The Power of Storytelling Without Fear

“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

My Anne Lamott Dilemma

Image“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

I came upon this quote last year while reading Anne Lamott’s book about writing, Bird for Bird. It’s been traversing in and out of my head since then. It’s bold, brash, and unapologetic, like so many things Anne Lamott writes. Sadly, I am not Anne Lamott. And, as much as I love this statement, I’m paralyzed by it. It she actually suggesting that I write whatever I want without any concern about whom I might hurt in the process? To be honest, I’m not entirely sure if I’m that brazen yet. I’ve always been careful not to burn any bridges until I’m certain I don’t want to go back, and I don’t often find myself 100% certain about anything.

If my sister does something that irks me, is it honestly okay for me to blog about and then post to Facebook her transgression? I think I would hate it if tables were turned and my sister were the writer. I’d be scared to say or do anything around her for fear that I would end up as the next diatribe or anecdote in her blog. My sons already beg me not to write about things they’ve done. On a few occasions my husband, who is wholeheartedly supportive of my writing, requested I not share something he’s done. When does my right to tell my story outrank their right not to be lampooned on the World Wide Web?

Anne is right. These are my stories, and I should be able to tell them because as much as they belong to the others involved they also belong to me. I’ll be honest. I have a lot of kooky stories I could blog if I threw caution to the wind and ratted on the people in my life because my tribe is freaking crazy. I mean, of course they are. I am one of them. But just because they’re nutty doesn’t mean their privacy should be squandered.

So, I ask you. What is a writer to do? Am I honest and true to myself, my stories, my craft or am I fair and kind to my family and friends? If you’re a writer, how do you handle this? If you’re an unfortunate relative of a writer, how would you feel having your quirks and frailties littered across the internet?

I hope someday to be audacious enough to tell my stories. All of them. I guess between now and then I’ll have to figure out a way to do it without alienating people who matter. Or I’ll have to become such a skilled writer that I can craft a story so well that no one would dare dream of being offended by it.

I’m Not Coyote Chow

A bunny I saw on my morning walk. I see bunnies everywhere all of a sudden.
A bunny I saw on my morning walk. It was not thinking.

I’ve been sitting here for the past hour or so desperately trying to come up with something to write about. I flipped through all the tabs I set up in the Bunny Buddhism book, twice, looking for inspiration in the words that had touched me a couple days ago. I found none. The clock was banging away the minutes to midnight, and I was no closer to a theme for today’s entry. I was becoming increasingly stressed out about my impending failure a mere two days into my renewed pledge to write daily. I was just about to give up and write it off (at least I could write something that way) as being overtired when my eyes landed upon this quote on a page I had not marked:

It is better to hop than to think of hopping.

Well, crap. There it is in a nutshell. My problem. You see, I am a great thinker. I’m not exaggerating. I am really great at thinking. It’s my favorite thing to do. I’m curious and intellectually open-minded, happy to accept the world for all its grey matter (and not the black and white that others imagine exists). The problem is that sometimes I spend so much time trapped in my skull, thinking, weighing options, and organizing mental tidbits, that I run out of time to do something. In this way, I am perpetually paralyzed…too tangled in thought simply to be a human being and too overwhelmed by possibility to be a human doing. I am frozen and worthless.

I need to blow up today’s quote to poster size and mount to the wall in my office. Sometimes the best thing to do is tell the chattering monkeys in my mind to shut the hell up and then start hopping forward. I can worry about the quality of my written work after I’ve actually written something down. So just like the zoo keepers in Kansas City, tonight I decided to toss those chimps back into their enclosure so I could stop thinking about writing and just write. It doesn’t matter what I churn out. It’s the act of writing and not the thought of writing that makes a writer.

My friend Heather recently sent me this amazing book by Anne Lamott. In Bird by Bird, Anne, a published author many times over, confesses her own struggle with writer’s block.

“What I do at this point, as the panic mounts and the jungle drums begin beating and I realize that the well has run dry and that my future is behind me and I’m going to have to get a job only I’m completely unemployable, is to stop.”

I am gifted at stopping and declaring defeat before I even begin. And it helps to know that even well-known writers experience a jungle-drum-level fear of doom when they’re facing a deadline, self-imposed or otherwise. Sometimes we humans are our own worst enemies. I stress myself out so much about what I should say that I end up saying nothing…something I did most of the days last year. But that has got to stop. In time and with enough practice, I will spend less time thinking and more time producing. Not every day is going yield a worthwhile piece. Some days I might be fortunate to land squarely somewhere between schlock and drivel. But even schlock and drivel are a tangible result of effort, a venture out of my self-prescribed mental straitjacket. It’s a step (or hop) in the direction I want to head. A bunny that fails to hop ends up Coyote Chow. I’m not prolific yet, but I’m sure I’m not ready to be finished either.

What hops have you been missing?