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A Sign of Hope

A Sign of Hope

There is nothing I have ever felt worse than despair. It is a feeling so hopeless that your heart literally aches inside your chest. You can feel your ribcage cracking under the weight of it and you think you’re going to choke to death on your own tongue as the pain crawls up your throat.

When I moved to Pennsylvania a few weeks after the fire, I was drunk on a mental cocktail of total despair and utter shock. When I wasn’t in a dissociative state, I was trying to crawl out of my own skin to escape the pain that tortured me. At that time, this was the lowest that I had ever felt.

One day, I was shopping at an antique shop when I spotted a carved wooden sign that said “HOPE”. I stared at it blankly and thought about how much I craved to feel hope inside me. It was only a few dollars, but I didn’t buy it because I wasn’t alone that day and I was embarrassed about showing weakness as if somehow buying that tiny piece of wood would expose my hopelessness to the world. I went home and I dwelled on the HOPE sign. I had to have it. I wanted it as a reminder that I shouldn’t give up. So I went back a few days later and I bought it. I brought it home and stuck it on a shelf where I could view it every day.

Since then, I have moved six times. I have experienced despair far worse than what I was feeling when I bought that sign and I have come close to completely giving up on life. I have carried the little wooden sign to every new home and through every new experience. I have used it to remind myself that I should always be hopeful, not just in spite of the hardships but also to celebrate good fortune.

A few years ago, I got my first tattoo. It’s a permanent reminder to never give in to adversity. I can’t wash it off and I have no regrets because to me HOPE is a strength. I begin and end every day with hope on my left arm and I can feel my heart soaring inside.

The Contract

The Contract

They sent my abuser a “Basic Terms of Residence” contract a few weeks after he tried to kill me. He was recovering from severe burns after he’d caught himself on fire burning my house to the ground. He’d destroyed our home and, like me, was left without a permanent residence. So they offered up their house while he continued to recover, provided he accepted their terms.

This was a serious and traumatic event, yet they treated it like a business deal. They were on a mission and my well-being was definitely not part of their agenda.

They’d already sent not one, but two letters to my family stating I was equally to blame for the crimes my abuser had been charged with, which were arson, animal cruelty (because he’d killed my dog) and my own attempted murder. They hadn’t spoken to me once since the fire, but they’d determined that I should go down for these felonies that I did not commit.

The contract stated that I should accept responsibility for my contribution to my dysfunctional relationship with my abuser. It also stated I must completely disengage from Twitter and fully engage in psychological evaluation and counseling. And finally, it stated that my abuser and I may not communicate with one another without supervision.

The document had three signature lines, one for my abuser and one for his sister and brother-in-law, who had concocted the ridiculous contract. Strangely, although I had specific responsibilities according to their brilliant pact, I was never asked to sign it, nor was I provided with a copy.

What they failed to realize was that my abuser was incapable of going “no contact” where I was concerned. He simply signed the silly document and then continued to stalk, harass and threaten me. He even told me he’d signed a contract but that he had no intention of complying with the “no contact” terms. And when I asked to see what he’d signed, he sent me a copy.

This was the third time my abuser’s family had blame-shifted in writing and the third time they had neglected to inform me of their activities. They placed culpability on the crime victim in order to lighten the burden of accountability on the criminal. My abuser’s family threw me under the bus (or in this case, the fire truck) and then bamboozled my own family into repeatedly driving it right over me.

The Phone Call

The Phone Call

My phone announced her call. I stood there for a second staring down at it. I saw her name and her photo smiling up at me from the coffee table and I didn’t know what to do. My first thought was that she accidentally butt-dialed me and I contemplated letting it go to voicemail just in case. I was afraid. But I had dreamed about this moment for over four years, so I mustered the courage to answer.

I grabbed my phone and said a hesitant “Hello?”. I heard her voice saying “Hi” on the other end. I was shocked and managed a quick “Hi” in response. It felt so awkward and strange, not like it used to be. She asked how I was. I replied, “Okay, how are you?” I turned toward my husband who sat on the couch smiling at me and I mouthed “Oh my god.” My body began to tremble as I heard her say, “I don’t want to feel this way anymore.” She told me she didn’t want to look back, just forward, and she wanted to try and reestablish a relationship.

Waves of adrenaline rippled through my body and the trembling intensified. Was this reality? I wasn’t convinced that I heard her correctly. I asked her to hold on for a second as I choked back tears and took a few deep breaths. Then I told her I would like very much to move forward with her. I didn’t want to rehash our painful history ever again. It was over and I was in a better place. Perhaps she was too. I told her I felt hesitant, I wanted her to know that I was afraid. The thought of being rejected again terrified me.

My husband handed me a glass of wine and when I thanked him, she told me that she wanted him to know she was sorry about the things she had said to him. I repeated her words and he smiled and said he understood and had no hard feelings. We chatted for a few minutes about our lives and she promised to send me a couple of photos. Then we said goodbye and the call was over. I hadn’t expected the physiologic reaction that had overtaken my body and I started crying. My husband held me as I sobbed.

Later, she sent some photos and a message saying she wanted to communicate through email for now and I agreed to her terms. But she had called me. I understand how difficult that must have been for her. She took a chance and reached out to me without animosity and I am very grateful. It’s been only a couple days since she called and I am still in shock. I never thought I would hear her voice again and I still can’t believe that I did. I love her so much. I love her brother. I am cautiously optimistic about a future that includes them again.

The Closet

The Closet

I’m the type of person that throws things out or, when possible, donates things I no longer have a use for. I’m the very antithesis of a hoarder. In fact, I hate clutter so much that I probably throw things away with too much vigor. I was raised by parents who were both excessively neat and organized and therefore, I blame them for my lifetime obsession with order.

Having young kids made it challenging to maintain a sense of order in my house, but it didn’t take long to establish a system that worked for me as far as toys, laundry and crumbs were concerned. My abuser’s hoarding skills, on the other hand, were a challenge that I was never able to conquer. If I tried to clear out his old high-school era clothes, he’d rage at me to leave his “shit” alone. If I tidied up around him, he’d scream, maybe throw things and ridicule me about my habits. Nevertheless, I did what I could to keep my home tidy which usually meant doing my housework when he wasn’t around.

One Saturday morning, while my abuser was at work, I opened a large bedroom closet in the old house we were renting. I was sick of searching through this black hole of chaos to find a skirt or a pair of shoes for work. It was such a waste of my valuable time to have to dig through the neverending pile of clutter to reach what I needed on a busy weekday morning.

And so I decided to spend the day organizing that closet. I didn’t dare toss out a ripped t-shirt or concert ticket stub for fear that my abuser would find out and punish me. But I sorted, folded, stored and hung the heap of clothes, shoes, longjohns, boxes of photos, weights, and miscellaneous junk that had been expanding and gathering dust. I spent hours organizing that mess, and it was satisfying to peer inside my closet, discover the floor again and feel the stress melt away.

When my abuser came home from work, I was still in the upstairs bedroom applying the finishing touches to my closet organizing masterpiece. I was excited to show him what I’d accomplished and to declare that I hadn’t thrown out a single precious item. As he entered the bedroom, I smiled and said, “Look what I did today!”

In an instant, he was on me. He grabbed me hard, yanked me away from the closet and pushed me onto the bed. Then he turned and started ripping all of the clothes I had hung from their hangers. He threw everything back onto the floor of the closet as he railed at me, “This is MY fucking stuff! I knew where all of my stuff was and YOU RUINED IT! I told you not to touch my fucking things!!” I jumped up and yelled at him to stop. Again, he shoved me towards the bed and turned back to the closet. He tore every item off each and every shelf and hanger, including all my belongings.

I could hear my kids crying in the other room, so I left my abuser as he continued to wreak havoc in my bedroom. I brought my kids to the kitchen, gave them a snack and went into the bathroom to cry. This time, I was lucky. This time, he didn’t break down the door to get to me and I was able to scream in silence.

Love is not supposed to hurt.

Bluebell

Bluebell

When I was a teenager, my cousin sent me Bluebell perfume from Penhaligon’s of London. It had a flowery lily-of-the-valley smell that I loved. And my abuser also loved it. He would tell me how much he loved the scent on my neck every time I wore it and he’d be disappointed when I didn’t have it on. I had a large bottle of it and it was so strong that I only wore a drop, so it lasted for years. But eventually, my supply ran out.

One winter Saturday morning a few years before the fire, my abuser started raging at me about something I’d done wrong. Deciding I’d had enough of his verbal assault, I retreated to the basement and went on my computer. I could hear him going in and out of the garage where I’d eventually wrestle with him over a gas can. I continued surfing the web, hoping his foul mood would improve. I heard the door to the garage slam shut and then his footsteps above me as he stormed downstairs to the basement. As I looked up, he threw a small box that hit me in the face and said “Merry fucking Christmas”. Then he turned and stormed back up the stairs and out the door. He had ordered a box of Bluebell and it had just been delivered — to my face.

I never wore that perfume again.

I was at Mademoiselle Antoinette’s Parfumerie in Disneyland last week. I walked in for a second and walked right out because the scent of lily-of-the-valley smacked me in the face just like that box of Bluebell. I was having a wonderful time at Disneyland, And all it took was a smell to trigger the memory of my abuser’s footsteps on the stairs and the pain of being hit head-on by a box of perfume along with an insincere gesture of love.

So I went to Cristal d’Orleans and made new memories.

I Am Loved

I Am Loved

We just returned from a week in LA. We had three glorious days in Disneyland with a 1-year-old and an 8-year-old and then spent the rest of Thanksgiving week with family. All I can say is, as exhausted as I am, IT WAS LIFE-CHANGING.

For a very long time, I have felt unworthy of anyone’s love, especially from children. My past relationships have instilled in me an enormous sense of inferiority. I was duped by people who I thought loved me when they suddenly decided I didn’t deserve their affection anymore. And believe me, that kind of emotional damage is something you never truly recover from.

But remarkably, I have become a bonafide member of a family that genuinely cares about me. Although I’ve been in the family for three years, I was anxious about this trip because I knew I’d be spending alone time with two children who’d depend on me for everything, from feeding and diaper changes, to going on Disney rides and buying the coolest souvenirs.

I used to be a mom. I used to have complete confidence in my nurturing skills. I used to take pride in my parenting. Then everything changed, my relationships were destroyed and I was deeply hurt. I’d read my sister’s insipid blogs and cry until I realized they never really change. Each one is devoid of anything but the same “mother earth” pablum as if her entire existence depends on her nurturing skills.

My life, on the other hand, exists because of my inner fortitude and ability to take chances and begin anew. And I’ve been rewarded with children who think I’m pretty fricken awesome as well as a support system of adults who find me undiscriminating, kind, empathetic, humorous and trustworthy.

I don’t need to write the same blog over and over and over again to validate my worthiness. I’m not dependent on my children or my children’s children to feel alive. I already AM alive. And I am loved.

The Wedding

The Wedding

I was in crisis. It was the night before the big day and my family was just a half-hour away, checking into their hotel and beginning their weekend celebration. No one called me. No one texted. I sat in the dark wondering whether anyone worried about my well-being or safety. Would someone decide to come over and check on me? Would anyone send me a message saying they missed me? The answer was no.

I sat in silence staring at the clock. Then I glanced up at my loft. I stared at the railing blankly. I closed my eyes and imagined grabbing my sheets, or a belt, wrapping it around my neck and jumping over the railing. I imagined the sensation of feeling my neck snap and I imagined the release from all of the built-up pain. I wondered if the railing would hold and I wondered how long it would take for someone to find me. 

Then I thought about my abuser’s suicide threats and how often I’d lectured him about the damage that would do to his kids. I felt ashamed and I started to cry. What had happened to me? How did I get here? How could I survive this? I cried myself to sleep that night, hoping I’d never wake up again. I was sure I didn’t have the strength to face the next day.

And when the next morning arrived on schedule, I realized nothing was going to change and I would have to spend this excruciating day in solitude. I told one of my brothers that I had made extravagant weekend plans, but the truth was I had no idea what I could do to ease the pain. So I made no plans at all. 

I drove to a mall that morning just to get out of my apartment. I texted the bride on the way in, saying “I love you, I hope you feel me today because I WILL be there.” There were only a few stores in this mall situated in a depressed central Pennsylvania town. Retail had been decimated by Walmart and it was obvious that the mall was nothing more than a hangout for old people to get together and walk in circles. I followed their cue and trudged aimlessly for about a half-hour. I could feel my heart in my throat as I choked back tears. This was a waste of time, and I decided to just go home. 

As I was driving, the bride texted me a reply. It simply said, “I love you.” There was no, “I want you there after all”, no last-minute second thoughts or invitation. She destroyed me and I sobbed.

Back at home, I closed the shades and laid in the dark on the couch. I stayed there in fetal position all afternoon in a state of dissociation. A few minutes before the ceremony, I texted my younger brother and asked him to send me some photos. He agreed to do it but never did, not even one. At 4 pm, the scheduled start of the ceremony, I grabbed a bottle of wine, climbed back on the couch and cried. I loved her so much and I fucking hated her.

A half-hour later, my oldest brother sent a text asking if I was alone. When I replied, “yes”, he told me he was on his way. He stayed at the wedding long enough to see the ceremony, but he couldn’t stay knowing I was sitting at home by myself. So he left the reception, grabbed some beer and came to hang out with me. When he got there, he put his arms around me, said he was sorry and held me while I cried. Then he started to cry and said he felt sick for me.

My brother was genuinely upset for me and I was grateful that he was there. But at the same time, I thought, “Why now? It’s too late. You should have protested BEFORE she did this to me”. Nevertheless, he kept me company for hours that night. He kept me from contemplating jumping over that goddamn railing and he has continued to watch over me with every step of my recovery. He was the only member of my family concerned enough to reach out while the rest of them gathered and ate and celebrated their pseudomutuality at my expense. 

Big Brother

Big Brother

I had three brothers.

One was much older than me and when I was growing up he was rarely around. I thought he was cool. He was a drummer, then an actor. He moved to NYC and I watched him on TV commercials, soap operas and even in a few movies. Our lives were polar opposites. He was the oldest boy and I was the youngest girl. He was graduating high school and entering adulthood when I was graduating from kindergarten.

In a way, we were virtual strangers because of our age difference. But we also had a few things in common. While everyone else had dark brown eyes and hair, our eyes were more green and our hair more auburn. We also shared similar tastes in music and a passion for theater and the arts. And finally, we shared the disdain of our mother who was more openly antagonistic towards us than our siblings.

The second brother was closest to me in age, being just over two years older. He made a daily practice of bullying me verbally and physically. He’d pin me down and punch me in the stomach repeatedly until I couldn’t breathe. If I cried, mom would tell me to shut up and my brother would say “we’re just playing!” The only weapon I had was my teeth, so I’d bite him to get him off me. And mom would shove a bar of soap in my mouth and hold my mouth closed. This brother would defend me from the neighborhood bullies and then say “You’re MY punching bag”.

My third brother was three years younger than me. He was the golden child, easygoing and adorable. Everyone loved him, including me. I dressed him, played with him and took care of him like he was my very own baby. We shared interests and friends growing up and we never fought. He was my best friend for most of my life.

Then the unthinkable happened and I discovered my brothers’ true characters. When my ex-husband tried to murder me, my oldest brother acted as my liaison with law enforcement which pissed off my ex-husband and his family. He stuck by my side even when the victim-blaming began which caused friction between him and the rest of my family.

When my ex-husband launched a smear campaign that resulted in absolute rejection by my children, my oldest brother refused to let me suffer alone. While the rest of my family celebrated the wedding that I was banned from, he came to sit with me so I wouldn’t be alone. He listened to me, held me in his arms while I cried and even cried with me.

When I acted out on social media and displayed my hysterical mental state in all its ugliness, my big brother remained in touch to make sure I was okay. While he shared his opinion about my activities, he never once condemned me. My two other brothers told me I was depraved and said they didn’t want to see me again.

My oldest brother remained in contact with the detective on my case. He accompanied me to court. He and his wife went to the domestic violence center and sat in on a session with my therapist. He called me when he knew I was suicidal. He never gave up on me when I shut him out because I was full of grief and anger and despair.

My other brothers backed my ex-husband in court when he was negotiating a plea bargain and they visited him when he needed moral support. They also slut-shamed me when they didn’t have all the facts. My number one brother didn’t have all the facts either, but he believed in me and his support was unconditional.

I wrote a blog called Amnesiac Shadows which is about the day I left Boston to begin my new life in Seattle. I sent a copy to my big brother because he is a main character in my story.

He replied “Isn’t it cathartic when we capture through art, writing or music, our deepest and most personal experiences, first for ourselves, to better comprehend important events in our lives, and then to share, so others may see and understand more deeply. I still regret that I was unable to grasp your situation earlier and provide more help. However, I am eternally grateful to you for providing me with the chance to act, finally, as a brother should.  Your ability to literally rise from the ashes has been and continues to be, most inspiring. You are amazing.”

I love my big brother. He took a lot of shit from my family for supporting me, but he never wavered. And ironically, he apologized to me for not doing enough. He never hurt me, but he was sorry because he thought he didn’t help me as much as he could have. I admire and respect my brother. And I know my dad would have been proud of the way he cared for me when no one else would.

Digital Abuse

Digital Abuse

Being in a relationship does not mean your partner should have complete control over your every move. It’s not okay for anyone to force you to lose your individuality or autonomy to prove your faithfulness and commitment to the relationship.

It sounds logical and obvious to most, but to some of us, standing up for our rights is easier said than done. We are all too familiar with our partners’ toxic outbursts, silent treatment, or physical retaliation or threats (with or without weapons). We take on the burden of not setting our abusers off in order to protect ourselves and our children. We walk on eggshells and aim to please until we’re embedded deeply into the web of coercive control and we lose our sense of self.

Among the many facets of domestic violence is digital abuse, a form of verbal and/or emotional abuse that can include unwanted, repeated calls or text messages, pressure to send nudes and using social networking sites to bully, harass, stalk or intimidate an intimate partner. This type of abuse is particularly widespread among teens in dating relationships. But it can happen to anyone and it did happen to me.

In my experience, my ex-husband stalked my on-line activities, policed who I interacted with and coerced me to send nudes. We had been together since I was 16 and he intimidated and controlled me from the start, so this was what I knew. And I stayed in that web of coercive control for years because I thought our relationship was normal.

But when his jealousy over my social media friendships started escalating, I became angry about his irrational behavior, and I finally decided to stand up for my rights. So he lit my house on fire. I had invested my life enabling him to control me at such a high level that he felt justified to kill me when I stepped out of line. I almost died because I decided that I had the right to my own digital autonomy, regardless of his demands.

Know the warning signs of digital abuse. Protect yourself. Teach your children that these behaviors are unacceptable BEFORE they start dating. Spread the word about digital abuse in relationships by drawing a clear line in the sand about unacceptable behaviors. Don’t become so deeply embedded in the web of control that you end up in a situation like mine.

You are being abused if your partner:

  • Tells you who you can or can’t be friends with on Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, Facebook, etc.
  • Uses sites like Facebook, Twitter, and others to keep constant tabs on you.
  • Sends you negative, insulting or even threatening emails, messages, tweets, etc.
  • Puts you down in their status updates.
  • Sends you unwanted, explicit pictures or video and/or demands you send some in return.
  • Steals or insists to be given your passwords.
  • Constantly texts you and makes you feel like you can’t be separated from your phone.
  • Looks through your phone frequently, checks up on your pictures, texts and outgoing calls.

Together, we can break the silence about every form of domestic violence.

A Letter to Angus

A Letter to Angus

To Angus

Dear Angus,

I don’t think there has been one day since the fire that I haven’t thought about you. I can still picture you snoring on your little bed on the floor right beside me, your paws twitching as if you were running in your dreams.

You hadn’t run in a very long time. You were old, blind, somewhat deaf and your little legs could barely carry you upstairs. So I carried you up to our bedroom every night and we snuggled. You’d lick my face and make grunting sounds and your tail would wag furiously before we’d both settle down for the evening. It was our nightly ritual, cuddles, kisses and then your loud snores would mingle with whatever book I was reading. I’d laugh because you were so damn adorable and so very loveable. You were my little boy.

When I heard those frightening sounds coming from downstairs, I should have grabbed you. I should have carried you downstairs and out the front door to safety. But I didn’t know, Angus. It all happened so fast. I didn’t smell smoke. I knew something was terribly wrong because of the loud pop and then his screams. I should have taken you with me and I’m so sorry.

When I saw him in flames, I ran toward the source instead of back upstairs to you. I forgot about you, Angus. I forgot and I failed you. When I did remember, I tried to save you. I got halfway upstairs, but the smoke was thick and I began choking. So I went outside and screamed. The neighbors started showing and I ran back in the house because I was determined to reach you. I tried crawling on my hands and knees, but I only made it inside the bedroom doorway. You were about 6 feet from me, but I had to leave you behind. I am so very sorry.

A firefighter told me you were probably gone quickly because the smoke would have instantly suffocated your little lungs. He said he was sure you died peacefully. But I know you died violently. I know you fell through the floor to the living room below. I know you died alone in a violent blaze.

For months after the fire, I kept thinking I heard your little grunts. Sometimes you’d appear in the corner of my eye and I’d turn toward you, but it was all my imagination. I’m haunted by your memory, Angus. I loved you like one of my children and sometimes I feel like I should have given my life for you, as I would for them. I raised you from infancy to old man. You were my family, the only family who loved me unconditionally.

You will always be my little Angly Pangly, my piggly wiggly, my little boy. You will always have a special place in my heart.

Love,

Mummy

Angus