“Trauma creates change you don’t choose. Healing is about creating change you DO choose.” ~Michelle Rosenthall
Everything changes when you finally decide to divest yourself from a toxic relationship.
Some people judge you for your choice, especially if the relationship you leave behind is one involving a parent, spouse, or sibling. Those people tell you to reconsider because “life is short and you might be sorry when they are gone.” Those people used to get to me. They would reacquaint me with the gaslighting I have experienced my entire life. I would feel guilty and small and cruel for choosing myself. With time and practice, though, I’ve learned to listen to those voices less because those people don’t and can’t understand the emotional damage I have worked so hard to grieve, dismantle, reassess, and then release. They don’t know that every day is a battle to trust others, to feel safe in my skin and like myself, and to move forward carrying less baggage. They can’t understand how much it hurts a child to have a parent tell you multiple times, “You have a face only a mother could love,” only to realize she doesn’t love you or she would never say things like that. Birthdays, holidays, and family events are not joyful, but instead produce physical symptoms of anxiety. Walking away is not what you want. It’s not what you ever wanted, which is why it is so difficult. But, in the face of acknowledging there is not now nor will there ever be true acceptance and appreciation from the people who made you question everything about yourself, the best thing to do is move on and do better for yourself.
I still feel guilty sometimes about putting myself first, about choosing to skip out on that toxic person’s birthday party or holiday gathering. I never want to feel I am acting intentionally to hurt another because I was constantly told that I was selfish and thoughtless. Looking out for myself only proves that hypothesis. But what if I test that hypothesis against the reality of what happened rather than the illusion of what I was told happened? Then, magical things begin to occur. I have learned to have empathy for my abusers, to feel sorry they were incapable of doing better, to be grateful they taught me what not to do with my own children, to feel sad they will never know the truth about love, and at the same time to understand I do not owe them a relationship at the expense of my own mental and emotional well being.
For decades, my brain protected me by blocking awareness of the abuse. It had me believe that I was treated the same way everyone else was by their parents. It wasn’t until I started talking about my youth and seeing the shock and horror on other’s faces when I told them stories about my childhood that I understood what I knew as “normal” was actually neither normal nor healthy. It was a shocking revelation. My brain had for so long worked to legitimize the abuse to protect me that I was unable to comprehend that what I experienced was abuse. When I finally could not unsee the reality any longer, I began to grow. I have fought since then to tell my story more often, to give voice to what I was conditioned to believe was only my imagination, my “over-sensitive” nature.
“You own everything that ever happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” ~Anne Lamott
Six years ago, I composed a blog post around the above quote, asking other writers for permission to tell my stories even if doing so would potentially hurt someone else and cause rifts in long-standing relationships. Six years ago, I wasn’t yet brave enough to speak my truth. But, six years of weekly therapy and hard work have at last brought me to the place where I am able to choose myself and let others deal with their emotions about that their own way. I’ve learned that if telling my truth is problem for them, maybe they should address that in their own heart, that I don’t owe them protection when they didn’t protect me, that I don’t have to put them first when they didn’t put me first. It’s a powerful place to live when you finally decide that you are not responsible, despite what you have been told, for other people’s reactions to your choices. It’s not vindictive to tell your story. It’s life changing to give yourself permission to protect yourself from the people who have hurt you and to tell your stories because if they wanted to be remembered warmly, they should have behaved better.
I am not afraid of my past anymore. I’m not afraid of people being angry with me for telling my stories about it. I’m only afraid of living another day bound by tales about myself that were passed down to me by others that don’t define me and never did. Tell your stories, especially when they are controversial and difficult. Eventually, they will set you free.
“I had been deceived. The only thing that was ever wrong with me was my belief that there was something wrong with me.” ~Glennon Doyle