“SHE HAD NOT KNOWN THE WEIGHT, UNTIL SHE FELT THE FREEDOM!”

abuse survivor story

If you ask people who know me to describe me, words that would likely come up: independent, stubborn, smart, strong. Words that one typically does not associate with the stereotype of an abused woman. A woman with those qualities “should know better.” I debated sharing this story with the world, but it’s important for people to understand that abuse (in any and many forms) can happen to anyone.

It’s also important for others in situations like mine to know that they deserve better, and–while never easy–they can get out of the dangerous cycle holding them hostage.

signs of an abusive relationship or domestic violence and abuse

Abuse comes in a variety of forms.

Looking back, all the warning signs were there. Immediate talk of “I can’t live without you” and moving way too fast. Explosive arguments. Confinement. A complete lack of personal space. Jealousy. The frightening lows were offset by highs of intense passion. That’s what makes abusive relationships hard to see for what they really are: I rationalized that I had never been loved like this, and, hey, everyone comes with baggage, right?

Relatively early on, he confessed to me that he and his ex used to get into these horrible, physically violent shouting matches. I should have known then, but my compassion and sympathy won out. After all, I am not the kicking, lamp-throwing, shouting kind. How could our disagreements ever escalate to that level?

We argued from day one (see “stubborn” in the first paragraph). I come from a home colored by the love of a single mother who didn’t yell much. I certainly was not accustomed to shouting men, and being around that kind of behavior just makes me shut down. This only elicited more rage from him. Each fight was worse than the last, no matter what I tried to do. It was like walking on eggshells. And it was exhausting.

signs of an emotionally abusive relationship

Just because it isn’t physical doesn’t mean it isn’t abuse.

There was much talk about how “we” needed to find “middle ground,” which I always felt like translated into “you need to conform to how I want you to be.” But, in hindsight, I don’t think anything I could have done would have been good enough. It was like he would gather all the materials to make a bomb, and I was just the excuse for him to light it–whether or not that bomb had anything to do with me. I was the outlet for some deeply rooted anger inside him.

But he loved me, so there was hope, right? Hindsight causes me to question. I’ve read a lot of articles–many of them written by mental health professionals and abuse counselors–to try to make sense of what happened and prevent it from happening again (click here for some good ones). Some of them indicate his “love” may have been just a show. Narcissists and sociopaths are extremely charismatic, especially when it comes to influencing others to get what they want. I was a moth trapped in his web, slowly being poisoned to death.

See, the thing about abuse is that it causes you doubt. After a while, you come to believe you are doing something to deserve that treatment: some remark you made, something you did, or the way you behave (or just who you are). It becomes a vehicle for self-punishment, even if you can’t see it at the time. More on that in a bit.

The fights were boiling over to a dangerous level. The last one we had was him shouting at me for three hours while I was curled up in a tear-soaked ball on the bed, frozen with fear. I had bruises from where he had grabbed and shaken me, where he had flung my arms back. I had invisible bruises from where he had demeaned and belittled me. Some of these bruises may never heal.

My psyche trembles and shrinks at the thought of what would have happened if that had not been the last fight we ever had. I couldn’t live like that. I retreated to my mother’s–my safe place–to sort it all out. He followed me. I told him to go home, and that night, I slept with a hammer under my pillow.

My mom (and some close friends and ex-husband) helped me see that I didn’t deserve this treatment. No one does. And I had given more than a fair share of forgiveness, patience, and compassion. Mom shared that she had suffered with abuse like this in her past–a side of her I had never really seen before. “I don’t want that life for you. I don’t want you to live in fear, second-guessing your every move or word,” she said softly, clearly hurting for her only daughter. That was the moment of my resolve: I had to get out of this poisonous relationship.

The worst part? The part I’m most ashamed of? Part of me still loved him. Despite all of the emotional, mental, and physical abuse, like a fool, I still cared about him. But I had to choose myself–my safety, health, and happiness–over him. I had to choose me. Even if my self-esteem had bottomed out and I felt pretty worthless, I had to practice self-compassion. When things got murky in my head, I’d ask myself, “If your best friend was in this situation, what would you tell her to do?” That’s how I found my way out.

abuse survivor quote

You have a choice.

And that way out was anything but easy. If he was so volatile in everyday life, how would he react when I told him we were done? I was terrified. My friends and I came up with safe words. I had standing offers from several people to stay at their houses, even without warning, if I needed a safe place to go. I had no idea what would happen.

But once he saw that I was no longer willing to play the role he had designed for me in his rage-filled drama, just as quickly as he dashed into my life, he was gone. There were the usual “we’ll still be friends” talks, but he changed. He became cold, distant, and eventually just disappeared without warning. We have not spoken since.

In the months that followed, I had PTSD to keep me company. I was drowning in anxiety, depression, and self-injury behaviors. I had become so accustomed to the self-punishment, I struggled with the void of it once the relationship was terminated.

Fortunately, I met a man who saw all the good in me that I could not see in myself. A man who was patient, tender, and kind. A man who understood what I was going through and how to deal with my triggers. A man who stayed my hand and quieted my uneasy mind. He was a good man who did not yell at me and would never raise a hand to me.

With his help and the help from friends and my mom, I began the healing process. I’m not sure I could have done it alone. And I don’t like thinking about how life would be with the alternative. How far it would have escalated… the damage that would have been done…

I still stumble. I still struggle with triggers. But several months later when I look back at it all, it’s like a nightmare. I fell asleep in someone else’s life, uncertain of how to make sense of it or escape, and then I woke up alone in my own bed, shaking in the darkness. But morning is coming. The birds are waking up, and warm light has started to kiss the earth.

I will be ok. But many other people continue to live in abusive situations every day. And abuse can start at any time in a relationship. If you find yourself in an abusive relationship, please know that you are worth more than that. Your life is worth more than shouting matches, punches, and angry words that tear you down. That isn’t love, and you deserve to be loved. If you’re ready to begin your own journey of healing, this resource will connect you with hotlines and shelters in your area that specialize in domestic abuse. Odds are if you reach out for help, you’ll save your life. And your life, no matter what you’ve been made to believe, is worth saving. You can heal. You matter in this world. Choose you.

abusive relationship quote

You are stronger than you realize. Prove it to yourself.

BUOYANCY IS OVER-RATED

Art by Toni Frissell

Art by Toni Frissell

“Can you imagine your life without him? Do you want to?” Mom softly prodded.

“My life is not defined by who I am with; it is simply enhanced by that person,” my well-rehearsed response rolled off my tongue.

She pursed her lips with dissatisfaction at my answer. Despite her decades of wisdom and several broken relationships, at her core, Mom was still a romantic. She believed in a plan for everyone–a path intended for us. That’s not to say work–real, hard work–isn’t involved to stay on that path. No, Mom believed in a special mix of elbow grease and destiny to make a forever love possible.

“I want you to find someone you can’t imagine living without. Someone who makes your heart feel so full and complete, you want to hold onto him with everything you’ve got,” she said with motherly tenderness. “You deserve an all-encompassing, uplifting love.”

I didn’t believe such a thing existed. Moreover, if it did, I didn’t believe I deserved it. And we accept the love we think we deserve, right? Man, I must have some really fucked up self-esteem issues…

My heart felt like a fishing bobber, the line cast out and left adrift to catch what it may in open water. Something heavy tugged from below, threatening to pull it under. Part of me wanted to silently watch it drown, succumbing to the cold, dark peace of seaweed and sand. Buoyancy is over-rated and exhausting.

“Maybe one day, Momma,” I murmured after a long pause. “Maybe one day…”

DENOUEMENT

“Tell me how it ended,” he said, over lunch one afternoon. “Was it sudden? It seemed sudden.”

The summer sun was warm on my face. Last year’s autumn felt like a lifetime ago.

“It was… and it wasn’t, all at the same time,” I replied, swallowing the aftertaste of grief. “I think, in a way, it always feels a bit sudden. But things had been unraveling for years. The threads came loose more quickly than I could tie them up.”

He nodded, “Some friends of mine had a whirlwind courtship. They seemed pretty happy for a while. Shortly after they got married and had a child, the husband just sort of snapped, like someone flipped a switch. He disappeared for a few days, and when he came home, he barricaded himself in the bedroom. He would only come out to go to work. This went on for about a week before he was just done with it all and left. He doesn’t even see or talk to his kid. He’s completely cut off from that part of his life.”

Coping mechanism… I thought. I wonder what pushed him to that point. I wonder if it’s easier that way…

I took another bite of salad, feeling for the wife in my friend’s story. So many unanswered questions. Did she blame herself?

“That’s hard–to not get closure on something like that,” I said. “That’s something I had to come to terms with over the past ten months: sometimes, you never get the answers you need, and you have to be able to move on without them or you’ll go crazy.”

The air was heavy with the weight of our conversation. An unsaid expectation danced in the breeze of the words. What badge of wisdom had I earned over the past nine years? Was it hope? Bitterness? Comfort? I sounded like I had it figured out, but I wondered how much of that was an act to protect myself. If I could convince everyone around me that I had my shit together, well, then I must, right?

He leaned back in his chair and shifted his gaze down the busy street. “What scares the shit out of me the most is how people change. You commit to a person who may be someone else completely in five years–or even seemingly overnight, like my friend’s husband. You can’t control it, and sometimes, you don’t even see it coming… How the hell do you deal with that?”

A bead of condensation slid down the side of my glass. My mind grappled for a response–something positive but also real.

Take it in stride. Don’t get married. Try to grow together as much as you can. Make sure you’re with someone who is as committed to building something together as they are to building themselves. Sometimes things fall apart so you can build something better from the rubble. Lifetime commitments are unrealistic. If only love really did conquer all…

I didn’t have an answer. I still don’t.

A MAGIC SEED

All rights reserved by Appleseed Exhibitions, LLC.

All rights reserved by Appleseed Exhibitions, LLC.

Magic happens when creative minds get together. It’s a magic that ignites spontaneously when the right moments, conversation, and people combine like tinder and flint. You long to bottle up the inspirational flame, but it cannot be contained or duplicated. You can only sit by its fire, soaking up the heat, in the exact moment of the spark.

I wax poetic here, but as I slide back into “normal” life after such a grand weekend at Appleseed Comic Con, I find it difficult to put into words how much the experience meant to me.

The thing about the comics scene is it’s so incredibly welcoming. People from all interests, backgrounds, and levels of expertise–comics don’t discriminate. Even as someone whose knowledge of comics was significantly dwarfed by everyone else’s in the room, I felt like part of the family. That’s one of the things that sets Appleseed above all of the other comic conventions out there: the culture. I challenge you to find another con that’s as inviting and focused on the artists and fans. It’s a comic con that celebrates the art of comics–how the stories, illustrations, and characters bring people together and inspire us. I saw countless budding young artists at this show, their eyes wide with hope as they asked established artists for advice on honing their talent and starting their careers. That is what it’s all about–not making money or long lines to see a B-list celebrity and maybe get an autograph… if you have $40 to spare.

For the artists, it’s a chance to meet fans and make new ones, an opportunity to talk about their passion, and a challenge to flex their creativity as they sketch scenes on the spot. After hours, they get together over dinner and drinks, often debating their craft, the arts, and life in general into the dark of night. That’s when the ephemeral magic happens. Several artists agreed this is the true “heart of the convention” for them. Seated amongst Hilary Barta, Jim Terry, and Tom Scioli, it was an honor to witness the banter and absorb the theories swirling around our table. A few of us hurriedly jotted down notes, trying to capture anything we could for later inspiration. I’ll never forget that night as long as I live.

The entire weekend was priceless. My buddy Zack, founder of Appleseed, tapped me for an honor of epic proportion: assisting Jim Steranko. Yes, THE Steranko–musician, escape artist, and comics heavyweight. Holy shit. Was this real life? (In hindsight, it feels like a dream.) I’ve never met such a magnanimous guy. He took the time to talk to every person who came up to the booth, often engaging in long discussions about comics, jazz, movies, and more–always flashing his warm smile that crinkles at the corners of his eyes. And, oh, the stories he tells! If you ever have a chance to meet Jim, make it happen. If you ever have a chance to work with Jim, seize that opportunity with a steely grip. As we parted ways Sunday evening at the end of Appleseed, I felt like I was saying goodbye to an old friend.

That’s another part of the magic of Appleseed: the friendships that take root during that one weekend a year. Friendships that might not otherwise exist. The kind that you can go the entire space in between shows and pick up right where you left off. Old friends, new friends, friends you’ve yet to meet–that’s where the true wealth of Appleseed resides for me. The comics, art, and geekery are great, but those friendships are invaluable.

To those who made the weekend so magical, thank you from the bottom of my heart. To everyone who came out to see what Appleseed is all about, I hope you enjoyed the comic con as much as I did. And to Zack, the head magician and man-behind-the-curtain, it truly was an honor, as always. I’ve struggled with putting this weekend into words that do it justice. As Steranko would say, while pointing at his temple, “We’ll always have this moment–right here. Don’t worry about it!”

I CARRY HIS HEART WITH ME

Buzzy, my handsome boy, in December 2013.

Buzzy, my handsome boy, 2013.

Buzzy’s favorite day of the week was Caturday. He couldn’t get enough Caturday time. He especially enjoyed stay-at-home vacations of several Caturdays strung together, making his severe dislike of Monday known when I went back to work (you and me both, pal!). The irony that we said goodbye on Caturday isn’t lost on me. Maybe that’s how he wanted it–to go out on a high note.

Buzzy came to me by way of Adrienne, his mom. Adrienne accidentally got out one day and came home ten days later pregnant. She had a litter of several kittens, with one little black and white one as the runt. That was Buzzy, then called Chase. That fall, I put Buzzy’s brothers and sisters out in the barn. He was too small, though; he’d never survive. Ever rooting for the underdog (or undercat, in this case), I grew quite fond of him. So I tried to find him a nice home indoors. After my first attempt fell through, I decided to keep him. Or, rather, he decided to keep me. Our bond was immediate.

Adrienne, sitting in our apartment window in 2010.

Adrienne, sitting in our apartment window, 2010.

That was back in 1999/2000. I was still a teenager, trying to figure out my place in this world. Buzzy and Adrienne went along for the ride. They comforted me when I broke my back in 2003. They moved with me out of my parents’ house and into the city. They moved with me again into my first house. They gave me a reason to keep living on more than one occasion. They provided comic relief and warm snuggles without end.

In May of 2011, Buzzy and I said good-bye to Adrienne. We were heartbroken. Devastated, even. I’ve never had my heart literally ripped from my chest (of course), but I imagine that would feel less painful than the loss of that cat did. We never found out specifically what went wrong, but I am very thankful for that final small month I had to say goodbye. Putting her to sleep was the hardest decision I had made in my adult life. Buzzy took it as hard as I did. He could feel my grief on top of his own. He had never been without Adrienne his entire life. Now, suddenly, there was an almost tangible void.

In October of 2011, we brought home (then named) Layla to be his new companion. The two quickly took to chasing each other around the house. I’m sure Layla (now called New Cat/Boss) kept Buzzy younger and extended his quality years. And Buzzy finally had a relationship where he felt like he wore the pants. Unfortunately, these two were separated in my divorce in late 2013/early 2014. But bear with me here…

Buzzy was never quite the same after we moved into a little apartment of our own. I gave him time to adjust, and he managed ok, but he had lost a lot of his spark–his zest for life. Even his catnip mice barely caught his attention. He had also started dropping weight, a few ounces here and there, coupled with some recurrent bladder issues. The blood work always came back pretty good for a cat of 15 years–no obvious cause for alarm. After a couple of months, I decided to find him a friend, thinking perhaps he was lonely or bored and another companion would help ease any stress or anxiety he was feeling.

Ivy, playing with one of Adrienne's favorite toys.

Ivy, playing with one of Adrienne’s favorite toys.

Ivy became part of our family on March 22. Buzzy wasn’t thrilled by the idea, but they were starting to warm up to each other and develop respectful boundaries. Ivy went to stay at the vet’s for a couple of days. That same night she left, Buzzy changed. It was like a switch had been flipped: suddenly he looked like a 90 year old whose body was giving up. He was lethargic and grouchy and hid under the bed. I slept on the floor next to him most of the night. I could tell this was serious; something just felt immensely heavy about the situation.

The next day, he barely ate any breakfast. He still showed no other signs of anything being wrong. I wanted to believe he just felt yucky, like maybe he had the kitty flu or something. I left work early to find that he wasn’t any better. As he walked across the floor, I saw his bloated stomach sway. I felt it gently; his abdomen was swollen and firm. Understanding that this was serious, I immediately called the vet who said they could see me right away.

After some blood work and a couple of x-rays, preliminary guesses were either liver cancer or lymphoma–neither of which looked good for Buzzy. The vet diagnosed him with a slight heart murmur (something new), anemia, and a high white blood cell count. His liver enzymes were alarmingly low. But all of the fluid in his stomach was preventing a clear view to confirm tumors. They kept him overnight with an ultrasound scheduled the next day. Even as I said “see you later” to him that evening, it felt like one of the last times I would do so. I left my hoodie with him in his cage to comfort him while we were apart.

The next day, I met with the vet to discuss the ultrasound results. Buzzy’s mesenteries appeared abnormal with several masses showing on the images. His spleen also looked abnormal in shape and transparency on the ultrasound. “We would need to biopsy to be absolutely sure, but our best guess is lymphoma.” Even if we had biopsied, there wouldn’t have been anything we could do for him. He was fading fast, the vet said. “You don’t have much time with him. Days, maybe the weekend.”

I don’t know how I remained standing. Dazed, I softly asked if he was in any discomfort; she replied that he probably felt like he had the flu but no real pain. “If you aren’t ready to make a decision today, you probably have a couple of days–maybe even into next week.” A million things raced through my mind, but I kept coming back to Adrienne. Because I wasn’t ready, she suffered for longer than she probably should have. I couldn’t do that to Buzzy. He was my everything–the love of my life. I scheduled an appointment for the following morning to say goodbye.

One of my last photos with Buzzy the night before we said goodbye.

One of my last photos with Buzzy the night before we said goodbye.

We spent our last night together quietly in bed. As the hours slipped by, so did the life in his eyes. I didn’t try to hold him for fear of hurting him. I curled my body around him, a protective barrier warding off death for a little while longer, and gently stroked his head. My eyes became heavy with grief and drowsiness. I fought to stay awake, white-knuckling every precious minute. Eight hours became four. Four hours became the sun coming up. And then it was time.

I wasn’t ready, of course. You’re never really ready. That’s the one thing I’ve learned about losing someone you love: even when you see it coming, the heart will never be ready.

I didn’t even bother with a cat carrier. I wrapped Buzzy in an old blanket–one of his favorites–and cradled him the five minute drive to the vet. It was drizzling. The wet on my face hid my tears.

“We’ll be in exam room 4,” the vet tech said. This was the goodbye room. The last time I was in there, I collapsed with loud, body-racking grieving that I’m sure unnerved other pet owners at the clinic that day. I kept telling myself to keep it together this time, at least until we got to the car. Just hold yourself together until then.

When your pet is so very, very sick, they don’t struggle against the euthanasia. It reminds me of when I’ve been utterly exhausted, barely able to hold my head up. Deep sleep is a welcome reprieve. You just drift off into it. Both Adrienne and Buzzy were this way as the drugs were administered–first the sedative and then the final goodbye solution. Adrienne was so weak, she was gone almost immediately. Buzzy gave a relaxed sigh before leaving us. It’s over in moments that feel, at the same time, like an eternity.

One of the things I love about my vet clinic is that they are endlessly compassionate towards pets and pet owners alike. There was no rush to get us out of the room. They hugged me as I sobbed. Everyone in the room had tears cascading down their cheeks. I made arrangements for cremation and paid for everything the day before, allowing us the luxury of quietly slipping out the back door.

The drizzle had just transitioned into snow. A weird, fluffy-flaked, late-March snow. The sentimental part of me felt comforted, taking the display as a loving farewell message from my best friend. It snowed most of that day.

Ivy/NuNu and I enjoy some morning snuggles.

Ivy/NuNu and I enjoy some morning snuggles.

I went home and nursed my grief. Ivy returned from the vet that afternoon. Of all the cats I’ve ever known, I’ve never seen one so elated to see me. And because she is so very different from Buzzy, there was no false hope of her being a replacement. No, the hole he left in my life will likely never be filled. I know this. But I also know that each day, the ache lessens, healing into a scar–the scar of a love only a fraction of pet owners will understand.

Part of me wonders if he was waiting on a cat like Ivy before making his exit–someone to whom he could entrust his very large kitty-shoes to make me smile, laugh, and yell, “Hey! Get out of that!” In hindsight, the events seem too coincidental to be mere coincidence. Another example of Buzzy taking care of me? Perhaps.

Since we said goodbye, I haven’t had time to properly mourn my friend–not the way I wrenched grief from my pillow every night like I did with his mother, if that is indeed “proper.” Instead, the grief has processed slowly and gently beneath the surface. That’s another thing I’ve learned about death: no two people process it the same, and no two experiences are processed the same by an individual. Each loss is unique. Some are explosive, palpable, and devastating; others are slow burns that sometimes choke you in the night with their smoke, often when you least expect it.

Ivy (nicknamed NuNu) is incredibly grateful to share my life with me. In that, Buzzy’s memory lives on. I will continue to support local (and even not-so-local) pet welfare organizations. In that, too, his memory lives on. And, like I did with his mother, a memorial will be inked on my skin to reflect that he is always part of me.

Buzzy II--my new godcat through the Independent Cat Society in Westville, IN

Buzzy II–my new godcat through the Independent Cat Society in Westville, IN

Today, I chose to memorialize him by becoming a godparent to a kitten. For a donation fee, I was given naming rights of said kitten, and that money is used to help care for the animal until it is adopted. Perhaps this is something I will continue to do, sponsoring myriad black kitties and hoping that their new owners continue the Buzzy name. I can’t think of a better way to honor the memory of my sweet, sweet boy.

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
by E.E. Cummings

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
                                                      i fear
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)
 
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