Y’all I am drained. I am sitting in the deepest depths of the ocean of sorrow tonight. Even though I know the anchor will pull me back up, it doesn’t seem like I’ll breathe again. The nightmares are back and worse than ever. Stalking. Murder. Survival. The way trauma seeps into your subconscious and thrives is something I don’t think I’ll ever be able to fully comprehend. I’ve done my healing. But healing isn’t linear. Healing doesn’t follow the timeline you’d like it to. You can’t sit down with your pain and tell it your plans. Tell it how it doesn’t deserve a place in your present or your future. Tell it where it belongs – in the past with the person who gave it to you. You can’t tie your pain up in a nicely done bow and gift it back. And it’s unfair. It. Is. Not. Fair.
I’ve been struggling lately with receiving love in a healthy relationship. My partner is wonderful. He is everything I have prayed for and could honestly dream of. He’s kind, caring, compassionate. He extends grace in how he reacts to my past and in how he interacts with me each day. Even when he doesn’t understand or can’t comprehend something I share, he sits with it and doesn’t hurry it away. He allows space for my pain and validates those experiences without tying them to who I am as a person – something I have been terrified about since I began dating. He is playful and funny. Passionate and calm at the same time. Incredibly loving towards me. And in the same breath, I still struggle with accepting it.
My brain has been hardwired to believe I deserved what happened to me time and time again in my past marriage. That I only deserved breadcrumbs. That who I was at the core was so flawed that I didn’t deserve a faithful or kind husband. So that portion pops up every now and then. It says you couldn’t possibly deserve this person. You couldn’t possibly deserve someone who is well adjusted. Who is happy with themselves. Who tells the truth and wants to know you in your rawest form. Someone who doesn’t just roll over and ignore you when you cry. Who only wants to bring sunshine into your life, rather than stifling yours. And that is the voice that trauma survivors live with every single day. Not just the voice of ‘you’re not good enough.’ But the voice of you don’t deserve basic decency and here is the proof, over and over again. The proof of the memories of someone else’s body in your bed. Someone else’s self-hatred internalized in your idea of what a relationship looks like. Someone else’s pain and selfishness. The selfishness of not doing their own hard work. Of not looking themselves in the mirror and being honest about who they were and what they felt. Instead, opting for another mask to place over themselves. To fill up their cup for that day, with no regard to who or what they destroyed in their paths. That is what survivors of domestic abuse live with.
I cannot tell you the amount of work I have done in counseling. Week after week, I show up. Whether I want to or not. Because at the end of the day, my abuser does not deserve an ounce of memory in my present or my future. And most importantly, because at the end of the day, my partner does not deserve an ounce of my trauma response to someone else’s pain and shame in themselves.
Experiencing what someone can offer you in a loving and healthy relationship has been a journey in itself. I never thought it would be so hard to sit with it. To have a conversation with another man and have them return your concerns with respect and self awareness. To have that fear of bringing up something that has been worrying you, and to be greeted with love and understanding. My trauma response says, “where is the punishment? when is it coming? will it be him stonewalling today and me finding an affair tomorrow? what pain is on its way that will ultimately be blamed on my behavior?”
The work necessary to heal your brain and heart from this kind of thinking and these experiences is hard. There is no sugarcoating that for you as a survivor, and I’m sorry. I’m sorry you are left dealing with the experiences someone else put on you with no regard to your feelings or the future it meant for you on your own. I was in a place where I have objectively felt I had done the hardest of the hard work. I had my sleepless nights in the past, my PTSD nightmares were fewer and far in between. I had not ‘missed’ my previous husband in almost a year. I accepted the loss of the home and life I created, as well as the people I had lost. I was checking off all the boxes that come with healing. But nothing can prepare you for putting those learned experiences into life practice.
I’ve been so surprised by what relationships after trauma look like, and what it means to actually thrive in them. I have had to actively put my walls down. Knowing this wonderful man in front of me is nothing of my past. He has never hurt me, or given me a reason to not trust him. I have had to scroll through his background and the choices he made before meeting me. I have to comb through the rolodex of experiences I have had with him and analyze if they match with my current thoughts. And 10/10 times they do not. Because he is not my ex. And while I may have to take these extra steps now and analyze any correlation, it will not last forever. I have power over my thoughts. I can name them for what they are. I can move forward. I have the power to rewrite my story and that includes rewiring these trauma responses with healthy experiences rather than running from them. Because, my God would it be easy to build up a wall, rip the band-aid of pain off and run in the other direction. It’d be easy to tell myself the possible loss that comes with being vulnerable in a relationship wouldn’t be painful, that I am in control of how I feel and I have the power over the pain I feel going forward. But when you are a survivor, it is so important to override this. It’s not easy, but every time I make new memories with my partner, every time he tells me and shows me how he feels, every time we talk about a future together, my heart breathes a sigh of relief.
There is so much pride that comes from having put the time in and the work to come out the other side of abuse. To know that even though you know your abuser will always be the same person, you can be free from them. To know that they don’t get to have a seat at your table if you choose to heal. That even though their new life may look perfect from the outside, you know what happens when the door closes and everyone leaves. You know who they are and what mask they show the outside world. And you know because of your actions, you never have to experience that heartache again. It is possible to love more than you ever have. It is possible to have a healthy, wonderful relationship. And it is possible to accept it for the love it is, and not the pain you’ve been told for so long you deserve.
So even though you might be in the thick of it, you might have lost all hope of what a future looks like, I will light that candle and hold the hope for you. Just as those closest to me did when I was sitting where you are right now. It will get better. I promise that much. You will love again, and maybe even stronger this time, beautiful survivor. You’ve got this.
I usually try to polish my raw emotions in these posts. Post eloquent words. Piece stories and analogies together to sound sweeter and easier to digest for the reader. Allowing someone to peer into my past life, into my inner most thoughts, but carefully dissected and only through a filter. Through asking myself, what makes this more palatable? How can I illustrate my experience without making my readers uncomfortable? Tonight, we won’t be doing any of that. Life is hard. Life is messy. Life can just fucking suck sometimes. And that is what ebbs and flows. The grit of our lives, the shame, the guilt, those raw experiences are what web us together as humans. They’re what create a foundation of deep relationships and understanding. And they need to be shared without fear of someone being offended or made to feel uncomfortable.
[Tonight, will come with a trigger warning. A warning for those who have dealt specifically with sexual assault and rape, with gaslighting and manipulation and with domestic abuse as a general term. Tonight, we’re going to talk about the trauma head on, and the recovery process. There will be flashbacks and flash forward moments to the present day. No names are used in this or precise locations to keep anonymity.]
I walked into my dorm room after my Women’s Studies lecture and collapsed on the floor. My body tried holding me up, but it couldn’t. I sobbed harder than I have ever sobbed before. I cried out to God – to anyone who would listen. To this day, I am amazed my dormmates didn’t report me. And honestly, I was hoping they would. It was a literal cry for help. After a good hour of tears and stifled sobs, my heart started having stabbing pain in it. Pain I had never felt before. It felt like a piece of it was literally ripping apart. In that moment, I finally understood what people meant when they said you can die from a broken heart. I drug my lifeless body into my bed. I stared. It was light outside when I started, and it was dark when I came back to. I have never been so close to taking my own life. I started packing my things, looking around, and getting ready to admit myself to the psych ward at Michigan. It was around 10pm at this point. I was terrified of the stigma. I was terrified of the blemish on my record. After all, I needed a security clearance when this was all said and done. Ultimately, I put my purse down and sat back down in my bed. I stared at the wall and went to sleep. I look back on that night, sad that my former self was more worried about the stigma associated with what the government would think of her, rather than getting life support. This night, I knew that nothing could repair my marriage. Nothing could fix another human being who was so incredibly broken at their core. Nothing could erase the pain I knew was coming. No amount of rationalizing or therapy could prepare me for having to face headfirst the trauma I experienced in my marriage. The pieces of our relationship that weren’t shown through our highlight reels of social media. The pieces of our life that I covered up and smiled over. The reason I was usually quiet when our friends would come over. The reason I hated when my husband would drink. The reason I was the codependent buzz kill.
The filth that overtakes your entire body when you find out your partner has cheated, is something indescribable. After the first affair, I took 6 showers in a row. No amount of scrubbing or washing could take off the feeling my body had. The visions I kept seeing of her naked body. The visions of what was said – not only sexually but about me. When asked by the married sailor why he hadn’t divorced me yet, he cold heartedly replied, “I’m only with her to pay off my student loans.” “Don’t worry, it will happen.” I found this affair right after we moved to our duty station in Washington. This was one of the first times that shame was given a plot to grow. Shame that my partner cheated. Shame of how I would tell my parents that my partner didn’t want me enough to stay faithful. Shame that my marriage would be over after 2 measly years. Shame that everyone who warned us about getting married young would be vindicated. Shame, shame, shame.
This was also the first time I ever felt fear in my relationship. After he admitted to everything I found – and only after showing the insurmountable evidence against him – I tried to find refuge in the downstairs bathroom of our town house. He broke the door in to get to me. The desperation in both his voice and actions was terrifying. I never understood what domestic violence could feel like until I was put in a situation of fight or flight. I should have reported, I should have packed my suitcase and left, I should have moved on. But I didn’t. And coming to terms with the fact that I chose not to, is hard. I chose to allow someone to treat me in this way. I chose it. I covered up the dirt under the rug and moved on. I fell for his alligator tears. This was the beginning of my new assumed title, “the fixer.” This was the beginning of years of testing the waters; seeing how much I could take before I truly broke. No one warned me the beginning is the easiest, even though you break the hardest.
That night we had one of our closest friends come over from across the Puget Sound. She had to take a ferry and drive over 2 hours to see us, and I still felt like the bad person having him ask her to go home. I wanted so badly to smile through it and not let on that anything was wrong, but life doesn’t work that way. I told him the only way I would stay is if we could talk to a Chaplain that evening. In the navy there are not really ‘counselors’ available to Sailors in the traditional sense as they are to civilians. We go to Chaplains – the ship’s religious workers – and hope for non-biased advice. We met this particular one at the Chapel on Bangor. He seemed a bit annoyed but willing to help. After taking us both into a conference room separately, he brought us back together. He made sure to give us ‘advice’ which generally consisted of needing to build trust again. One thing he said will always stick with me, “you need to have boundaries, but you can’t treat him like a slave” – referring, of course, to me making sure I’m not too hard on what I require him to do to build back the trust. The person who was cheated on, lied to, and had their vows broken, was supposed to not ask too much of her spouse. Assuming this was because he had traditionalist views, the woman was supposed to submit to the man and his needs. Not go too far in anything, not be too much of a troublemaker, not exist in such a way that was inconvenient for her partner to have to conform to. After that he told us we should sleep naked together so that the chemicals in our skin would form a deeper bond (WHAT). If anyone is wondering why issues are allowed to fester in the military community, why few report domestic violence or sexual assault – look no further. There is never a just resolution. You are not believed, given the benefit of the doubt or supported more than the abuser. You are expected to come second to the service member in every single aspect of your life even when trauma exists. I’m here to tell you: this. is. not. okay.
This brings a larger issue at hand: spouses in the military community and the bias placed against us before we even say ‘I do.’ Some will call me a dependa, some will roll their eyes, some will quit reading. There is a saying in the navy, ‘if the military wanted you to have a wife, they would’ve issued it to you with your seabag.’ You only need to google images and type in ‘dependa’ to see the stigma associated with the military spouse. We are expected to never use the joint income, never go to the commissary and God forbid purchase food on the first of the month. We are expected to never watch too much TV or eat a certain kind of food at the expense of our weight – because we are all overweight slobs if we do. We’re expected to maintain our bodies, but we can’t get in too good of shape because if we do we’re obviously only doing it to cheat on our spouse while they’re at sea (watch that innocently left out broom on the door step or misplaced laundry detergent in the window). We are expected to have jobs, but not be too successful to where we can’t be a good mom for the kids. We’re expected to take care of the home, but not as a stay at home mom. We’re expected to keep the home fires burning while they’re deployed, but if you dare tell your sailor the truth of an issue going on at home, you’re unpatriotic and a distraction to the mission (anyone else given the 3-day rule by the CO?). We are expected to report sexual assault and domestic violence, as there is reading material and tear off numbers available in every public bathroom on base, but we are career ruiners if we do. Do you see where I’m going with this? As a spouse you are purely a civilian, but you are a civilian with an exceptional standard to live up to while living an exceptionally unordinary life. This is what needs to be recognized and fixed at a deeply systemic place before pushing us off on fleet and family services, expecting that to be enough. *Deep breath, channels my inner Jack Nicholson and chants gooooosfraba* End rant.
A few years later, I uncovered more affairs. And more. And more. I do not know the true number to this day, as I personally found out about eight on my own. Experts generally say with narcissistic personalities, the number is at least three times what you know about. The beautifully twisted way the mind of a narcissist works is to devalue you in the process of their own self inflation. Each and every person he had an affair with, was the exact opposite of me. I pride myself in pursuing a strong career. In providing for my family. In setting goals and achieving them. In reaching new heights and trying to pull others up along with me. He specifically chose females who exemplified and amplified my own physical insecurities. As if the weight of an affair wasn’t enough pain to experience, the knife was poisoned with the acknowledgement of picking painfully thin brunettes; so the visuals would not only cut me because of another woman being touched, but that he was touching a woman that I could never be. To leave me with such a sense of worthlessness physically, that I would always stay. Because who would want me, right? Who would want someone whose partner wouldn’t even touch her. This is grade A manipulation, and grade A bullshit, ladies. The trauma bond we’re put under over years of abuse lies to us. It says we’re not worthy. It gives us evidence like being seemingly unlovable to the person we love the most. This has nothing to do with you and everything to do with their own broken souls. You might be wondering what would make someone stay through this sort of devaluation? That honeymoon stage gets you every. single. time. And with each affair, it gets more intense. I can only compare it to needing a bigger high every time you use. You need it. You crave it. It’s the only thing to keep you hanging on.
I remember pulling up to my home for the first time in April of 2018. My neighbors watching from their yard while I toured with my realtor, Shianna. She had handpicked this house for me and was elated to show me around. I was in shock when I walked through the door. The entire time I kept telling myself there is no WAY we are going to outbid someone else on this. Absolutely no way. It was our dream home. And the master bedroom was my sanctuary. I had moved ahead to Florida to make a home for us and this was finally it. I painstakingly sifted through the giant stack of paperwork for not only me, but signing for my partner as his POA. I couldn’t wait to get the keys in my hand. I lovingly worked my way through the home, putting my touches on it. Spending hours in HomeGoods and my favorite little boutique called Cottage by the Sea, picking out things that would fit perfectly. Specific pieces that had meaning to us, to the places we’ve lived and the life we were building together. I even finally had the exact bed I wanted. You know – the ones that move up and down that you spend way too much money on? – that one. My partner came home for the first time and I could not wait to show him around his new house. The place we would make a family, the place we would finally be able to put down roots. He loved it. After suffering from a miscarriage the week prior, this was a welcomed distraction.
Immediately after he arrive to our house, it was time for our vacation. That transfer time between duty stations is the sweetest spot outside homecoming. It’s a time to just be. Just exist in time with your spouse. Enjoy the little moments free from worry and unsolicited calls from the ship. We used this time to see family and travel down the entire East Coast. We took professional photos for our 7th wedding anniversary with the same photographer we had gotten married with – the same one who did my senior portraits ten years prior. We had incredible experiences at places like Niagara Falls, New York and Boston. We had just left the North End in Boston and arrived back at our hotel, the Constitution. While eating our cannoli in bed (don’t judge), he started complaining about UTI symptoms. Having had one before I knew how uncomfortable they were and started searching where we could go. I found a military care facility which he declined saying he didn’t want to ruin our trip by going there. We went to the closest CVS in the morning and got some pain relief for him. Interestingly enough, it didn’t work. I kept telling him we should just go to a medicenter and get it taken care of since we still had days of travel ahead. He refused saying he needed to go to a military facility.
After getting home and being at his station where two medical facilities were, he went to a Walgreens. Oh, the hypocrisy. The manipulation factor in receiving care alone – how he was crafting an excuse to avoid this ending up on his military health record – shows how gaslighting exists at every level of a relationship. He came home and told me that there were two possibilities of what it could be. Me thinking the worst possible scenario was something terrible – webMD would definitely tell me he was dying here. He said it was either a UTI or an STI. When I tell you the betrayal and anger that flushed over me. I spent the night googling every single possible STI there was that matched his symptoms. It turned out to be chlamydia. If you don’t know anything about this, like I didn’t, it’s something you can only get through sexual contact. Something that presents exactly like an UTI and something that you will give to any sexual partners you may have. It’s luckily cured with two pills but the shame surrounding your partner giving it to you is indescribable. I went to the furthest medicenter I could find in our town. Having to ask for an STI test while showing your military ID is a level of embarrassment you can’t imagine. The look those women gave me is etched in my memory. Having to tell the doctor you’re recovering from a miscarriage but need an STI test, was an experience that I can only explain as a deep, deep violation of my body. A violation of not only trust, but my own bodily autonomy.
I remember him coming into the office and standing in the doorway with his alligator tears. Those alligator tears came out every single time he cheated. They were their own brand of manipulation. He knew this time was different. He knew he had earned the title of not just adulterer, but an adulterer who gave his spouse an STI while she was recovering from a miscarriage. That he cheated on his pregnant spouse. A new level of low for him. And he knew it from my response. I truly do not believe he understands or has the capacity to understand true empathy. He can mirror it, but when the cue isn’t presented, it is absent entirely. This was the first time I chose to ignore him. I comically told him he ‘needed Jesus because he’s the only one who can help you now.’ I immediately took back consent. I immediately built a wall around myself to protect myself. How could I plan an exit? How could I make sure I legally and ethically split our assets. How could he still make a house payment without my income? A to-do list of how to protect myself became the distraction of the moment.
After speaking with our marriage counselor, I committed to a year of therapy. A year of him showing up to me and our marriage. A year of trying to build trust – of him getting help for his obvious sexual addiction and building up his own self worth to know he was worthy of love. I had been in therapy for anxiety and had been doing my own shadow work every single week, so I knew the value behind these sessions. I had a plan. I knew if we stuck to the plan, we would have an outcome. I live my life around plans. Plan A, B and all the rest. Call it control, I call it survival.
We went out to a bar at the beach for a date night one Friday. It was a rare occasion when I would drink, as I was usually the DD and okay with that. This night I wanted to drink a little bit and have some fun. After a few rounds, we went to this little place that the locals go to, where they make the most amazing and delicious beignets. Some people have taco bell, I had puffy donuts as my drunk food. I only really remember this because I sent an embarrassing video to one of my friends yelling about how good they were.
I remember being in bed after that and going in and out. I remember my assaulter being on top of me and having sex with me. I remember how heavy my arms felt and knowing I didn’t want this. I was not in a state where I could push him off or form a coherent sentence. But he kept going. Knowing I revoked consent. Knowing I was inebriated. Knowing if I was sober and conscious, I would absolutely not be okay with this. Knowing I was vulnerable but going in for the kill anyways. That was his MO. I asked him why he did that in the morning, he just looked at me and said “I don’t know.”
The deep roots that take place in a trauma bond situation are beyond words. Even if I had recognized this moment for what it was, for what was to come, for the precedent it set, I don’t even think I would’ve been ready to leave in that moment. I still saw the good in him. I saw the face he gave to family, to friends. I saw the goodness in his heart. After all I’ve experienced since being out of that marriage, I know now this was just a façade. The person I thought I loved was a made-up character in my mind.
Flash forward a few months and a similar experience happened again. After I left, it took me over 9 months to be able to sleep without anything behind me. To be able to face the wall and have nothing protecting me. I thought I should be able to just move on. I should be able to put mind over matter and go the fuck to sleep. Curiously enough, trauma doesn’t work that way. It’s not something that is logical. It puts you exactly back into the time you were first experiencing it and makes it come to life again. Every time I fell asleep, I would have flash backs to waking up to being raped. Waking up to someone violating me and betraying me in the deepest sense of the words. When you specifically take consent away from someone, when you try to piece together what little bit of autonomy you have left over your own body and someone deliberately violates that, then lies about it – there are no words that can express what that does to you.
The irony of having a security system and still being unable to keep yourself safe is a sad reality for trauma survivors. Having all the tools that society tells you will keep you safe. That nothing will hurt you if you follow steps 1-3. The loss of your own sense of safety after trauma is one of the hardest things to cope with and one of the longest lasting impacts. I still suffer from obsessive compulsive tendencies surrounding personal security. It goes back to barricading my bedroom door after the rape, so I knew no one could come into my room. So that I knew, when I was my most vulnerable, I did everything I could to be safe. I remember when I took the IKEA tv stand we had in our bedroom and pulled it until it was in front of the bedroom door. Hoping the weight of shoddy plywood and a big tv would stop something. What it would stop, I didn’t know. This wasn’t the logical brain working here, it was a pure survival mechanism. It felt like a biological instinct kicking in preparing for the worst scenario. I would sleep with my phone right next to me and my dog snuggled directly next to my bed.
After that night, my bedroom was no longer a sanctuary. It felt like a prison. When you lose complete trust in a person your mind does strange things. It goes to the deepest depths of your fears and brings them to life. It creates nightmares that mimic your waking experiences. The despair, the terror, the insecurity you feel. It all comes to life at night and takes a hold of your day when you wake up. The recovery from trauma is sometimes even harder than the trauma itself. It forces you to relive those experiences. It forces you to scrutinize the tiniest details to make sense and provide order to your thoughts. And it forces you to actively override your learned survival traits. So, if you’re reading this and you’re going through the depths of hurt right now, know that it does get better. You can live an amazing, impactful and passion filled life. You can be free of your hurt and the hurt of another’s broken parts. If I could have seen a snapshot of where I am now when I was contemplating leaving, it would have changed my life. Please, take a page from my book, learn from my lesson and do what is right for you. Speak your truth. Speak your truth through the gaslighting. Speak your truth to what you experienced. It is the best way I found to truly validate to yourself what you went through. And from there, healing begins. There are so many of us out here who can share in your pain, and so many wonderful, safe counselors who can help you. I’m not a therapist, I’m not a professional, I can only speak from my own experience and my own view point. Please reach out for help, there are so many people who love and support you, and want to see your pain turned into power.
If you need resources, here are some wonderful organizations who can help you now or in the future.
Today was bittersweet. It marked the last fourth of July; not only with Tyler, but with his family and our beautiful home. We had Aunt Liz, Uncle Pat, Lindsey and the kids, Aunt Sue and Andrew, and Nicole and Jason. Tyler’s workmate, Magno, was able to come too. I made my traditional barbecue chicken in the crock pot and a bunch of sides. After Ty’s family left, we all hung out outside and watched the fireworks from our pool. We swam and just hung onto each other, knowing that connection wouldn’t be that way in the morning. It was one of the best memories I will carry with me from this home. Tyler got drunk, probably to ease the pain of knowing this was the last memory in our home. The pain stung a little deeper tonight, with the heartbreaking realization that my time here is coming up. I feel like an unwelcome guest in my own home. Time waits for no one. Not even if you beg it to. I’m going to miss my life here more than I can even imagine. I am leaving my home, my sweet dog Lemonade, my husband – who has had my heart for over ten years – and my hopes and dreams for the future we were robbed of. We were supposed to be building a family here. We were going to build a home here. Together. All of my hopes and dreams are destroyed. It feels like they passed before their time; like they fell down in mid flight. I am losing a family, the hope of my own family, the joy of a beautiful puppy growing up. I am losing my entire life.
July 18, 2019
I’m sitting at our dining room table tonight with the glaring reality it will soon be my last. I have seven nights of life as I know it left. Seven nights of Chiefy and Lemon playing together. Seven nights of snuggling on the couch with Lem, waiting for her to attack me with her puppy kisses whenever she deems necessary. Seven nights of going to sleep in my bed and knowing I will wake up to the familiarity of sunlight gently peeking through my blinds. I’m starting the excruciating process of saying goodbye to my home. All the hopes and dreams I had die with it. All the sunsets I’ve watched – the pink burning into the sky until it fades from view – like everything else in life, it is beautiful and fleeting. As I mark all of the items we’re selling, I am reminded of all the memories associated with them. Where we were, what we were doing, how our lives had unfolded up to that point and how much life we thought we had before us. I’m allowing myself to grieve, because I know that is the only way to find closure and to move forward.
The only proper way to describe that last week was to call it purgatory. I was between my old life and my new fate. It was coming whether or not I was ready for it, and I had no idea what was waiting for me. Nothing I could do at that point would change any of the outcome. Everything had already been decided for me. Some aspects of my own decisions – like accepting my offer for Michigan – and some aspects of the actions of my husband. I had finished working. I had packed up my immediate necessities like clothes and toiletries, and they were sitting in the middle of the living room reminding us that our days were numbered. The side of the closet where my clothes once were, was empty. There was no longer any evidence I lived there. There was a husband, and no wife. I had high hopes that we could reconcile, that he could have a breakthrough, that I would be coming back to my home again, but I knew deep down it wasn’t going to happen. I knew in the bottom of my heart, the next woman to place her things in that space would not be me. The next woman to take up space in my home wasn’t going to be me. Someone else would come in and take my place. Someone else who didn’t hold his feet to the fire would come in and be comfort to him. Someone else would look down when they were getting ready and see Lem at their feet, begging them not to go to work. Someone else would see that sweet puppy lovingly watch as they got ready for the day. As they put on makeup, her little eyes meticulously watching every brush stroke, every hand flick. Each movement and moment leading up to driving out of that neighborhood for the last time was hell. Knowing not only it would be my last, but that another would come in – swiftly – and erase the loneliness I left behind. Because I knew my husband. I knew sitting with his own demons was not something he would welcome for long, if at all.
I had said goodbye to a family I had loved so, so deeply. One I grew to be one of their own over ten years of memories and love. We had our ups and downs, but what family didn’t. Out of all of the memories, all of the dreams and hopes, losing my family was the hardest and most painful part of leaving my life. I lost sisters and a brother. I lost a mother who would do anything for her family – something that became painfully clear once I was on the outside. I lost the memories of a father in law, who at his worst was fighting his own demons, and at his best was the life of the party – always getting into something and making everyone around him laugh. I lost my babies – my beautiful niece and nephews. Something I knew would start the day I said goodbye, but something I deeply and profoundly dug my claws into. They were the absolute last ones I wanted to abandon. I loved them so incredibly much and still do. But at the end of the day, as painful as it is to not see them grow up; to have them become permanently frozen in my memory at nine and eleven, was a necessary evil to respect a grieving and angry wish of a matriarch. In her eyes, I was the problem now. I was the magnifying glass that set fire to her son’s actions. I was the mirror that forced her to look at where it went wrong for him. I was the common denominator. And that stung. But it was understood. It was rationalized. I knew eventually my time slot would expire, I just didn’t think it would happen in the manner it did. I was able to renew my time for four extra months. Far past my expiration date. And for that I am so, so incredibly thankful. But divorce is messy. Hearts were hurt. And standing up for myself, against a man I saw as insidious and they saw as a hero, was the only way out. The people I had known as family, were the price of my freedom. I knew it, I just couldn’t bring myself to fully accept it until I was formally unwelcomed. Unwelcomed from the holidays. Unwelcomed from creating new memories – only left to sanctify the movie reel playing over and over in my head for more than ten years. Unwelcomed from watching my little sisters and brother grow into their own adulthood. Their own families, their own weddings, their own careers. This is the first Christmas I won’t come into the front door without knocking, be greeted by little hands and smiling faces and share in family traditions that far predate me. The first fall I won’t be making pumpkin rolls with them and won’t be decorating (let’s be honest, annihilating) pumpkins at the kitchen table.
This post took a definite U-turn from where I thought it was going – something I have been terrified to put pen to paper about – but a hard and deeply painful truth of abuse. The glaring reality of how someone’s own self-hatred can project on the people they love most and destroy them. In the end, the family as I saw it were innocent bystanders, until standing on the sidelines was all that happened. My sister was there for me through all of it. She listened to my cries, she heard my pain, she understood the hurt. I abandoned her even when she left the door open. It was too painful to see his face in hers every time I saw her. His mannerisms in her when she told stories. Out of all the relationships I have lost through this process, hers is the one I treasured most and the one I deeply regret losing. The one who could call each of us out on our bullshit without taking sides. The one who compassionately navigated my pain, as if it were her own. At the end of all of this, I hope she gets her happiness too. I hope one day, if not today, she wakes up with so much love around her, because she deserves that and more.
So, while the purgatory of my marriage only lasted a few short months, the discarding of my family will last forever. As much as it hurts, I hope that my time wasn’t forgotten. That when they look back on the holidays of the past, the random garage nights and the bonfires where burning of anything the men in that family could find took place – they’ll look back and see me as a family member and not as a defector. I hope that the space I took up, the love I gave, isn’t replaceable. That my slot isn’t just disposable. Yes, there will be another where I stood. But I hope that it will feel different. That sometimes, they’ll look around and miss the space I took up. The things I brought that were purely me. As I’m writing this with tears streaming down my face, I hope they know at the end of the day I will always love them. I may be unwelcome now, but they will always live in my heart.
Well, the nightmares have returned. Something nobody tells you about trauma – about PTSD – is that it will come back when you least expect it. The nightmares are never about the events, but always about the feelings felt during them. The smallest thing can trigger it. Something you might not even be consciously aware of. And when it comes, it comes suddenly. It strikes painfully, deeply, swiftly. When I left my relationship, I was experiencing trauma nightmares every single night leading up to my last day. Nightmares where I was murdered, where I was raped, where I was chased down and trapped. My body was in survival mode and I had no control over it anymore. The last year of my relationship had been constant stress, constant worry and constant fight or flight. It was a cycle of hope, disappointment, and fear. Coming to UofM quite literally saved my life. It saved my mental health. It saved my future. And it put me on the path to repairing my past.
August was a blur. I moved back to my parents’ house in Michigan. Away from the home I handpicked for a future that – to take from my favorite poem – ‘fell down in mid-flight.’ Away from my sweet little dog, Lemonade. Away from the familiarity and comfort of a military family. Saying goodbye to not only your personal life, but an entire way of life – an entire culture – is something I strive to put into words. There is something so incredibly special about the military culture. About being placed into a new location, a new base, and instantly finding home. Instantly finding companionship among spouses, familiarity among the uniform and a deep understanding that doesn’t exist outside the community. Finding meaningful relationships is something I have deeply struggled with since leaving the comfort of being a military spouse. There isn’t the instant recognition in others on the civilian side. There isn’t the common shared experience of moving across country to a station you hope is halfway decent; all while packing a house by yourself and navigating the glory that is government PCS websites which hail from prehistoric times. There isn’t the routine of heading to the commissary and NEX, taking a deep breath and smelling the sweet, stale, government air, taking a gaze around, and knowing you’re home, even if the location isn’t the same. Military families have traditions when they move. Things that orient them to new places, things that immediately bring comfort. And that was one of mine. I embarrassingly even clung to that tradition when I moved here. I drove over an hour to the nearest Air Force base north of Detroit, had a breakdown in the chip aisle of the commissary and savored each moment driving through the historic officer housing. I knew it would be my last. I knew with each day I was becoming more and more of an outsider to this way of life. And I needed to rip the band aid off.
Leaving our ‘la familia’ fam in Great Lakes was hard. Leaving the Dam Neck fam was hard. Leaving the Stennis fam was even harder. And leaving the navy family was, what I can only describe as, pulling a knife from your heart. Because as a spouse, you are a civilian through and through. You wear no badge. You have no honor. You are not recognized as the hero your spouse is. If you leave one, you leave it all. There is no place in veteran’s groups where “ex-military spouse” is welcomed. No nostalgia, no storytelling, just glaring loneliness of a life you used to live.
Setting my dorm up was the first time in nine years I hadn’t kept my receipts. I hadn’t gone to staples and scanned everything into the PCS website. I hadn’t sifted painstakingly through all my household goods to remove those little blue stamps that you still find years later (even though you swore you took them all off). I brought nothing in from my old life. Nothing was familiar anymore and I had to face that head on. I had to come to terms with the emptiness and the lack of hope associated with that. The gaping hole where sea trial and deployment hope once stood. Knowing he’d be back. Knowing that when you see that ship leave port, it’s going to come back. It has to come back. That safety blanket was gone. There was no ship. There was no Congress to blame for the distance this time. I was the one who left. I chose this loneliness, it did not choose me.
I sat on my twin sized bed, something I hadn’t experienced since childhood, and put on headspace. It was the night before classes began and everything was settled in my space. I closed my eyes to start my meditation and the first thing that came to me was ‘safe.’ I was finally safe. I. Was. Safe. Free from the cycles. Free from the sadness. Free from never knowing when the pain would come again. Free from having to see another woman’s body where it didn’t belong. Free from the lies. Free from the health issues brought on by stress. I never had to experience pain again from the one person who gave it for so many years. I could lay in my bed, back against the wall, and nobody would touch me. I could lock my door, string my chain lock and nobody could come in. I would never have to barricade anything again as long as I lived. That moment was the first time I felt truly safe in such an incredibly long time. That moment, my body let go of survival mode. Over the course of the next two months, I lost over thirty pounds. Weight that my body kept building to try and keep my bones safe. Weight that came off without any effort. Weight that defined my self-worth and failure for so long.
I wish I could go back to my past self when I opened my acceptance and tell her to take it and never look back. The opportunities I’ve had in the last year alone are worth any pain I’ve felt. I will be forever grateful to the lifestyle the University of Michigan has afforded me. They have given me so much more than an education. So much more than experience. They gave me safety. Over time the nightmares subsided. Over time, I was eventually able to sleep through the night here and there. I still have issues with this, but I know over time, it will get better. I know that even though my triggers are still there, even though I still have difficulty sitting with my own thoughts, these nightmares are nothing but a haunting of my past life, trying to have a place in my new one. The thing with PTSD is you can’t let it win. It doesn’t get to define you. It doesn’t get a seat at the table. It doesn’t get to make the decisions. You do. And the only way to defeat it, is to get up everyday and face whatever comes your way. Because it might not be today, but eventually happiness will come. Eventually relationships will build. Eventually you will wake up with an entire life you chose, with people who not only love you – but respect you, and the memories of the past will be just that, the past.
I’m sorry I couldn’t save you. I’m sorry I finally ran out of hope for us. I’m sorry I quit on us. I know you had hope for becoming a better person, as long as I still kept that candle burning for you. I’m so, so sorry I quit on us. This week was the first time in eleven years you didn’t hear me say “happy birthday.” This time you didn’t roll over and wake up to my familiar smile, my touch, my kiss, my smell. This time, snook, you woke up to someone new. Her body where mine should be. Her dark hair on my pillow – because you always did like the brunettes – anything that didn’t remind you of me. This week, you woke up to her on our anniversary. It would have been nine years, Ty. Nine whole years. You woke up to a loss in your heart. You woke up missing me, even if just for a moment. She woke up without knowing what was on your heart and mind. The same place I shared for all those years.
It’s a poetic justice in a way. Even after all this time, all the pain, all the wounds that scab over and then burst open right before they fully heal, even after I’ve felt loving and wonderful moments with others, I still miss you. I still believe deep down you could be better. It’s not every day. Hell, it’s not every month. But every so often that pain seeps in like an unwanted friend. Every so often, I wonder what could have happened if your broken heart could heal. If you could finally learn to love yourself and if you could have had a glimpse into the way I saw you, before we broke. Before we harbored hatred. Before the affairs. Before the violations and abuse. Before the codependency and manipulation.
Still coming to terms with my own healing process and learning to undo the codependent bond between us, it hurts that you didn’t sit with the pain after I left. It still hurts that you owed it to yourself to do the shadow work, to look inward and heal your wounds – your self-sabotage. While I can say all day long that I wish you the best, it doesn’t change the fact that I feel tied to your self-destructive ways. It doesn’t change how I have to continuously tell myself your choices are your own now. That when you break her heart, when she finds out what’s underneath that beautiful smile, a part of me will feel her pain inexplicably and mourn for her. I know this is in no part my responsibility, but because of your manipulative ways, how you have played the victim for so long, I’m afraid a part of me will always be attached in that regard. After all, I was your fixer. I covered up your acts and put on a brave face in front of others. I protected your reputation. I protected your true self from how the world viewed you. At the end of the day, I enabled you to do what you did. And unfortunately, I own that. It’s my choice how I respond to you now. It’s my choice. And until that bond is broken completely through my healing work, I know I am choosing to acknowledge the codependent link. That link that says, “if only I did this, if only I loved harder, if only I could lose the weight, if only, if only, if only.” But it never is enough with you, babe. It’s not about what I did or didn’t do. It’s not about how I looked or how my body felt. It’s all about how you felt inside. The inner parts of you screaming from your own past hurt. Your darkest parts coming out and hurting who you loved the most and probably still do, me.
I journal to get through the pain and the sleepless nights. I journal to catalog the real effects of the trauma bond that still so blatantly exist in this post. I journal to catalog the healing process and how far I’ve come in the past year. The fact that I can still harbor blame in my heart and take responsibility for giving up on someone who gave up on themselves, is a testament to the strength of a trauma bond. How it seeps into every aspect of your life and rears its ugly head just when you think you’ve gotten away. How the doubt can come flooding back and you can question what part of you wasn’t worthy or valuable enough to make someone choose you. How someone can just discard you and all of their feelings after a decade of love. How someone can seemingly forget you existed, forget the place you held in their life, and choose to replace you with someone else. With someone who doesn’t remind them of the hurt they feel inside. With someone who isn’t attached to the memories of the past. With someone who is lighter baggage to have to carry. I remind myself this is hallmark narcissism. I remind myself that he discarded me and chose a new victim to feed off – that I should be thankful he is not in my life anymore – but there’s still humanity under a tough exterior. There’s still a wife who tried to hold a marriage together. Who tried to be true to her vows. Who was left wanting. Who was discarded by the one person she would have given everything for.
Today is the first time in eleven years I won’t say “Happy Birthday.” The first time I won’t be buying way too many Reese’s cups to fill up his gift bag with – knowing full well he won’t eat them all. Each year I tried to make his birthday special. In the military, there are certain days when nothing can fill the gaping hole where family and friends should be. Those are the days we try extra hard as spouses to make them feel special.
I show my love. I show it through actions, through words, through gifts. And his birthday was the perfect occasion for letting that shine through. One year it was a surprise party with all of his friends at a restaurant. Another was him waking up to a roomful of photos and memories attached to balloons for each year we were celebrating. One of the last ones was a trip to Universal and to see his family. Each year I reflected on what could say ‘I love you – I’m so thankful you are here.’
Something that I’m reflecting on this year, with my 30th birthday coming up shortly, is how did he say those things to me? People with narcissistic tendencies love the attention, they love the showering of gifts, the bending over backwards – the fuss (yes, even the covert ones). There was never a birthday in our ten-plus years together where he planned something for me. The only birthday that I remember was where we went to a few of my favorite stores, went to an estate sale I had been dying to go to and grabbed my favorite fast food. I remember clearly thinking, “I get to do all of my favorite things, and he won’t complain today. I get to be with him and not feel guilty about making him tag along today.” I have racked my brain repeatedly and cannot find one instance of getting a gift from him on my birthday. Not. Once. I honest to God, right hand on the bible, used to beg him to plan something for me. His reply was always, “I’m not as creative as you are.” I’d come back with “there’s Pinterest for ideas – I mean anything you do, I’ll love.” Of course in this process I was devaluing myself and my worth. I just wanted to be surprised. Every year I asked, and every year I was let down. I would rationalize this with telling myself I just needed to lower my expectations, that that’s what happens when you expect too much. Now I know that I was never expecting too much. I was only asking to be on the receiving end of the effort I sent his way. Now, I know that this too, was another manipulation tactic. Made to wear down my self-worth. Made to wear down that inner voice that says you deserve better. Made to create an environment where I constantly begged for his attention. He was the gate keeper of love. Starving me, then feeding me. This cycle showed up in so many ways throughout our marriage. So many red flags I ignored because I knew him. I knew who he really, truly was under that outer bumbling, clumsy facade. I reminded myself that he was just that flighty. That maybe I was the one putting too much pressure on him to be a good partner – to remember my birthday and cherish me on that day. That maybe I was the selfish one, the nag, the ball and chain.
Sis, if you’re feeling alone on a day that is meant to celebrate you, know that I’m here. I understand what it is like to play the carrot and stick game. To beg for love. To hope that this day, this year, this time, he’ll really put in the effort. That his actions will finally align with his empty words. I’m here to sit with you in this loneliness, to tell you that you are worthy of love, that even if you don’t feel it right now – better days are ahead. Days where you’ll be able to be surrounded by family and friends who love you and appreciate you. Days where you may find a partner who can show compassion, and celebrate the day that made you, you. I’m here to remind you (especially during quarantine) that even if there was no one else around to celebrate with you, you never have to beg for love again. You are whole by yourself, sis. Your own company is more fulfilling than someone who chooses to manipulate you, who chooses themselves over you every day of the week, who is, at their core, unable to care for you in a loving way. Because at the end of the day, they don’t even love themselves. Because at the end of the day, it comes down to this simple phrase: We cannot ask someone to pour from an empty cup.
My sweet boy. You were my beacon of hope in the midst of a broken marriage. You symbolized a fresh start, a real commitment. You symbolized unconditional love. I already had visions of your nursery being the guest bedroom under the oak tree in the front of the house. There, you could get shade during the hot Florida days and be able to see the birds dance around your window. My sweet boy you were kept in the dark for far too long. You were hidden under my mourning, under my shame. Shame that my body refused to make a safe home for you. Shame that I was not excited when I first heard you were on your way. It did not take long for that despair to turn into love and excitement. To hope for your future, what you would look like, who you would become, what kind of difference you would make in the world just simply by being you. You, my boy, were special. You were mine. You were loved. Even if for only a few short weeks.
August 4th 2018
The blood. So. Much. Blood. I started sobbing. I cleaned up and went into the vault to talk to my manager, Beth. Through the sobbing and shaking, I managed to blurt out, “I think I’m having a miscarriage.” Just the day before, I told her I was expecting, and she was so happy for me. Now, all she could do was stare at me. Could I blame her? I turned around and went to get my things to drive myself to the hospital. She watched as I fumbled through my purse, searching for my phone. She offered to call an ambulance to take me to the hospital, but a civilian ambulance cannot go on a military base, so I drove myself. I was alone in a new city. I had no friends. No family. Nobody. Jacksonville is the largest land mass city in the states. From where I was, it took me almost 45 minutes to drive to NAS Jax. I called my husband when I got in my car and bawled “I think I’m having a miscarriage.” He was half asleep on the other side of the country, trying to rack his brain with understanding what was happening. I felt ashamed to say those words. Driving 90mph down the highway, full sob, my heart sinking in my chest, telling my husband I was a failure. He calmly and passively said, “I’m sorry, baby.”
After getting lost a few times, I finally found the main gate. The guard could see there was something wrong and signaled for help. I said, “I think I’m having a miscarriage” to which he replied with silence and a look of compassion. I pulled over in the guard parking and an ambulance came to retrieve me. The Petty Officer was incredibly empathetic. During the 10-minute ride across base, she regaled me with her intimate stories of miscarriages and the statistics surrounding it. She most importantly reassured me that none of this was my fault. The other EMT made small talk after he saw I was wearing a Navy Federal polo – how much he loved us, and we were always there for him. Trying to lighten the mood and keep me distracted. I get placed into a room where a female Lieutenant comes in and introduces herself. She explains to me the process I would go through and set expectations of what it would mean depending on my cervix. Once the PA came in and completed my exam, he said the cervix was closed. The first glimmer of hope in the past two terrifying hours.
I was wheeled down to the ultrasound room of this cold war era hospital. The air was frigid. The fluorescent lighting only added to the sterility of the environment. I stepped into my paper gown and laid on the table in this dimly lit room. I looked up and taped to the tile ceiling is a picture of a hammock placed between two palm trees on a gorgeous summer day. Who the fuck were they kidding? As if the environment could not become any less hospitable, they placed a copy print of a vacation destination on the ceiling. Had I known a magazine cutout could make me believe I wasn’t about to get told there is no heartbeat, I would have had it taped to my face. How did I miss that memo? They were living up to their three-star google review that day. The tech actively avoided eye contact the entire procedure. She kept moving the probe and clicking. Moving and clicking. If the invasive probe wasn’t enough to bring me out of vacation mode, the towel she handed me to ‘clean up’ with, was. I walked over to the barracks style bathroom (that had a peep hole the size of a ship’s porthole mind you) and shamefully put my clothes back on. She ended the exam by stating she could not say the results until the doctor looked them over. That could not have meant good news. I was placed into the hallway to wait for a Seaman to wheel me back up to my room.
After what felt like an eternity, the PA came back into the room with the results. He stated, “I don’t know how you’ll take this, but we didn’t find a heartbeat.” I was in complete shock. I just looked at him, waiting on every word he said. After I did not respond and stared blankly at him – he replied with, “you’re making it really easy on me to tell you this.” Followed by, “are you sure you were even pregnant to begin with?” The earth shattered around me. Time stopped. I could not process anything after that point, my body refused. That moment of this doctor caring more about his personal comfort than an empathetic experience for a patient left years of trauma in his path. He opened the door to doubt. Doubt that this little miracle may not have been anything but a fabrication. To this day I need to actively tell myself my blood test was positive. The statistics of how it was nearly impossible for this to be a fluke. That the changes my body went through were valid. The experience I had that resulted in extreme PTSD – to the point I had to change offices and could never wear the same outfit again – was valid.
Beth called multiple times that afternoon to check in. It took a few hours, but I got the courage to pick up the phone and call her back. I explained what happened and she replied with, “He’s coming home soon, you can make another.” I know this was an honest attempt to console me, but what isn’t as widely understood, is that one blessing, does not make your loss and grief any less. It just doesn’t. It doesn’t repair the hollowness you feel. It doesn’t replace the room you made for that baby in not just your heart, but your home. It doesn’t erase the visions you created of rocking that baby to sleep in the nursery you imagined. It doesn’t change the fact that every Mother’s Day you will feel loss. Every anniversary of your miscarriage you will feel failure – even with as much logic as you can muster in your head screaming you were not at fault. Let me repeat that again: one blessing does not replace a baby lost.
On my healing journey, I stumbled across a poem on Pinterest one day and quickly attached it to a secret board labeled “hope.” It’s written by Gabrielle Rose and it reads:
“Do I count as a mother
When my body never gave birth
When my child never drew a breath
On this beautiful Earth
Do I count as a mother
When my belly never grew
When I never heard your heartbeat
Or your cries the whole night through
Do I count as a mother
When you don’t even have a name
Never knowing if you were a boy or girl
No one understands this pain
Please let me count as your mother
You are my baby for as long as I live
I have been robbed of so many moments
You were my baby, and too much to give”
Sweet boy, you had value. You had worth. Your name will be said and remembered by me. It’s time to lift the veil of secrecy and introduce you to the world. It’s time to bring the pain of miscarriage into the light, time to tell the stories of babies lost and time to share hidden heart break.
The pain comes in waves. Tonight, it’s a goddamned hurricane and I’m the ocean. It has no limits, no end in sight. The memories come in flashes. The words. The screaming. The sobbing. Their bodies. Their inner most thoughts. The cruel hide and seek games. The treasure hunting for pain. He is always found. I always find him, and he knows. He knows before he even commits the crime. Yet, he still does it anyways. Without regard for another. Without a concept of empathy. He is a monster and I’m his prey. He attacks but never quite kills. He lets go just in time that I can recover these bones. This tattered soul. This broken heart. Still searching. Still hoping. Still loving. Still reliving.
Welcome. Here you will find acceptance, validation and resources. You’ll see the story of my abusive marriage and how I reclaimed my power. You’ll experience my journal entries, flashbacks and full on floor sobs. You will walk with me through the highs of military life, to the deepest depths of loneliness. You will see the transformation of feeling like a victim to someone’s broken parts – to becoming a survivor – living a life of hope and happiness. You’ll see what anger looks like, what heartbreak looks like, what reclaiming hope looks like, what struggles with shame look like, and hopefully together we’ll find out what forgiveness looks like. This is my truth, and I hope it speaks to you.