Tag Archives: writing it out

extra:ordinary – “The fire of survival is the strongest heat within me”

(This week’s contribution to the extra:ordinary project (stories of everyday surviving and resilience) comes from Ami Lovelace of San Francisco. In her piece, Ami vividly describes the reality for a young child living in an abusive household, and how she has found the capacity to continue living. Connect with Ami about her powerful story at her facebook page, or leave a comment below.)

Suicide is hard. Trust me. I know. It’s one of the few things in life I’ve actually failed at when I tried it.

I don’t think I ever identified with being a victim. I’ve been a survivor, always, even at 16 when I slid that ridiculously dull blade across both my wrists, tears streaming down my cheeks, but the cut just wouldn’t go deep enough to stream the blood. Being a survivor has never been a choice. It was a have to. It is a have to. Innate and involuntarily. The beatings, the rage, the alcohol reeking from his breath, the sheering and stripping of my emotions and spirit, it never registered to me as OK, as normal, as a matter of deserving it. It was always wrong. Somewhere, way deep down in the solar plexus, before I even knew what that was, in the body of a tiny little child, with big green eyes and light brown hair in pigtails, or curls, or some family chopped bowl haircut, his fists pummeling away at my flesh like his own boxing gym, or the knife cold and huge against my mother’s neck as I cried from under the kitchen table, while he swore he’d tear her throat open in front of me, I knew it was wrong, and I hated him for it. And hate, hate is a very powerful thing. Sometimes seemingly more powerful even than love. After all, isn’t the world now run by hate, when we wish really that it was shepherded by love. That seedling of hate, of wrong and resentment maybe sprouted from watching him with my brother. His real child, his real family, and sometimes with my mom. The softness in his hands as he held my little brother, the smile on his face and words filled not with malice, but pride, joy, tenderness. Maybe being a survivor was born somewhere in the mists of jealousy? Of needing to be good at something, to be better at this, getting through, rising above, breathing still, even in the thick of it, of getting attention, even if it was just the wrong kind, the kind that affronted and offended, that incited more beatings and more blood. Survival, before I even understood the concept, spewed from my mouth as a rebellious ten year old, sticking up for myself, defending myself against a man, a presumed man, four times my size, even as he lumbered over me, sharp edge of a clothes hanger lashing into my face, thrown and held against the kerosene heater until I could smell the back of my own thighs burning. The constant barrage of insults, the devolution from human to animal to creature to nothing, all through his words. An entire childhood lost to the obscure corners, too dark for even his cast shadows to reach.  But that was then. And even then, in my bloody rebellions, I did not want to cede power to him. I did not want to be eclipsed by him. I would not shrink away.

I remember moments of that last stand. The day I really tried to fight back. In the dark living room of our ranch style home, arms swinging, I charged, a battle cry whelp from my lungs, received wholly by a quick steel-toe carpenter boot to the face. Who was I defending then? Me? My mother? The only thing that I know for sure was that it wasn’t my brother. It was never my brother. Everything after that shrivels away into the recess of memories I cannot access anymore. That year after the piping hot potatoes wrapped in aluminum foil being flung at me from the doorstep as I stood on the curb unable to enter my own home, to stepping between his boots and Pepper, the puppy black lab, he let loose into the neighborhood, hoping she’d be hit by a car, and telling us exactly that (she found us anyway, smart thing, pawing at the sliding door of the kitchen of our neighbors house, two and half blocks down where my brother and I had relocated and listened through the open windows, still hearing his voice pummeling my mother while she still [tried] to leave the house), the multiple 911 calls and the police officers who showed up and did nothing, with some small town first responders brotherhood loyalty bullshit as their defense for ineptitude —he was a volunteer fireman, after all— sometime, after all that, and on a day I don’t remember well, my mother called my aunts, and we walked, each of us on our own legs, my brother looking over his shoulder, leaving for the last time.  I kissed a childhood I remember only now in brief flashes, goodbye.

I swore Then, never again. And never has it been that a man has laid an unwanted hand on me. And rue the day any man tries. The fire of survival is the strongest heat within me, smoldering still now, just under my ribcage, ready to leap up, and flame into uncontrollable inferno, engulfing anyone in its path, if ever again it’s needed.

I thought about writing a book, a memoir, about the abuse, about growing up somewhere between love and bruises, scars and smiles. Years ago I wrote down that first chapter. Ten Days in the Gray, that what I had thought it was going to be. That it was going to chronicle the story of Then, and the 10 days post the miserable attempt at suicide, hospitalized in the psych ward. Because I had wanted to be. I had chosen to be. I had asked to be.  But then I told myself, who wants to read about that? Who wants to read my story, as a child, in a shitty situation who grew into a teenager with emotional issues hidden beneath the surface of the faded scars and disappeared bruises? I didn’t want to dwell on Then. I never want to dwell on Then. Besides, it’s not about the Then. For me, it’s been way past the story of Then, since Then. It’s about the now. It’s about the me in this moment, the me that I am, and the me that I want to be. It’s about the remembering to wake up each day, every morning, and tell myself I am valuable. I am important. I matter.  And some days, I forget.

The struggle now is not in the defense or the physicality, it is the worth and desire. A desire to live, each and every day, with my face to the sun. And to remember that I am worth that feeling of the rays on my face, warm and perfect in the moment. That my breath, as I take it, matters. Each one. To someone else, to the world, and above all, to myself. And that to think differently, even in a fleeting moment, is to pass off that power that as a child I clutched so dearly to, back to him. And to remember that there is strength in me, worth in me, that no other person has, through each memory, each scar, each tear.  I am not grateful for having gone through it, for experiencing any of it, but I am ever thankful, and grateful for how I have come out of it. For myself, for that little girl me, who even before she could intellectualize what she felt and what it meant for her, with no thought to danger, since it was already so present in her life, fought anyway, and fought hard through bared and gritted teeth, for the inner desire to live, to be, to more than just exist, that still today, on off days, I sometimes forget I have.

(Thank you for that remembering, for this honesty, and for your fierce creative power, Ami. Thank you for sharing your story with us.)

just once before I die I would like to know I’ve flown free

The prompt I offered at one of our last Write Whole sessions was “things we aren’t supposed to talk about.” (You can make a list of those things, if you want, or simply dive into the first thing that comes up for you when you hear that phrase); we wrote for twenty minutes.

Here’s what I wrote:

I am afraid of dying. I am still afraid of dying. It has been twenty years since last he put his hands on me, he has been in prison for seventeen years, and still something in me remains stalled. 

I’ve had friends who don’t want to hear that I am still afraid of my stepfather killing me, that I bear the steel-rod terror still along my spine and through my shoulders that one day he will be released or escape from jail, come and find me and do, finally, what he promised so many years ago, when I first tried to get him to stop what he was doing to me, when I tried to stop the “sexual part of our relationship,” as he liked for me to call it. How had we gotten into the conversation, my friend and I? I said I was afraid I would freeze if I ever opened the door to find my stepfather standing there. My friend was aghast – and though he didn’t try to be, was profoundly shaming. He wanted a different response from me, and so I gave him one: I stopped talking about it. His telling me that I should remember that I am not the 19 or 23 or 21 year old I was when he last threatened me didn’t help. His grimace of feminist disappointment didn’t help.

I remembered – this is my fear to carry alone.

And it’s a site of shame – of course I know I should let it go. I know I shouldn’t believe one more of his lies. Where is this going? Last month, a friend dies at 50 with      yes      so much more of his life left to head and yet a gorgeous legacy of work and craft and community – and, at 41, I feel like I am still in limbo, still waiting for this man to die before I can truly open up the spigot of my heart, still sure that anyone I open my heart to will get killed as well, still afraid that any ambitions I pursue or life I build will be precisely what he will take delight in tearing away from me, burning in front of me. Torturing me until I relinquish. This was always his way. Why would twenty years make any different to a sociopath?

And so I try to remember to breathe, how to breathe, try to remember that, if he’s going to kill me, it probably won’t be today – and today I have some of my own beautiful and free life to live. I want to understand how to rid my body, my hard-grasping psyche, of this terror. I want to know how to communicate freedom and safety to my body, I want to know how to love freely into this life, how to stop mourning my inability to heal faster than I have. Maybe it all comes down to breath.

It seems true that I am not supposed to talk about the way this terror still lines my shoes, lives beneath my knees, behind my eyes; no, I no longer wait for him to come through a window. No, the place where this terror lives is inside my bones now. It stops up my reaching, my wingspan. Just once before I die I would like to know I’ve flown free.