Recently said to me by a friend, not with congratulations, but rather thrown with the steely edge of judgment and disdain. In her defense, she doesn’t know my story because I don’t offer it freely. Those around me might have glimpsed the most recent chapter, but they know little of what came before. After some deep reflection, I came to a very important conclusion. My life isn’t any more or less perfect than anyone else’s, but every day I wake up treating it like the perfect gift it is. I do this, in small measure, because of where my story began.
The story of how I got to where I am started in the years I spent in a verbally and mentally abusive relationship. If I am being honest with you, I have to add that it was also physically abusive. Nearly 30 years later, it’s hard to write, but I was backhanded across the face by my boyfriend. I fight the urge to qualify my confession by adding “it was only once.” Even as a grown woman who should know better, I still want to minimize it. Once should have been enough. But it wasn’t. I didn’t leave.
The story of who I am today is born out of that dark place. Loving a narcissist, especially one deft at emotional manipulation, left me with little to call my own. The manipulation was subtle at first, a seemingly innocent comment about my clothing or a soft rebuke of the way I looked at someone. Only hindsight revealed how he methodically conditioned me to think only of him, to worry first about what he would think or how he would react. He even persuaded me to not get a driver’s license because he loved to drive me everywhere (at the time I thought that was romantic). In reality, he used it to control where I went and who I saw. On the outside I appeared happy and in love, but on the inside I questioned everything I said, every gesture I made, and every glance I gave.
When he yelled, it rattled my bones. The pattern became quite familiar. Step 1: Yell. Step 2: Apologize. Step 3: Blame me. I shouldn’t have asked that question. I shouldn’t have talked about that topic. I should know he is prone to outbursts. I shouldn’t ever say the wrong thing. So I strived to never say anything wrong and, in the process, lost connection to my own thoughts.
When he told me I was a shitty girlfriend, I became a better girlfriend by doing whatever he wanted. When he told me I didn’t care about him enough, I spent more time with him and less with my friends. When he told me he liked the red sweater, I wore the red sweater. I could go on and on and on and on.
When he hit me (just that once), the physical pain was quickly replaced with relief. After it happened, sitting on the bathroom floor listening to his mother apologize over and over again for her son, all I felt was relief. In that moment, I would rather be hit than continue to be berated and criticized. I buried my head in my hands and faked sobbing noises because the after school specials told me getting hit was wrong. They didn’t tell me that verbal abuse was wrong.
The smile on my mouth hid words I couldn’t let out because the desire to please him became more powerful than my own voice. His emotional manipulation and verbal assaults made my head a mess. When my friends told me I was lucky to have such a great boyfriend I shook my head. Maybe they thought I was being humble. Rather, it was the closest thing to the truth I dared to share with the world.
My story didn’t mean anything until I had someone to tell it to. When the torment and abuse escalated, school staff called my parents. My guidance counselor put me in a leadership seminar where I was pushed to be honest with myself. A friend who saw the truth encouraged me to speak up. In more ways than one, that friend saved me that day. If he’s reading this, he will know it’s him, so…..THANK YOU!!! It was a pivotal point in my life where my greatest shame gave birth to my greatest power. The power to own my thoughts, feelings, and reactions and to let no one make me feel unworthy.
Since then I have been fortunate enough to experience great love. The equal partner, respect filled, lift you up, move mountains, make you a better person kind of love. With much introspection and growth I came to see the things I couldn’t see from the eye of the hurricane. As a young adult, I vowed to never be a victim again. To never allow anyone to yell at me like that again. To never allow another person to lay blame for their choices on my shoulders ever again. To never again let another person’s judgments of me effect what I think of myself. Never again would I lose my voice. A voice I instill in my children and a voice I wish upon every man and woman.
I spent years covering those bad memories with good ones; erasing the self-doubt with self-confidence, replacing what other people thought of me with what I thought of myself. It took time and a lot of love from the men that came after, but at some point the last remaining fragments of those horrible years vanished. Or so I thought. Even all these years later, those old feelings rushed back to the surface after a recent encounter with a friend. The memories, self-doubt, and guilt gathered like a storm cloud over my life. Older and wiser, I beat back the demons quicker than all those years ago, but fresh wounds from broken scars don’t heal overnight.
Why write about this now?
I share my story for myself in the hope that it vanquishes those demons for good. I share for those who might recognize a piece of my story in their own life so they know they are not alone. I share for my tribe so they understand why I fiercely support women living their truth, owning their voice and exercising their power. I share with my current (and, hopefully, future) readers so they see why my stories always center on strong, independent women who possess clear and confident voices.
I glimpsed a life spent giving away my voice to another. Claiming my voice back all those years ago was a seed I have nurtured by working hard to believe in myself. It has grown into the life I live today. It’s my perfect life, not because others should judge it so, but because I choose to see it that way.
Inspired by the words of “The Story” by Brandi Carlile:
All of these lines across my face
Tell you the story of who I am
So many stories of where I’ve been
And how I got to where I am
But these stories don’t mean anything
When you’ve got no one to tell them to
It’s true, I was made for you
You see the smile that’s on my mouth
It’s hiding the words that don’t come out
And all of my friends who think that I’m blessed
They don’t know my head is a mess
No, they don’t know who I really am
And they don’t know what
I’ve been through like you do
And I was made for you