I’m not myself when I’m not writing. I become the shadow of a soul that breathes for the expulsion of words. My fingertips cannot keep all the things I have to say stored away, and if I wait too long the words come spilling out of my mouth instead. It is dangerous to be a writer.
I am looking at photos of my body; mutilated. A police officer is showing them to me, telling me what happened and I can’t believe the body in the pictures belongs to me. Patches of skin have been cut off my chest and my flesh is bloody and bruised. He is telling me I was hurt, all over, very badly, and that they haven’t caught him yet.
This, this is the real fear underlying all else: that I was not safe and I could not be. I rushed to all the doors and triple-locked them and I was so paranoid; checking and rechecking and looking out windows. But he was out there, and he was waiting for me and he had hurt me; he owned me now. No matter where I went, or what I did, I knew he would be there. And that feeling has lingered in my chest all day. Sick with fear and paranoia. He was so much more than just a figment of my imagination, he was a culmination of everything I’m most afraid of. And the way I felt him was like the blood in my veins; warm and constant. I did not have to see him to know what he looked like or be in his presence to know he was there.
Bought beer with what little money I had left and it may have been the best decision of my life or the worst. After chugging two I found myself feeling incredibly good, all over, within and without. This feeling always leads me to the same question though, why don’t I always do this? The relief my mind and body felt after those drinks was immeasurable. Why was I not constantly in a state of head-buzz?
After the fourth (these were downed in less than a half hour) I was drunk. The good, loud, confident drunk. But my anxiety became uncomfortably out of control; it made me sick to my stomach (literally, over and over again). I was in the bathroom for hours, emptying the entire contents of my body. And as I sat there, alone and reeking of my own vomit, I remembered asking myself why I don’t always do this and here is the answer: because two beers leads to four leads to more. Because I never know when to stop. Because feeling good never lasts.
Sometimes you drink your coffee black and bitter just to find out all the sugar was at the bottom.
The better the thing you gave up, the greater the sacrifice. And the greater that sacrifice, the less you owed yourself. And when you constantly owe yourself so much, giving things up becomes natural. You see, we do whatever we can to appease our hungry self-hatred and in the late hours of the night all we have is all we have given up.
“It’s difficult to not be anxious in a place full of so many people. It makes me hyper aware of myself and my own body and just how incongruous I am. Some things beat at us for so long we give them up; until that moment when just a tiny whisper reminds us again and we’re reunited with a truth we’d rather not know. So it is with my body, but whispers have turned to loud voices and more than a tiny part of me knows this means change. Anything to shut the voices up.”
“My body takes up more space than my mind and heart can allow. It is sad when you feel you are one thing but the mirror shows that you are something else. There is such a conflict between my soul and its’ home. And this is the seed which is planted far beneath any surface I can reach; a voice telling me I am not what I am supposed to be. And this is something no thought or feeling in my being can argue with.”
-Excerpts from 2015 journal in which I was traveling between Amsterdam and Epsom
There are secrets we keep, balled up in our stomachs as we poke them and watch our flesh move. I tell everyone who will listen about the wonderful month I spent traveling abroad in Amsterdam and Epsom; how beautiful the streets were and the amazing smell of the bakeries. But you know what I do not tell them? I never tried a Danish pastry while I was there. I wouldn’t let myself. I barely ate for a month, exercised every day, and came back to my friends and family who glowed at me and said “You look great!” It’s so hard not to hide your excitement, that rush of pride for all your hard work at being thin, thin, thin. And I would’ve stopped sooner if I hadn’t been treated so wonderfully for simply being (in a word) less.
Some secrets are too much to keep, and come spilling out of us in unhealthy ways, changing us.
Row after row of burgundy pew and that crimson carpet like Jesus himself bled out in this church. I am biting back laughter so hard that I am afraid I may actually burst; can a person explode from keeping joy inside? My mother is giving me The Eyes and I know I will in turn receive The Lecture about how this is a sacred place and we come here to worship, not to laugh. The thing is, everyone worships in different ways. I wish I could share this joy with my mother, here in this place where love is taken so seriously. I wish our love didn’t have to be a stern obligation. And I wish I could burst out laughing, because I am happy, so happy today, but instead I am physically hurting myself by preventing my muscles from contracting into a laugh. And I get a quick head nod from my mother, as if this sacrifice provides redemption for my actions. As if laughing in church would be the reason I would end up in hell and not a warped sense of what love is.
I think we need to stop blaming women for holding their bodies to standards our society and culture actively glorify. I read an article in high school, “Too ‘Close to the Bone’: The Historical Context for Women’s Obsession with Slenderness” by Roberta Seid and at the time, it spoke to me and riled me up as a fellow feminist and active believer that I was allowed to be any weight that I wanted. She said “If avoiding fatness and possible disease is the main preoccupation of our lives, then what are we living for?” And this made so much sense to me then.
Now I have a different perspective on this article. While I know Seid was fighting for the woman against the shaming of fat, she was also shaming the woman for her desire to be thin. I don’t believe this is fair. She said, “Surely this is the worst form of hubris- to despise our bodies because they are not perfect.” But she’s so wrong. Despising our bodies has nothing to do with our pride, but our self-worth. Our bodies are temples and women worship in different ways.
I think after struggling with disordered thoughts for so long I was willing to believe I was to blame for wanting to lose weight and look different. It was my fault that I looked the way I looked, it was my fault that I didn’t like what I saw. But this is also wrong. The mind works in flashes and we flutter to keep up; those plagued with body image issues know all too well the hell of what goes on in the mind when these things are happening to the body. If this is more than a physical battle, why are we going to war with society instead of addressing the mental health of our women first?
Continue reading “Hubris Has Nothing to Do With It”
“Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I know because I’ve done it thousands of times.”
I miss waking up early, as the sun was shaking the world from it’s cold sleep; sneaking out to the garage with my pack of smokes and a notebook. The solitude, the absolute beauty of sitting alone with my thoughts and a cigarette. The smoke filling me up and reminding me I was allowed to be hurt enough to consume it. It is hard to remember smoking any other way; it sits on my heart waving it’s unbridled romanticism of depression. It told me all the time I was broken but it made me feel beautiful for it. And maybe this is why I have relapsed over and over again despite the multitude of rewards of quitting- because the depression has never left but smoking made me more comfortable with it.
I think I had my first cigarette when I was sixteen; I heard smoking them could make you lose weight. At the time I was in my first serious relationship and I was with a man who would literally tell me he did not like the way I looked or the clothes I wore- embarrassing, of course, but I had long struggled with my self-image beforehand and this only further perpetuated my hatred of the way I looked. I thought a lot of my problems, maybe even all of them, could be solved by being thinner. I desperately wanted to be skinny because in my eyes, this was the key to being worthy and being beautiful. I had to have an older friend buy them for me of course and in the beginning I did not like them; I could tell they interfered with my anti-depressants, often making me nauseous and sometimes sick to my stomach. Not to mention I had to keep it a secret from my whole family, who were quite conservative and surely disapproving of that habit, and all of my teachers at school. Smoking was a physical thing I could do to change my identity when I was unable to reconcile the way my body looked with who I thought I was.
Needless to say, the relationship didn’t work out. But smoking did. In the years following I began to hang out with an older crowd and discovered how likable and funny people found me when I drank. So I drank a lot. The drinking was of course accompanied by many cigarettes and it became hard to distinguish between what was bad for me and what would make me feel better- turns out the two aren’t mutually exclusive. By eighteen I was smoking close to a pack a day and my depression was completely out of control. I remember being gone from home for several days, drinking and then being late to school and then working until eleven and then repeating it all over again, until I would completely crash and come home and climb into my mother’s bed and cry and tell her I wanted to drop out of high school. I was a mess and my self-medication was also abuse. But the cigarettes leveled me out. Difficult day? Better have a cigarette. Need to skip a meal? Better have a cigarette. They were an immediate fix to a problem with no solution. They kept me alive just long enough to keep hurting myself. Their existence in my life was a paradox.
I quit many times, sometimes with several months under my belt before relapsing. I would get so fed up with the smell, the tick of cravings, the disdain from the people I loved who knew it wasn’t good for me. But I always went back, because I was always still sick. And smoking offered me some solace, some affirmation that I was bad enough to warrant needing something so harmful- and that was important; it wasn’t scars on my arms but it gave me the same release. It was self-harm but under a guise that didn’t warrant questioning and didn’t demand an explanation.
I would have lots of relapse dreams; some of the most realistic dreams I’ve ever had. There was always guilt there, even (maybe especially) after I’d woken up, because it was a desire I still had and a fight I was still fighting. I think that was part of relapsing too, knowing it was inevitable and not wanting or being able to fight it anymore. Quitting was rewriting my identity and through these dreams I glimpsed a different version of myself, someone I longed to be. But relapsing rewrites your identity too.
It wasn’t until my current partner showed great disdain for it that my smoking became a serious wedge in a relationship. I had many friends and family who strongly disapproved and tried multiple times to help me quit but no one had ever made me feel like I had to choose them over smoking. At the time I can tell you it frustrated me to my core- like I said, it was part of my identity and I was furious someone wanted me to change who I was for them. Smoking was a source of great tension for us and we had many arguments for several months. I even successfully quit for a time but it felt forced and made relapsing easy; it wasn’t what I’d wanted.
Then a miraculous thing happened; I got pregnant. I was overjoyed and so was my partner. I quit that day and found it was much easier to refrain from smoking when I knew that disguised self-harm would also harm my child. Pregnancy was difficult because being healthy was difficult but not smoking came naturally. At one point I found an old purse and rummaging through the pockets, found an empty pack of cigarettes. I was horrified; I had actually forgotten I had ever been that person! It was easy to feel as if my addiction was years behind me; buried far beneath the surface. I even developed a disdain for the habit as well as the people who practiced it, forgetting just months separated me from the same thing.
But postpartum everything changed again; that intense longing for a cold morning spent wrapped in a blanket with a cigarette resurfaced. I ached to be that person again- someone with the ability to hurt themselves that way. It was a beautiful picture in my mind and I felt strongly it would help me cope with the intense feelings of loneliness and helplessness I was experiencing. Some battles never end.
I can recall a specific day working at Starbucks- my father appeared, out of the blue, and when I saw his face it was like my stomach dropped all the way to my feet. I could feel my face flush, could see my coworkers eyeing me, but I didn’t know how to swallow the knot in my throat. My father and I had even been talking recently and things seemed like they were progressing in our relationship but it was still there, under all of the hard work and forgiveness: the conditioned fear.
I have these misguided feelings (perpetuated my entire childhood by the reinforced idea that things were okay; things were normal; we could manage) that what I went through growing up was not justifiably traumatic. I have known others who had it much worse and in a very awful sense, that phrase has become a mantra in my life. But here is the truth: a tiny voice inside of me, trembling but sure, has always told me a fact I have no scientific evidence of- It’s wrong and you know it. So many times in my life, especially my youth, I heard something or saw something that someone older or more qualified than me could explain, could justify. I have outgrown the need to listen to these voices above the fire in my gut.
You see, I saw my father do terrible things. Sometimes I wish I had never seen them and yet I am softer and harder for it. I like to think (and maybe I have to, as a defense mechanism) that it made me stronger.
I have so many fragmented memories, like pieces of glass. All I ever want is to look into them at myself but they require the sacrifice of cutting open old scars. Some of the things my sisters tell me I simply cannot remember; other things I can recall in grossly vivid detail. I wish I could watch it like a movie; see myself and see things play out but with the knowledge we wouldn’t be with him forever.
When my sisters, mother, and I lived at the shelter we each had to attend weekly therapy sessions with a woman named Ellen. I really liked her; she was round and jolly but had this way of making you feel like you had been through something worthy of talking about. She really listened. I remember during one of our sessions I had started describing the disparity between how my father treated Amy, the oldest, and Emily, the second oldest. It was something that even now, a decade later, I desperately want to understand. It was like he pitted them against each other for his own entertainment; like he was keeping them forever against each other so that they could never be completely and truly against him. As I was describing this to Ellen, she got a funny look on her face that even then I could read as wisdom. She asked me where did Melissa (the youngest) fit into all of this? I was quick to answer, Melissa was the baby. She could do no wrong in anyone’s eyes; my father probably loved her most of all. And then she did that thing that doctors and psychiatrists and therapists probably long to do their entire careers: she opened up my fucking eyes. “And what about you, Mary?” she said. “Where does that leave you?” And it was in that moment I realized I had been an outsider, watching these things happen to my family without ever really feeling like I was part of it, like maybe I shouldn’t be upset because I wasn’t necessarily loved or hated by my father. And I remember looking at her face, that face that was trying to help me get to the right conclusions, and I started to cry. I knew it then; my place in the abuse that happened to my family was the exterior of a shell; I was the watcher, never the direct victim.
It was easy to feel like you had the power to stand up to him when he was not in your face. We would all rally together and hype each other up; fantasize about all the things we would say to him. But God, the moment he was in front of you, it was like your throat closed up and you couldn’t breathe, and the room got too warm and you were vulnerable, so completely vulnerable. Amy was really the only one who could stand up to him, and I think this is part of the reason all of my sisters and even my mother have this quiet, devoted respect for her.
I don’t remember Spot. I have heard though that Amy was supposed to be watching me outside (I was four or younger at the time) and Spot bit my heels so I got upset and my father took Amy and held her over the fence with his hands on her neck because there was a large dog in the neighbor’s yard that she was terrified of. I was told he died of worms but only just recently found out my dad clipped his nails to the quick and he bled out in a box in the garage; howling all night, scratching the sides of his prison- quickening his death.
I do remember my father bringing home Joey, a German Sheppard puppy and he was so cute and warm and I loved him and he peed on newspapers in the house for a while. I remember my father putting Joey in a barred cage, sticking sharp sticks in on all the sides, preventing Joey from moving unless he wanted to be stabbed. I remember watching it, on the top of the deck, my mother pleading with him, and I feel her protection inside the memory (she may have told me to close my eyes or go back inside the house). I remember seeing my father punch Joey square in the face, I can still hear his cry. I can still feel the horror of my heart shattering with the realization that not only could people be this evil, but my father, my daddy, was this man. My mother had shouted for him to stop, ran to him, and he had pushed her. I remember so clearly he had looked at my sisters and I crying and said “It’s just an animal.” I remember when things got bad my mother took him away to my uncle’s house so he didn’t have to be abused. But she brought him back when things temporarily got better; and then Joey just started running away. He ran away all of the time. None of us could blame him. And then one day, he ran away and my father threatened to beat the living daylights out of him when we found him and I stayed up all night that night praying that Joey would get far enough away that my father would never find him. And he must have, because he never came home.
Then there was Lucy Mae and my father said she “slid off” the deck in the backyard and fell off and broke her neck. She was already buried when Melissa and I got off the school bus that day and my mother had to explain there was an “accident.” I wonder how many facts about my childhood were not the truth and I wonder if I could handle knowing.
So much of this I have struggled to get out, not only emotionally because of the trauma, but also mentally, trying to figure out what to tell people and how to say it. The hardest part is, I forgave him for all of these things because he is a sick, sad, lonely man but I have to say, I am still afraid of him. He still scares me more than anything else.