Sunday, January 30, 2011

Life-Defining Change: Understanding Transition

I have an excellent memory. With very little trouble I can drill down and recall days from my childhood which have no seeming significance, and remember with photographic quality what I wore, who was with me, what was said, and how my surroundings looked. Not every single day exists this way in my memory, but the ones that do are like snapshots; they are touchstones for me and I can follow them backward from this moment and deep into my past. Sometimes these memories and moments are meaningless. Sometimes they are heavy with consequence and I can see in those recollections that at that space in time, my life took a divergent path from the one I had been following.

My salvation experience was like that, not only because I was “saved” or because I accepted Christ, but because of a dream I had that night, which changed my understanding of God forever. After having made my way to the altar that morning at church – the first time I had been inside a house of God since early childhood – I had knelt and prayed for forgiveness and acceptance. I went to a Baptist church then, and the accompanying commotion shamed and frightened me, but I could not ignore the call I had felt. I came home feeling ambiguous about the experience; glad that I had made peace with God, but wondering at the crying, the shaking, and the hugging that came afterward, much like I expected people would greet miners who had spent months trapped underground before coming up into the sunlight in a daring escape from darkness. I did not feel that way myself – for me, going down to that altar was more like finding my way home. That night, I dreamed that I was riding my bike down a narrow, rutted road toward my father’s barn, which had been built the previous summer. The weather was hot but it was late evening and the light slanted in golden shafts through the trees. I could smell hay and green, growing things, and as I rode forward, I saw a man walking toward me. Behind him, a crowd of people trailed through the long grass. I felt that I knew some of these faces but I couldn’t pay much attention to them, because the man was the center of this vision and beside him, all else paled and began to fade. He was a conventional-looking Jesus; dressed in blue and white robes, with long brown hair and a beard, but instead of the sorrowful face I had seen in so many paintings, this man was laughing. His smile was broad and genuine and as I dropped my bike and ran toward him, his arms opened wide. He caught me up in an embrace and I could feel the rough beard against my cheek and ear as he whispered, “I am so glad you came home.”

That dream shaped my faith. There was no judgment in the Christ I met on the road that night, only acceptance, joy, and love. And though I spent the next three years attending a church whose views and traditions were harsh and unyielding, my vision of God never altered. That moment of meeting was, for me, life-defining. It was what sent me out of the Baptist faith and kept me searching and believing through years of pain and hardship. It brought me to an understanding of my own role as a child of God. Though I have often struggled with myself and what it is God might want from me, that moment is a touchstone, a talisman, and I come back to it when I feel myself beginning to forget the joy I felt at that moment of ultimate love and acceptance, of knowing that I had found where I belonged.

That was not the only faith-based transition I experienced, but it was probably the most profound. There have been other important moments of transformation and decision. I can recall a significant day in June 2007, when I sat at my kitchen table on a Saturday morning drinking a cup of coffee and knowing that I could not wait for life to find me any longer – knowing that life was passing me by. I had been waiting for what seemed like forever for some unknown, mysterious sign that I was ready to become what I was meant to be. Like a caterpillar in the stasis of the cocoon, I waited to be transformed. But that morning, I thought about things I wanted to do and could not do because of my fears and the condition my body was in – a condition of my own deliberate making. I faced the long chain of bad decisions I had made and tracked them to their source – a moment in time where choices were taken from me along with my innocence and my sense of self-worth. I sat at my kitchen table and I faced the fact that not only had I been sexually assaulted, but I had allowed that experience to shape my view of myself and what I felt I could do with my future. That moment when I was thirteen years old had an impact that rippled across twenty-two years of existence. That event of pain and humiliation had altered the course of my existence. It was a life-defining change.

My decision that morning over coffee brought me down another path. On this road, I accepted my responsibility toward my body and began working to repair the damage I had deliberately done. Gaining over one hundred pounds had made me feel safe; the fat was my armor against male sexual interest and the possibility of another rape. The idea of taking off that armor was terrifying, but I was through waiting. The process was painstaking and still is, but most of the excess weight is gone. Still, this transition isn’t only about my body. It is also about my mind and my spirit – learning how to see myself as a whole person rather than one who is irrevocably shattered is taking time. Integrating my spirit-self with my corporeal-self is also taking time; I have felt for so long that my spirit inhabits my body the way I inhabit my house that it is difficult to see the two parts as one blended entity. Difficult, but necessary – the disconnection between my physical and spiritual selves has been catastrophic in its consequences; it is what allowed me to mistreat myself so terribly, to bond with an abusive partner and to accept that abuse as normal, and then to make detrimental choices around my coping strategies as I left that relationship and began trying to heal.

It has been said that life is made up of transitions – from infancy to childhood, from childhood to adolescence, from adolescence to adulthood and independence, from independence to the infirmity of old age, there is never really a time in our lives when we are in stasis. We may not perceive the transitions or understand the anxiety that surrounds them – we may be in a vague state of mental or emotional unrest but will usually attribute those feelings of restlessness or nervousness to stress. And we are right, of course, but most of us never come to place where we dig deeper, trying to find the source. Change is a fact of our existence, but we disregard it unless it takes a shape we cannot ignore. We live on a planet in a Universe that is always in flux, where anything can happen to anyone at any time, but we comfort ourselves with the illusion that we are safe, that we are secure, and that if we only behave in a certain way, most bad things will pass us by. Most of us have no concept of a reality that is entirely fluid, where even our best intentions and protections will ultimately fail. A better way is to embrace the transitions, to know that they are the fabric of our lives and that our stories are written and rewritten by the choices we make in relation to those instances, especially the big ones – the seismic moments of life-defining change.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Stalking: How to Recognize It, How to Survive It

I became aware that I was being stalked when I woke up one morning last January at a friend’s house, my cell-phone ringing with a number that I recognized and dreaded seeing. My ex, whom I had asked repeatedly not to call me anymore, was calling again. It was becoming a regular occurrence. My stomach clenched – heart racing, I looked at my friend and said, “Why does he keep calling me?! I’ve asked him to stop over and over and he keeps saying he won’t call anymore – I hate this!”

My friend considered for a moment, then said, “Is there a pattern to the calls? Does he call at certain times?” I thought about it.

“Well, not really. He called while I was at the mall last week, and he called while I was working late the week before. But the times and days were different.” The phone stopped ringing and I sighed in relief. After just a few seconds of silence, the text-message alert started going off. Same number. Feeling sick, I read through the message.

Sorry to bother you, it said. I don't blame you for not answering my calls. I’m having a computer problem and it’s snowy and I don’t want to drive anywhere today. Nothing’s open anyway because it’s Saturday. I thought you might be able to tell me how to fix it. I won’t bother you anymore.

“So he’s calling and texting you when you aren’t home,” my friend said. “How does he know you aren’t home?”

At that point, I lived only a block or so away from my ex, but he would have had to drive out of his way to pass my place. During most of that summer and part of the fall, we had often stayed together at his house, though I’d always kept my apartment. The relationship had become horribly abusive, beginning with emotional and mental abuse and ending with physical and sexual assaults and death threats. I had finally gathered up the courage to leave him after he had held a knife to my throat and tried to wreck the car and kill both of us while driving during a snowstorm. That had been a month before, and though he continually assured me that this would be "the last time", he was still calling me.

“Oh my God,” I said, sitting down. My head was spinning and I felt dizzy and cold. “He’s driving by my house…checking to see when I’m there.”

My friend, who is a former police officer with a degree in criminal justice, nodded. “And anytime you aren’t home, he’s calling to see what you’re doing. He may be checking up on you two or three times a day. Or more. Does he know where you work?”

Yes, he knew where I worked. He had visited me there many times when we were still together. My place of employment was an hour away from where we both lived, though, and the realization that my abuser was driving by my house gave me the impetus I needed to make a decision I’d been tossing around. “That’s it,” I said. “I’m moving.”

That was January 30th, 2010. I went home and blocked him from being able to call my phone again. Over the course of the next week, I had blocked him from contacting me by email and on Facebook and MySpace. I got some hang-up calls from a number I didn’t recognize, so I blocked it, too. Finally, the calls stopped. By the end of February, I had relocated to a townhouse apartment very near my job. I moved in on a Friday, working through the entire weekend to vacate my other place. By Sunday night, I was exhausted but relieved to be so far away from my ex. The tension of living near the man who had hit me and threatened to kill me had been greater than I had realized, even before I knew he was keeping tabs on me. I had numbed myself to the fear for so long that I still couldn’t really feel it – instead, I just felt glad to be starting over in a new place. That Monday morning I woke to a light covering of snow. I looked out my front door at 7 in the morning and noticed footprints on the stairs leading up to my apartment. Mine was the only door reached by those steps. The prints came to the top of the stairs and halted there, under my bedroom window. I recognized the treads – they were his shoes. But that was ridiculous...wasn't it? How could he have found me so fast? I pushed it out of my mind and as the days went by with no further sightings or foot-marks, I began to relax.

A month went by. It was peaceful and I felt as if I was settling into my new house. It was so close to work that I could go home over lunch. On April 5th, I was pulling out of my parking lot when I saw a familiar car sitting at the bank across the street. Small. Black. Out of town dealer’s plate on the front. I knew it was him even before I saw his face -- one look at the driver confirmed it. It was my abuser.

He pulled out behind me and I hurried into the parking lot at work. I was relieved when he drove past instead of continuing to follow me. For the rest of the week, I kept looking over my shoulder, but didn’t see him. Then, on April 20th, I left the building for lunch and his car was in the parking lot. Looking around, I saw him standing at the door of the book-store located in the same building where I worked. He was looking at me.

I left work but didn’t go home. Instead, I drove and I cried. Why was he doing this? What did he want? Back at work, later on, I talked to a friend and she advised me to call the police and report it. I was reluctant, but by the next morning I felt so disturbed by his behavior that I did call the local police department. They assigned an officer to give me more information, and promised that he would call me soon. Sure enough, after about fifteen minutes had passed, my cell phone rang. I explained what was going on and the police officer shocked me when he said, “So you’re being stalked.”

I was surprised -- I hadn’t thought of what was happening to me as stalking. The officer told me that the best thing I could do was to file for an order of protection. After he had some more information about how abusive the relationship had been, he urged me not to wait, but to file for the protective order right away. I didn’t take his advice until another two months had passed, mostly because I could hardly believe that I was being stalked. I mean, what if I was wrong? What if my ex’s intentions were entirely innocent? It took seeing him at my workplace a couple more times, seeing him driving up and down the road in front of my home, and him turning up at my work on a Saturday to convince me that I needed to do something. I filed for the order of protection on May 28th – on my way to the courthouse to fill out the paperwork, I saw him less than a block from my work-place again, for the second time that week.
I got my order of protection after punctured tires, destroyed property, a private investigator hired by my ex, and two-hour hearing that was indescribably awful. Since then, my ex appealed the protective order and then dropped the appeal the day before we were to go to court. That was in August 2010. There has been no further destruction of my property, and I have only seen him once since that time; he did not try to make contact. I worry about what will happen when the order expires this July, but I will have to deal with that as it comes.

Because I didn’t recognize my ex’s behavior as stalking, I was reluctant to file for the protective order. I put up with being followed, being watched, and feeling unsafe and fearful because I didn’t know what constituted stalking. I want others to be able to recognize their danger before things get out of control – here is some information about stalking, including the legal definition in the state of Tennessee.

Stalking is a pattern of conduct composed of a series of two or more noncontinuous acts which show a continuity of purpose, which cause significant emotional or mental suffering or distress, and which may include but is not limited to repeated unwanted contact. Stalking is the repeated or continuing harassment of another that would cause a reasonable person to feel frightened, intimidated, threatened, or terrorized. This behavior includes following or appearing within the sight of that person, approaching or confronting that person, whether on private or public property, appearing at that person’s workplace or residence, contacting that person by phone, mail, or electronic means, or appearing or placing an object upon property leased, owned, or occupied by that person (Stalking Resource Center, 2011).

Stalking is a Class A misdemeanor in the State of Tennessee. Aggravated Stalking is a Class E Felony in Tennessee and is distinguished from Stalking by the presence of a weapon, the age of the victim (under 18) related to the age of the stalker, if the stalker has a previous conviction of stalking within seven years of the current offense, if the stalker makes a credible threat to the victim or the victim’s family, or if the stalker was prohibited from coming near the victim by any legal means. There are other levels of offense, and the punishment is different depending on the severity of the crime. Yes! Stalking is a crime, and is punishable by law (Stalking Resource Center, 2011).

Over three million people over the age of 18 are stalked in the US each year. Three out of four of those are stalked by someone they know. Thirty percent of stalking victims are stalked by a current or former intimate partner – this is what happened to me. And while men do stalk men, and women also stalk women and men, more often, it is men who stalk women. Seventy six percent of intimate partner femicide* victims have been stalked by their partner, and of these, 67% have been physically abused by their partner. Eighty nine percent of femicide victims who were physically assaulted were also stalked in the twelve months before their murder, and 54% of these victims reported the stalking to police before they were killed by their stalkers (McFarlane et al., 1999).

Stalking is a crime in all 50 states, including the District of Columbia and all US Territories. In only 1/3 of states is it a felony as a first offense, but as discussed above, there are aggravating circumstances that make the crime more severe.

So – what do you do if you’re being stalked? You call the police. Odds are you’ll be advised to file for an order of protection, like I was. Of course, this is going to depend on whether your stalker has contacted or threatened you, and there will be other factors that also have impact. You can also visit your local Legal Aid Agency. Legal Aid will usually consult with you for free before you file for a protective or restraining order. They can tell you what the process is like and can provide you with free legal representation if you need to appear in court. Also document every incidence as it occurs. Take pictures if you can; tell people right away if you see your stalker. Point him or her out to friends so they can witness for you in court. Report each incidence of contact or stalking to the police and ask them to keep records and file reports – also ask them for copies; you’ll have to pick these up and there’s usually a very small document origination fee that you’ll have to pay. Know that the law is on your side and that there are protective measures you can take. Also be aware that no piece of paper will stop someone who is determined to hurt you. Prepare accordingly – be vigilant. Remember that ultimately, you are your best protection.

*Femicide: The murder of a woman; distinguished here because these statistics apply only to women murdered by intimate partners.


National Center for Victims of Crime. (2011) Stalking Resource Center. Retrieved January 26, 2011 from

McFarlane, Judith, et al. (1999). Stalking and Intimate Partner Femicide. Homicide Studies 3, no. 4. Retrieved January 26, 2011 from

The author’s own experiences.


I went walking in the woods today. All through the spring, summer, and fall, I walked those trails until they were so familiar that I could walk them in the dark – and did, on a couple of occasions. This was the first time I had seen these woods in winter. The landscape was changed by the absence of vegetation – the forest, once so close and thick, was laid bare by the cold. Thickets rendered impenetrable by summer growth were open and passable. I wandered between naked trunks and enjoyed passing through places I’d never explored before. But after a while, I got a sense of pushing through places where I didn’t belong. The quiet was thick and there were no other human footprints in the snow that remained between the trunks where I was walking. The braided streams that crossed through the woods sparkled in the sunlight and the air was cold and clear. Where vining undergrowth remained, I could hear small scrabblings in the brush as tiny birds searched for seeds. From the river came the sound of Canadian geese – as cold as it is here now, for them, this is a haven. Refuge.

Over a year ago on a night of cold and heavy snow, I found myself seeking refuge. The love I had believed was a safe-haven had become a prison-camp; emotional and occasionally physical torture had become the routine of my days. There came a night when I reached the limit of my ability to absorb his punishment. I remember leaving his house without even a coat, shivering in my car as I let the engine run because the ice and snow was so thick on the windshield that I could not see to drive. I watched the door of his house through the car window; he stood in the doorway, watching me. If he had believed that I would actually go, he never would have let me leave – I know that. But he believed that I was earthbound, tied to him so tightly that it didn’t matter what he did to me, I would always remain. He did not know the power of brokenness; when a person has nothing to lose, there is no risk in even the most difficult actions. Like a wild bird in flight, I broke all bonds and sought a better climate. It was a hard flight, and I almost didn’t make it. But I finally found a place to land; a refuge of my own making. Like the geese, I found a harbor, and even if it was cold and not what I was used to, it was better than the place I left behind.

Today, I stood among the naked trunks, listening to the voices of the woods. Like me, the forest itself is in retreat, on the run from those who seek to overmaster or destroy it. The winter-wood has no defense – its inner ways and paths are laid bare by the season. There is a vulnerability there that I recognize in myself. The woods in winter are as defenseless and ultimately as penetrable as an open, unguarded heart. Perhaps its only protection is the stark emptiness of the landscape; a cold and bleak terrain that is uninviting and somehow immune to trespass. I look at myself and I recognize the struggle that I have with myself – I have done so much damage to my body in order to be unattractive and protected that I wonder if I will ever be able repair it. I am trying – making healthier choices regarding food and exercise, but when the old fear rises my first line of defense seems to be weight gain. My goal is to replace this detrimental method of coping and protection with something more healthful, which will actually improve my life and my safety. No more running – from this point on, I stand my ground.

Monday, January 10, 2011


Once upon a time, one of my favorite things to do was to stand outside when snow was falling and still myself, quieting my thoughts and even my breath, until I could hear the sound the snow made as it fell – an endless, velvet whisper, both soft and cold. I recall a day over fourteen years ago, before I had children, when I went walking in the woods alone as fat flakes drifted down. I struck an old tractor road and stood in one of the ruts, looking skyward, feeling the crystals settle on my lashes, my eyes, my lips. I was far enough from civilization that there were no other sounds – it was simply me, and the cold, and the snow. I concentrated on that whisper of falling – falling – falling… I concentrated on it and let the cold embrace me until I was no longer aware of my own body except as a conduit for the sound of the snow. After a time, I felt absolutely nothing, not even the flakes as they landed on my skin. It was the perfect disconnect; total escape from the body I had learned to hate. I felt nothing; I was entirely free from physical sensation. Even my emotions were frozen. I had brought my pain out into the frigid air and had walked for hours, trying to leave it behind. That one act of stopping, standing, stilling myself and listening, accomplished what nothing else could. I was empty, and nothing came rushing to fill me up.

I learned to be still. I learned to be quiet. I learned how to empty myself and how to keep the emptiness intact as the world came prying, pushing, trying to fill me. I learned how to contain myself no matter what the situation, no matter what the stimuli. I learned how to freeze and listen for that sound, so quiet that if you even breathe you miss it. But the world finally intruded, as it always does – the world is stronger than anyone’s will. Children, marriage, work, school…the art of being still was lost in the day to day scramble just to get by. My soul sickened. Life ran over and through me, but I had achieved a different kind of numbness – the kind you feel when circulation is cut off and blood just isn’t flowing. I started to die – literally, my body was perishing and I was helping it along with the choices I made. One thing led to another until I was thirty-six years old, three hundred pounds, pre-diabetic, with popping knees, aching arches, and chest pains. The body I hated was almost destroyed.

So what happened? Why did I wake up one day and pull myself back from the brink? Honestly – I still don’t have an answer. Was it a God-moment? I don’t know. I do know that there came a day when I decided I wanted to live. And I began to repair the damage I had willfully done through my choices. Two years later, my body was thriving. My soul was still sick, but I didn’t know it. I had managed another kind of disconnect, one that left me fully awake and aware physically but disconnected from Spirit. And the most tragic thing about it was that I thought I was okay; I read devotionals, wrote them, prayed, read verses each day. But I was like the man who prayed loudly on the street corner – so loudly that I could not hear the whisper anymore. I couldn’t have heard it even if it was a scream.

I made more choices – physically good, spiritually bad. I tore down my life and rebuilt it around someone who was cruel and exploitive, who used me for the affirmation he simply couldn’t give himself. There came a point when I finally managed an emotional disconnect from the situation; once he realized I was slipping away, he added physical abuse to the emotional beatings. He thought nothing he did to me would ever make me leave. He was wrong. I finally woke up and understood his evil and his weakness, and that gave me the strength to break the ties and free myself. It was hard and the apathy I still felt toward myself stalled the process; he begged for forgiveness and another chance and I almost broke. I believe there was another God-moment then; it was January 2nd, 2010, when he called and begged again to have another chance, asking me what I wanted from him. I heard myself saying that I wanted nothing except to be left alone. There would be no further chances. When I hung up the phone that day, I felt free. It was over, and it was time to be about the business of healing.

But it isn’t that simple, is it?

Last year was hell. Yes, I was free from my abuser, I was no longer being hurt, but I was still caged by the memories of the abuse, by the flashbacks that I could not control. I still had not learned how to be on my own, how to be content with myself. It was something I had always had before – solitude was golden, silence was a balm for my soul. But not last year… Last year the silence was gray and thick and dark. The silence was cold and empty. If I could have remembered how to still myself and listen, maybe it would have been better. But I couldn’t, I was frantic for human voices, for the world; I needed to be filled. I was void when I was alone; I might as well have been dead. I filled the emptiness with people and with physicality. I filled it with food and with alcohol. But the pain grew and nothing I tried was helping. I could not find a quiet place to stand and listen. The cage door was open but I was held back by my chains, and by people who loved me but could not release me.

The turning point came on Thanksgiving morning, when I awoke in the darkness and silence, alone, and comfortable with the solitude. My soul took flight – a rushing, streaming banshee -- I found a place outside myself and for the first time in a seeming eternity, I was able to be quiet. To be still.

My wilderness journey has taken a turn into the deepest part of the wild wood. Here there is a long, narrow path, bordered with gray trunks like pillars in a cathedral of stone where only I worship. The quiet is total. The air is cold, the sky lowers. It is heavy with the promise of snow. I am still, even my breath is silent. I am waiting for the whispered sound of snowflakes falling - falling - falling…