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

The Tale of Two Bunnies

These two bunnies may resemble each other but they are unique in their bunniness.
These two bunnies may resemble each other in form, but at the end of the day they are unique in their bunniness.

I have two sons. Although there are some similarities between them, mothering these two boys forced me to acknowledge the universal parenting truth. Parenting is not a case of nurture versus nature, but rather a case of how you choose to nurture your child’s nature. Now the fact that I know this to be true should in no way imply that I understand how one actually achieves this goal of parenting differently in the best interest of each child’s personal growth. I struggle with this daily because, like most parents, I would like to believe that in a nod to fairness I love my sons in the same way and treat them equally. It’s just not true on a day-to-day basis. They’re different people. They have different strengths and weaknesses and present unique challenges and lessons to me as their mother. They are both easier to raise than their brother in some ways and more difficult to raise in others. It is what it is.

My oldest son, Joe, has moderate ADHD. What that means for him is that he is impetuous, has a hard time focusing on anything, and even though he often knows the “right” way to do something he usually forgets to do it. As a parent trying to teach him to function in the world, his struggle with working memory has been a plague upon us both. When he was very young, his lack of follow through was something I did not think much about. I wrote it off saying he hadn’t yet reached that developmental milestone. But by the time he was six and his four year old brother began following through on things and completing multi-step directions where his older brother could not, I knew something was amiss. Still not aware that his brain struggled with working memory and processing speed, which was why he could listen to me rattle off a short list of things to do and then not remember to do them, I wrote it off as his personality. Joe was forgetful. It was his nature. It was my job as parent to correct this error in his way of doing things. I hounded him. I repeated things until I was hoarse. I followed him around, riding rough-shod over every single thing I asked him to do to make sure he would do it. About this time in my parenting journey, I really could have used today’s Bunny Buddhism quote:

I cannot impose self-discipline upon other bunnies.

I cannot force Joe to behave the way I behave because he is not me and he never will be. His brain does not work as mine does. It is as unique and interesting as he is. And no amount of badgering, belittling, or begrudging will make him act in the disciplined way I wish he would (if only for the sake of his own well-being and sanity). Even if I nurture him by providing charts and introducing him to life hacks to work around his memory issues, this is his dragon to slay. He will take from me what his mind is willing to accept and use and in time he will find his own way through trial and error, peaks and pitfalls. Likewise, I will never be able to stop his brother Luke from chewing on his shirts and leaving holes as if a goat has been wearing them. I don’t understand why he does it, but I know I can’t make him self-disciplined enough to cease and desist. It’s just not happening.

Perhaps someday Joe will remember to hang up his towel and put his clothes in the hamper. Perhaps not. He is his own bunny. He needs to find his own way in his bunniness. I can nurture his nature, but I can’t affect the outcome. And to try to do this only damages the relationship we have. I have made my own bunny peace with Joe’s memory issues. Oh. I still make him come back upstairs to hang up the towel he left on my bathroom floor because, well…I’m not his slave. But I no longer think it is my duty to turn him into the towel-hanging kid his brother is. He’s a different bunny than his brother who chews shirts who, in turn, is a different bunny than me (the one whose mother tried unsuccessfully to stop her from biting her nails).

My journey to zen is aided daily by my children who are teaching me more than I will ever be able to teach them.