The Difference

It’s been more years than I care to remember since I found myself on the wrong end of my father’s back hand or the crisp sting of his leather belt. There are no scars anywhere on my body to mark the times he made me bleed. The physical wounds healed quickly. The other wounds, the true wounds whose marks have remained indelible for all the years since, these are the ones that haunt me still, the ones that still manifest today in the decisions and choices I make. I like to think I’ve recovered but the solution isn’t so simple.

In the past two years, I found myself in an abusive situation at work. But why not? My core belief is that work, like anything else, should be painful. If I wasn’t giving blood, if I wasn’t sacrificing who I was in exchange for my paycheck, then that would be too easy. No, to give everything when it wasn’t nearly enough, to be belittled and scolded in front of my peers, that meant I was accomplishing something. So I took it “like a man” as my father would say to my adolescent self over and over again, as they mentally whipped me and humiliated me over and over. The abuse gave me a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment. “They can’t break me” became my soul’s mantra. I scoffed at the idea that I should leave my toxic work environment. Why? Why would I allow them to win? If I left it would just mean I wasn’t up to the challenge, I wasn’t “man enough.” I saw my father laughing in what should have been my corner.

I stayed far too long at this job. I worked 60 to 65 hours per week. I ignored my family every weekend while I sat hunched over a laptop for hours at a time. Yet it WAS NOT ENOUGH. The harder I worked the greater the abuse became. And I received no positive reinforcement or coaching which would help me succeed. All I was ever told is what I was doing wrong. Words like “inadequate” and “failure” were used in conversation with me on a weekly basis. The more they threw at me the firmer my resolve became. They would not break me!!

I finally left this environment when a better offer with an entirely different work culture presented itself. It’s eerie now; I feel “more than enough” for my new employer, and am told on a daily basis what positive contributions I am providing. I AM THE SAME PERSON. How could this be? I am puzzled that an employer could heap such abuse upon its employees. I am puzzled further about what is going on inside me that would allow me to continue so long in a place I didn’t belong.

The answer is I have always been afraid to stand up for myself. Whether it was the fear of my father’s words or physical punishment, I believed that if I stood up for myself it would just worsen the level of punishment. At some point I learned to manage my actions and reactions in an effort to avoid being abused, OR accept that I was somehow deserving of the abuse. In my adult life I haven’t acted much differently in my relationships with romantic partners and employers. However, I recognize what I’ve been doing and know it is time to break the chain.

To change who I am, to really change how I see the world and my reactions to it, has been an effort that has taken years. I’m still a work in progress. I can tell you that it is never to late to advocate for yourself. I’ve long envied those who could and I understand the internal hurdles which I must navigate. I know now that fear of other’s reactions has made the difference between my path in life and those of others. I’m committed to learn from my past as I make a pact with myself to never go down the same road twice. As I cannot relive my past or undo anything that’s been done, that’s really all any of us can ever do when faced with the lessons of our past.

 

Deep In The Woods

forest during dawn
Photo by Anton Atanasov on Pexels.com

I’m much too far from home. In too deep to turn back. Unable to find the exit or the clear path forward. Forced to make choices now that I don’t want to make, because I made choices carelessly so long ago.

Fuck.

There is no safety net. There is no one to take me in. I’m on my own. If there was any kind of God watching, he or she left me to my own devices somewhere along the way. I didn’t notice.

Shit.

I want to give in, give up, give out-but I have nothing left to give. I continue in spite of myself. I don’t even care what path I’m on as long as it is a path and I’m not subjected to the torture of well-hidden rocks and switchbacks. I. Am. All. Alone. It feels good and it hurts all at the same time. There is no pressure now other than what I put upon myself. BUT! I am a motherfucker and I can torture and punish like no one else.

I know better. I have meditated. But the deeper I go inside the more questions I’m driven to ask. Who made me? Can I be unmade? Can the unsettled be quieted? I need a moment of peace. Can I unlearn patterns learned and deeply embedded? Can I re-imagine my approach and change my course?

I walk faster, sun setting, pulse racing, palms sweating. Tightened breath coming in heaving gasps. When the sun has been vanquished I see nothing. I know my hands are in front of my face yet I can’t see them. I can only feel. I feel deeply. That is my curse, that is my gift. No one sees what I feel. No one feels what I see.

There are new sounds all around me. Things that crave the darkness and mock my presence. I’m no longer afraid. Let them take me. I don’t care at all. I’m beyond being afraid of death. This is not what scares me. What scares me is the world moving forward without me. I want to be remembered. I don’t want to be forgotten.

I see a sliver of moonlight through the trees. I make out a bat fluttering above. This is good, I can define shapes once again. I’ve moved from pitch blackness to shadows and stars. There are so many. There is a rock moving around one of those stars, and surely as that rock orbits that foreign sun, there is another like me, at once both lost and at home, deep in the woods.

And I take comfort in this.

The Staircase

Dream SpeechOn this 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., I’m reminded of one of his many famous quotes, particularly this: “Faith is taking the first step, even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” While I’d heard this sentence before, I first became aware, I mean fully aware, of its meaning when someone very close to me shared it with me in one of my darkest moments nine years ago. I couldn’t see beyond the difficult nature of my present moment and didn’t see how my life could or would ever improve. My finances were in disarray, my job was coming to an end, I was selling my house at a steep loss, and I was going through a divorce, all at the same time. I didn’t know how I’d pay my bills, feed my children or even put gas in my car. I felt like I was in a deep tunnel with no source of light, with no idea where it ended or where it began.

I was so focused on the negative circumstances surrounding me. I was overwhelmed and anxious. Consumed with worry and the mental gymnastics that accompany that state, I wasn’t able to engage myself in any meaningful action to improve my life. I was frozen by my own fear, stuck and unable to decide what to do. It was when I honestly shared all this with someone that loves me that these words of Dr. King were spoken to me, words that still ring true in my life to this day. In my experience, no aspect of life can be taken for granted. Jobs will be taken away. Homes will be lost. People we love will leave us, either voluntarily or involuntarily. It is our response to these events that makes the difference in how we function on a day to day basis, and our response is shaped by our perspective. If we choose to see nothing but the staircase, the whole big picture of our lives, we may find ourselves collapsing under the weight of it. If we instead focus on putting one foot in front of the other, and just take that meaningful first step toward our future, with faith in our own ability, we may find it easier to move forward.

As a child, I was subjected to the disparaging voices of many adults. These became the soundtrack playing in my head, ultimately turning into the negative self-talk that dogged me for much of my adult life. I’ve had to learn to re-frame the conversations I have with myself. Reciting quotes like the one above as my own mantra (the statements we repeat to ourselves), has helped me to do just that. Now, I’m not going to tell anyone this is easy to do. I understand it takes hard work and dedication to harness our own thoughts about ourselves and our lives. But it is worth it. Just take that first step.