I had tried to find absolution through an internal expedition of self-discovery and awareness. But a part of me still remains feral. Distant. Untamed. My toxic upbringing dug its claws deep into my psyche. Because of the scars, there is a stubborn, prideful, angry creature that coexists with my present self. The rage hasn’t left me. It lives within me, unsettled. I feel it. It’s a hairball lodged in my throat, a burr stuck to my skin, a dagger thrust between my ribs… pressing, picking, poking.
It is the wolf that waits for me.
My name is Little Pig. And I’ve been running from the Big Bad Wolf since I was a child. Over the years, I have built beautiful houses of stick and straw. Every single one has been reduced to dust and ash. And now, 33 years later, I live in a house made of stone. One would think, this is it. My safe haven. An impenetrable fortress. Protected from the inside out, the wolf no longer a threat.
But even here, in my house of stone, the fear lives. It doesn’t matter how strong the structure. Because the wolf has built her den inside of my head. And there she sits, holding steady, with her unyielding persistence and patience. Her contempt festers under my skin. Her pride courses through my veins. Her poison sits on the tip of my tongue. She has been everywhere I have been and will stay with me wherever I go. She is me.
She is my anger. She is my doubt. She is the rejection of love, of patience, of kindness, of understanding. She is cruel and unforgiving, resistant and defiant. Oppositional. In every thought, in every action and reaction, I feel her clawing through, trying to escape.
She is the thing I keep locked up tight in the dark for fear of what might happen if I let her loose. If I trust her to walk alongside me un-tethered. If I let the ones I love see her for what she truly is, what she could become.
It takes a concerted effort to keep her caged, to remain in control. My anger, when confined and restrained, causes extreme anxiety. The control it takes to suppress and stabilize my emotions, brings the onset of panic. My learned behavior says it’s rational to lash out. Choosing not to, feels like going against the grain – like metal grinding on metal.
During disagreements, it sometimes angers me to be kind, to be so understanding. In the heat of an argument, it angers me to be silent when I want to scream. To show mercy when I feel like none is deserved. To offer forgiveness when it might take me days, months, or years to forget what happened, to forget what you did or said to me. Sometimes, I don’t want to just let it go. I want you to feel my wrath. I want you to suffer.
I’ll smile on the outside. Open my arms in forgiveness. Hear my voice say softly, “It’s okay. I understand. I’m here. I know. I’m sorry.” But the tears that form in the corners of my eyes are not sadness. They are a mixture of fear and loathing. My toes curl inside my shoes, I grit my teeth, I ball my fists behind my back, digging my nails into the flesh of my inner hands until they bleed. I walk away so I can try to reign in my anger. If I can’t, I’ll hide away and take it out on myself instead. I can’t let you see what this does to me. To have you know, that deep down, I still feel that love makes me weak. And that my moments of patience and understanding make me feel like I’m living a lie.
The wolf is there. She is telling me that I am being submissive. Embarrassing. Pathetic. That being kind and understanding will eventually get my heart ripped from chest, my soul sucked out from within me. She is telling me to say something else.
Go ahead, she growls. Fuck your patience. Bury that fool-hearted kindness. Cast love aside. Scream. Scream at the top of your lungs. Show the depths of your fury. Tell them. TELL THEM – Go fuck yourself you piece of shit. Everything is not alright. No, I don’t understand. I honestly don’t give two fucks how you feel. All I really want to do is hurt you because right now, you’re hurting me. Instead of coming towards you with my tail tucked between my legs like a little bitch, I’d love to just rip straight through your throat and watch you bleed out on the floor at my feet. ASSHOLE.
She will break free. That’s what she tells me. And I’m terrified. Because when she does, she will not only hurt me, but everyone around me. The people that I love most. No matter how much time passes between my old life and the new, it is her nature to be angry and unforgiving. The wolf will choose to fight, to protect, to self-preserve, to stay wary and mistrusting – forever trapped in survival mode. She believes choosing love is weak, that happiness is a lie, showing patience is stupidity, and that being kind and forgiving when you’re met with cruelty is pathetic and sad. She will fight at the expense of everything I have built. She will run to protect me, even though I no longer have anything to run from. To her, the more that I love, the more that I trust, the happier I am, the weaker I become.
She is there. Waiting, just waiting, to blow my whole fucking house down.
And the day when I feel like I have finally outsmarted her for good, that’s when I’ll hear it. Her voice, whispering softly in my head:
“Little Pig, little pig, let me in…”
And I’ve got everything to lose if she finally wins.
This started off as a Facebook post, but it is deserving of more. As a writer, I find some things shouldn’t be reduced to a Facebook status update, nor limited to 140 characters on Twitter, or become a caption typed beneath an Instagram photo. Some things are worth more than that. This is one of them.
I knew of your family since we were kids. My sister’s best friend happened to be your next door neighbor. Your other next door neighbor, was my Uncle Mike. I ran through the woods behind your house, replicating scenes straight from Jurassic Park. I carried my plastic Velociraptor everywhere. His name was Tori.
Everyone was scared of the wolf that lived in your backyard. I only pretended to be. I would watch her from the woods sometimes wishing I had a wolf of my own. Though most of the woods has been cut down and developed since then, it’s still the same place from my memory, the place where we take Layla for walks now, together.
My entire childhood was spent riding my bike, creating chalk art, rollerblading, eating ice cream and ice pops, wreaking havoc as this wily tomboy with scabbed up knees and dirt under her fingernails on the street that still connects to yours. We took a different bus to school. I knew your sister had a big brother but I didn’t know you yet.
As teenagers, you became the best friend of my best friend’s brother. We were together but separate in the same house for countless summer days and weekend nights. One summer, you convinced me and Katie to get drunk with you and Rich from homemade Long Island Iced Tea. We stowed away in Rich’s room, a forbidden place I passed by hundreds of times on my way to Katie’s room. I never had the privilege of entering. Rich put up a fight, not wanting to hang out with his younger sister. But you didn’t seem to care. I felt so cool when you asked us but I pretended it was no big deal. I pretended a lot back then. I was just a kid sister’s friend. Older brothers and their friends never asked younger sisters and their friends to hang out, let alone hang out and get drunk. Funny, you said you always thought I was too cool for you. I wasn’t.
In our 20’s, we spent long nights in Throop dive bars getting shitfaced together. We’d laugh, we’d sing, we’d shout about this and that over music and shots and beers that flowed like water. We always somehow stayed past closing time, just to get kicked out gently by the bar staff, still laughing and singing our way out the door. We went back to your house one of those nights and sat on your parent’s porch, not wanting the party to end. I mentioned I was hungry so you drove to get me the fast food. You knew I wasn’t going to make it much longer on the verge of drunken sleep, but you went for me anyway.
When I started The NOMAD Project, you messaged me. You were one of the first people to show up with donations to support its mission. I met you in the Dunkin Donuts parking lot. Your trunk was packed with everything I put on the wish list. I thought it was so sweet of you. You asked me to hang out sometime just like you had a few times before this day. I said sure, but I never called, just like I never called the other times I said I would. We didn’t see each other again for awhile after that, but I never forgot that day. I never forgot your thoughtfulness, your kindness, you wanting to help me help other people.
2016 was supposed to be better for me, better than 2015 was. It didn’t start out that way. In fact, most things were pretty fucking awful. So I told myself, this was it. Choose something that you want to do, and don’t let you having to do it by yourself be the reason that stops you. You have to get out there and live your life. Determined to change everything, some way, somehow, I signed up for a trip. Volunteering for others is something that makes me feel whole, regardless of what’s happening in my life. It’s not just about the “wanting” to give back to others, I feel like I “need” to. I have to leave the world a better place than how I found it, I just have to.
I was a member of The Sierra Club for several years. I followed their volunteer service trips annually. The year before, in 2015, I looked into this trip called Working With Wolves. Unfortunately, it had filled up almost right away and there was no room left when I inquired. But this year, miraculously, they offered it again. This was it. This was the thing I needed to do for myself, by myself. I sent my deposit and secured my spot. I’d be spending a week in the wild working on a wolf conservation with complete strangers to help with their mission to protect this endangered species. I’d be surrounded by wolves. Wolves. My dream come true. And I didn’t need anyone but myself to make it happen.
A few months before, the trip leader sent out a list of everything we should bring and directions on how to make it there. I printed it out. For whatever reason, you inspected the list of names that was on the email copied with me. You couldn’t believe it. My name was on it. You looked again. It can’t be. It was my name, right there, in black and white. Well god damn, you thought.
I didn’t know you were a Sierra Club member or that you knew about Sierra Club Outings. I didn’t know you signed up for the same trip. We hadn’t seen each other in quite some time.. months, maybe a year.
You messaged me to make sure it was really me. It was. We talked up how strange it really was that we both signed up for the same random trip without knowing and then we decided to drive out together. We drove back together. And we’ve been together ever since. And this Friday, one year later, we’re leaving again for the same trip, only now we’ll be sharing a tent. Some days, I still have trouble wrapping my head around how all of this came together.
An hour after you dropped me off back at home when we returned from the trip, I messaged that I missed you already. I hit send and thought, “You fucking idiot, what is wrong with you? You’re going to look like a total weirdo.” I didn’t know what I was doing and I guess I didn’t care. It was the truth and I thought fuck it, you can’t go wrong with the truth. Just say it and whatever happens, happens.
You left to go on another trip the very next day. You were supposed to be gone for awhile, two or three weeks. You lasted a little over a week, messaging me to say you couldn’t stay any longer because you missed me. You came home on a Tuesday. It took all of my personal restraint not to tackle you in a bear hug when you walked through my front door. You didn’t know it yet, but I loved you then.
It felt as easy as breathing.
Life takes us here, there, and everywhere – all the while it teaches us what we are meant to learn about ourselves, about other people, about life, about love. Time and experience prepare us for what is yet to come and also for what we never saw coming.
I never saw this coming.
Funny, this life. It has a way of knowing exactly what you need before you do, and it knows when to save certain things for when you’re ready for them.
After 30 some years, we were finally ready.
I understand, now more than ever, why life plays out as it does, even when you feel like it has been working against you. Why some things you never thought would end, end. They must come to a close because something much greater is waiting for you, something you were meant for. It’s an alignment of stars. There’s nothing we can do about it but revel in the serendipitous nature of it all. And smile. And laugh. And love the shit out of each other and our life.
Because you are the best thing.
The something that was waiting for me.
And now, we both get to hold on to the one thing we kept on missing all these years…
I am a bag of bones
Time took its toll
She spits the seeds I’ve sown
Then swallows my soul
There’s empty space
under my suit of skin
She wears my face
But I didn’t let her in
Do they know she’s here?
This buzz inside my skull
She clings to my fears
Her pain never dulls
There’s a ghost
in my house.
And I don’t know how to get her out.
the disposition of rage,
a reflection of homologous nature,
the forbearance of wrath,
a body of water,
the extinguishment of vexation,
a testament of fidelity,
For years, I would try to tell my dad that our thoughts affect everything. This was only after I realized just how obvious the truth of that statement was. He held such a negative outlook on life for so long, that I could barely remember how he lived before the light died in his eyes. I can’t blame him. I lived life that same way for longer than I ever should have. That’s why I won’t sit here on a towering pedestal of optimism and pretend it’s easy to be happy, pretend I don’t know what it is to sink into the depths of a personal hell and burn in my own inferno. Because I do know. And I almost let it cost me everything.
His life wasn’t an easy one, and neither was mine. But not many people’s lives are, for one reason or another. For my dad, it was one tragic incident after another. It only ever seemed to get worse year after year instead of getting better. He played a part in some of his misery, and some of it was beyond his control. I think that’s how it goes for the lot of us.
I know those feelings. It’s hard to look on the bright side when the sun refuses to shine. You’re buried up to your eyeballs in misery. You’re lost in the grey. We wrap ourselves up in a blanket of despair and never poke our heads out from underneath it.
He thought he was cursed – that nothing would ever go right for him, that he had shitty luck, that it wasn’t worth trying for anymore… “What’s the point?” he would ask to no one at all. There was a time when I thought this too.
But not so much anymore.
I told him life has nothing to do with luck. Because to me, it doesn’t. People don’t just luck out on easy lives with an overwhelming abundance of wealth, love, and happiness. I guess you can be born into some of those things, but all three still take work to maintain. And things will come along that will fuck all of them up, sometimes all at once. That’s why life has to be what we make of it, even the shitty parts.
Our perspective and our attitude have a lot to do with how we see things, how we value things, and how we handle things, planned or unexpected. We also must keep in mind that to be human is to error. We will make good and poor choices and we will make mistakes. Things will go wrong. No one is ever happy all of the time. But still, we need to try.
“Do whatever it takes,” I would tell him, “even when it seems hopeless, even when you don’t want to.”
He would just scoff at me. I cant blame him for that either. It’s hard to believe anything I’m saying unless you yourself have made it to the other side. He’d have to take my word for it. And he wasn’t ready for that. None of us usually are.
When I was buried deep in my rabbit hole, there was nothing anyone could say or do to change my mind. In my eyes, my life was over. My life had beaten me down. And I was too weak to recover. I spent all my time drowning in a sea of victimization. The “why me?!” The “what did I do to deserve this?”
Then came the waves of self-loathing, guilt, shame, despair, anger, and the eventual “nothingness”. This is the part where we give up on trying to find happiness or meaning to our lives and we no longer care much about anything. I thought to myself at the time: “Just exist Steph, just survive, go through the motions and expect nothing extraordinary until it’s time to die. That’s all you have to do.” And the best case scenario, I would muster the ability to end it all on my own earlier than my life clock had planned. That feeling… of walking through life defeated, beaten down each time you try to get up, until you are reduced to nothing more than a shell of a person, it’s overwhelming. It takes your breath away, smothering your soul. Upside-down and twisted up in this rock bottom was where I existed for years. Until I forced myself to pull me out of it. What was left of me anyways.
My dad hit rock bottom too, way after me. He thought he had hit it many times before then and maybe he had, but it was nothing like this drop. And it was definitely the furthest down he had ever been. During this particular climb back up, he told me my words popped into his head and for the first time, he chose to make them stick. He kept them there, my voice always in the back of his mind, until he believed it for real.
I was thrilled the day he called and told me I was right all along. It had nothing to do with the satisfaction of being right but everything to do with the fact that he finally believed. It was the way his voice had changed, the confirmation in it. He knew he could find happiness for the first time in many years. And he had begun to seek it out. He sounded almost giddy about it. It was a new lease on his life and he was excited.
He said to me, “Bud, you were right. You never stopped trying to tell me, but I guess in order for me to understand, for me to work towards it, I had to see it myself. I had to believe on my own. Thank you for never giving up on trying to make me see it.” He’s been on the upswing ever since. It’s not easy. But his outlook is different now, and that changed everything.
He deserves this more than anyone I know. It’s been a long time coming. He tried so hard to be both my mom and my dad pretty much my entire life. He did the best he could. But it killed him when he thought he let me down, on a few occasions, for reasons I won’t get into here. There are things that happened to me that I kept from him until only recently. I didn’t want to burden him. I didn’t want to hurt him. He blamed himself for that too when he shouldn’t have. It wasn’t his fault. Hell, it wasn’t mine either, but the shit happened just the same.
Now he understands. Only we can pull ourselves out of the deep. He could have been there for me if I told him everything, but only there as much as I would have let him be. And he would have helped, as much as I would have let him. Which back then, might not have been at all. Loved ones can be there for us in our worst of times, holding out their hands for us to grab onto, but only we can choose to take hold and stop drowning. We have to make the choice to swim to dry land. I chose to drown myself back then.
There are so many things that can go wrong in our lives – through our own fault, through someone else, through circumstance, through things beyond our control. Things happen that we can’t understand, things happen that aren’t fair, and there can be overwhelming amounts of pain, tragedy, sadness, loss, anger, and grief. We find ourselves being swallowed in the white noise.
But amidst it all, there still exists love, beauty, and happiness. We have to force ourselves to shift focus even when we’re being blindsided by the bad. Until it becomes habit to do so. We are the curators of our own happiness only if we choose to believe. We must have faith in that. We hold our universe in the palm of our own hands.
A lot of us face insurmountable hardship. Some have it worse than others, but it’s not for us to think about. We carry the weight of our lives in different measure. Our pain is our own. It is not up to us to measure it against someone else. We cannot trivialize others’ pain because we feel ours is worse. Nor should others do that to us. It will always be worse to the one that lives with it. We have to understand that we’re not all built to just “get over it” immediately. But we are all built to fight, to rise up, and to come face to face with new hardships and tackle them head on, refusing to allow them to define or control our happiness.
We discover that we can hold on to the happiness we create and use it as a shield against the pain. When the pain consumes us, we can’t see the good. It’s like being caught in the eye of a tornado. Life is beyond the funnel but if we’re trapped in the middle of its storm, all we see is the darkness. We get swallowed whole. It’s hard to move beyond anything other than just trying to stay alive. Happiness is hard to find there.
I can’t tell you that storms don’t exist in my life anymore because I choose to be happy more days than not. That would be bullshit. They do. Storms are a constant, varying in size. Terrible things have happened since I started the fight many years ago. But I kept fighting anyways. And I find myself riding through the storms a bit easier. What was once an F-5, leveling my existence, may now be an F-2, with some minor cleanup and bounce back required. But my happiness remains intact, shaken maybe, but never leveled completely.
I may not have a lot, not in comparison to some people, but I am happy. I try to see the good in every day and I am grateful for all that I have and who I have. I try to give as much as I can, filling the world with more good, more kindness, more compassion.
I worked hard for this, all that I have built. I don’t care so much about the physical or the material, but more the emotional and the mental.
I control the storms now. I don’t let them control me.
I am aware of where I was and where I want to be. I am aware of who I was and who I want to be. I am firm in the belief that I will always be a work in progress but I live and love the best that I can. I will be hungry for happiness as long as I am alive.
We need to find what is important to us and fight for it, every single day. We define our happiness. It starts from within and radiates outward. It doesn’t matter if your happiness is different from others. What matters is that you want it, and you will do what it takes to find it. Our thoughts manifest. They do. Decide to stay on the positive wavelength.
They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result. You have to do something different in order to grow. And in order to grow, you have to change. And to change, you have to believe. And when you believe, you will move forward.
The only person that can take you there, is you.
There is no such thing as instant happiness. And there is a HUGE difference between pretending that you’re happy versus feeling the real thing. You can’t fake happiness. All that does is actually mask the real work you need to do. Real happiness amidst the fucked up shit in our lives takes work. It’s a struggle, it’s a process, and it’s a fight. It could take weeks, months, or years. It could take losing everything, including your mind.
It makes you feel things you don’t want to feel, see things you don’t want to see, come to terms with things you’d rather avoid, removes you from the denial, and it provides a hell of a lot of clarity that you sometimes wish you can push back out of focus. You see yourself for who you truly are, and you learn to fall in love with you, flaws and all, as hard as that may seem. You forgive people you don’t want to, even when they’re not sorry. You also forgive yourself, sometimes that’s even harder to do. But you do it so you can let go and be free from it. You have to. You don’t think it’s possible but then you feel it for real and you’re like holy shit, it is possible.
So this is a case where I feel like I can tell you to put the cart before the horse. Because eventually, the horse will move into place.
You just have to trust that it knows what to do.