[TW: Abuse, self-harm, self-image, death]
My abuser died recently.
It rocked my world. It took me 23 years to remember that someone had abused me. It took me another 23 to remember who it was. And then, soon after, he was dead.
When he died, I could start to feel what I had done to keep my secret from myself, my loved ones, and every other person alive. My secret was like a red-hot blade that burned and cut into my palm. Fear and shame commanded me not to let anyone see what I was holding, so I tightened my fist around the sharp edge.
Over time, I found ways to clean up the blood and numb the pain — like closing my other hand over my first. It was backup in case my fist became too weak or tired to keep up the charade. Next, I folded my body into the fetal position around my hand, my fist, and the blade — adding another layer of protection. I wasn’t going to let anyone get hurt by the red-hot blade.
But someone did end up getting hurt by my protection of the blade . . . Me. And because I was hurting, I hurt others.
Life is not to be lived in the fetal position, protecting a hand, fist, and blade. Lungs can’t inflate fully. Oxygen can’t reach the muscles that long ago fell asleep. Someone who lives in this contorted position performs living. They perform growing, feeling, and even breathing. But in reality, they are hiding, hurting, numbing, and struggling. That’s what I was doing.
Looking back, I can see that I was living a divide life. I paid a steep price when I lived a divided life — both protecting myself and others from the truth — waiting to be seen for all my inadequacies, sins, and shame. This made me feel depressed, anxious, and fragile — like a less solid and meaningful version of myself.
The people around me paid the price for this choice of mine to limit and judge myself so harshly. They received fragments of me that were tired, afraid, irritable, and angry.
My abuser died recently.
“Good,” I thought. And then my stomach dropped. I started to sweat and broke out in chills.
My abuser was dead.
Other than my husband, I had no one to tell because no one knew. I had no one else to cry with, to sit with me to make sure I didn’t fall apart, or to bear witness to this moment in time.
Hands shaking, I reached out to my siblings and told them. My explanation was long, rambling, and apologetic because they didn’t ask to have this dropped on them. There were so many things I wanted to apologize for. My abuser had made me change the shape of myself to hide the damage and the bloody wound. While in this contorted shape, I couldn’t be the older sister my siblings deserved. Rather, I was someone distant, inconsistent, and erratic.
They said: “I’m sorry, Nora. I’m sorry that you had to carry this for so long. I’m so sorry about the things he took from you.”
They didn’t say or question: “I’ve known you your whole life, and this can’t be true. Are you sure?”
Instead, they showed me: “I believe you.”
This. Was. Everything.
After a few days of sitting with the news and the experience of opening up to my siblings, I could feel my back muscles relaxing. They were slowly, gently starting to shift out of the fetal position. I knew once that happened, I’d be able to get to my knees, and finally, stand.
And once I stood, I realized I could tell my parents too. But I wasn’t sure if I’d survive — or that my relationship with them would survive if they responded, “Are you sure?” or, “What’s your proof?” or, “We didn’t see any signs this was happening, so maybe it’s a false childhood memory?” or . . . the list of reactions I didn’t think I could survive was long.
They said: “We’re sorry, Nora. We’re sorry that you had to carry this for so long. We’re so sorry about the things he took from you. We’re so sorry that we didn’t know — that we didn’t protect you from that monster.”
This. Was. Everything.
I had spent so much of my life wrapped around shame, secrets, and woundedness that I didn’t even know my true shape. In this contorted position, I let friendships fray and disappear. I drank to forget. I constantly moved so no one could see me for too long or look too closely.
But once I felt myself standing up, my chest breathing more fully, oxygen returning to my lungs, limbs, and cells — I felt that I could begin to open myself, my hand, and my palm. I felt that I could start to be free. Me sharing this with you is me opening my palm so my wound can see the light of day.
I’m writing this now because our June topic at Inspire to Change is wholeness. I’ve been seeking wholeness since 2014 when I read Parker Palmer’s “A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life.”
I knew at the time that I wasn’t whole because I was always trying to make myself more — better, sexier, and smarter — because I’m not enough. And approachable, humble, and invisible — because I’m too much.
I know now that I wasn’t whole because I was wrapped protectively around an open wound that I couldn’t even admit to myself I had. But I’ve admitted it now — to myself, my husband, my son, my siblings, my parents, and now, to you.
I can see a path to liberation — inner liberation — that was not possible for me before he died or before I opened myself to receiving love, belief, and witness.
I have a long road to go, but I’m finding that with more space in my body, I’m breathing differently, believing in myself differently, and experiencing my own power differently. I’m dreaming bigger dreams.
This is shifting my spiritual, personal, and work relationships in significant ways. It’s not always easy or comfortable, but reclaiming my wholeness is at the heart of my inner work if I want to lean into the responsibility of realizing my purpose in life.
For it is a reclaiming as much as it is a repair. I was whole once, and he stole that from me. He silenced me, fragmented me, minimized me, and dulled me.
But that is for another blog post. For now, I’ll leave you with these questions from Parker Palmer’s “A Hidden Wholeness” to reflect on: ”How can I affirm another’s identity when I deny my own? How can I trust another’s integrity when I defy my own?”
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