(This week’s contribution to the extra:ordinary project (stories of everyday and ongoing resilience) comes from Jen L. in Denver, CO. Jen shows us what it’s like inside the survivor who excels as a means of resistance, and yet can be perceived as utterly unaffected by their trauma. Thank you, Jen, for this powerful piece!)
i am 28 years old. i have three (sometimes four) part-time jobs. i am in a full-time graduate program, have a 3.89 GPA, presented a poster at an international conference this fall, and am starting to look at PhD programs. i have a maybe-girlfriend (we’ll probably define that relationship soon, but there’s no rush). we laugh pretty much every day. i have built up an incredible network of very good friends who have stretched my heart across the entire country, from maine to massachusetts to florida to ohio to minnesota to kansas to colorado to california to washington state. six years ago, a family, not at all related by blood, gathered me into their fold, giving me a place to call home. my apartment is filled to the brim with book-friends that i’ve collected and hugged close over the last seven years.
i dated a girl recently who had an amazing apartment with an 8th floor balcony that faced west over the park, the perfect vantage point to watch the sun set over the mountains every night. she had a great car with heated leather seats. a sweet kitchen stocked with organic and natural everything. an enormous tv with satellite cable. an adorable dog who was fed specialty food. and she paid for none of it. her parents, who were generous and kind and loving and lived near napa valley, paid for everything. as far as i could tell, she walked through the world with no weight on her shoulders, with no baggage strapped to her hips.
we did not last.
i am 28 years old, and i’ve crafted and molded this world from the ashes that were left when i burned my family down to save myself.
i grew up with an abusive mother and an older brother who followed her lead. our house was always filled with people we took in, mostly college students who lived too far away to go home often and so they found a home in our handyman’s-special house by the creek. they never knew what happened upstairs, in my bedroom, in my parents’ bedroom, in his bedroom. these strays were the kids she could mother because they didn’t need her, they were the people she could love because she didn’t birth them. she took in strays like they were her own, while her own hurt each other in ways we didn’t know how to talk about.
i learned how to manipulate, growing up in that house by the creek. i taught myself how to harden my heart. i taught myself how to turn my tear ducts into deserts. i taught myself how to starve my desperation away. i taught myself how to shut down, and when that didn’t work / when that worked too well, i taught myself how to shock the pain out of my body with cuts or bruises or burns. i taught myself how to feel only what fit within my limits. i taught myself how to function in impossible situations. i taught myself how to see in the dark.
i taught myself how to find solace in writing suicide notes, in fantasizing about finality with all of my loose ends so neatly wrapped up. i taught myself the skills i would need to believe that i was at fault (i.e. that i still had control) after i was raped in college. i taught myself how to keep believing that it was my fault / that i still had control after i was raped again, less than a year later. i taught myself how to keep up appearances while my heart crumpled in on itself; i got scholarships and wrote brilliant papers and graduated just-shy-of-with-honors from an elite women’s college, all while writing poetic and brilliant suicide notes and hiding them from everyone around me.
i learned all of these things in that house by the creek.
down in the creek, though, i learned how to trust. it started with my oldest friend in the house just down the creek, and then exploded onto other friends and teachers and nurses in the hospital. in a creaky old house by the cemetery, i taught myself how to trust therapists with my story, and in a creaky old repurposed factory building by the river, i taught myself how to trust therapists with my crumpled-up heart. in a high school cafeteria, i taught myself how to rely on friends to fill the holes my family of origin had left in my soul. on a boat dock in the finger lakes, i taught myself what a home was; i learned how to identify that warm feeling that starts above your belly button and expands up through your shoulder blades as “home.” (i’ve felt that warm belly twice since.) on a rock by a lake in massachusetts, i taught myself how to let someone mother me again. in every place i’ve lived, i’ve taught myself how to let people in, how to build family from the ground up. on a mountain in virginia this summer, my brother and i started to teach ourselves how to find a connection with each other in between the light and the dark of our relationship. on these mountains in colorado, i’m teaching myself how to live a life that allows the dark to coexist with the light.