Saturday, August 27, 2011


I’ve spent the past two and a half years searching for empowerment. I’ve looked everywhere – self-help books, religion, healthy habits, unhealthy habits, relationships, other people…you name it, I’ve tried it. It’s kind of like diets – I’ve tried just about every kind you could imagine, from cabbage soup to Scarsdale to Atkins to South Beach and everything in between. I’ve taken Dexatrim, fiber pills, Alli, and even Phen-Fen. Nothing worked, until I was ready to take responsibility for making the right choices. Once I admitted I had the power, losing weight was possible. Before that, I might as well have been trying to catch stars in a butterfly net.

So here I am, hanging out in a quiet house and enjoying the silence, reflecting on the fact that this is the two year anniversary of my divorce becoming final. Not to say that I got a divorce so I could be empowered – that is certainly not the case. But self-empowerment was a goal of mine as I left that relationship and entered life on my own. It was a dark time in my life and I was vulnerable, as those of you who read this blog already know. It was easy for me to be deceived and misled. I ended up in a bad relationship that took what self-esteem I had managed to gather and destroyed it just about completely. And that’s the problem with progress that comes from extraneous sources – it is given to us and can be taken from us very easily. It’s a cheap kind of empowerment, the kind that makes a mockery out of the amount of work it took for me to lose 130 pounds. But because I didn’t know what empowerment should look like, I didn’t recognize that what I had was a poor imitation of the real thing.

Yesterday, a friend of mine gifted me with a copy of Tapping the Power Within: A Path to Self-Empowerment for Women. Just the title reminded me of something I had forgotten – or maybe I had never known it in the first place: that empowerment, if it is to mean anything, must come from within.  So what does self-empowerment look like? How does it begin?

I’m not really sure, but I think I have an idea about that. I think it starts with love. Not love from an outside source – there’s nothing wrong with being loved, in fact, it’s great, but being loved by another can’t fill the emptiness that exists in the face of self-loathing, and that’s the way I’ve spent the bulk of my life. God adjures us to love our neighbors the same way we love ourselves, but it can also be said this way, “Love yourself the way you love your neighbor.” So, if I am to be good to my neighbor, I should also be good to myself. Please don’t mistake my statement for stupid self-indulgence, because that isn’t how I mean it. I don’t mean I should put myself before everyone else. I am talking about treating myself with kindness and respect. I don’t do that – how many of us really do?

If it is to begin, it must begin in me. I need to find a way to appreciate myself, to be compassionate with myself, to give myself loving kindness. I can’t rely on anyone else for this kind of nurturing. So I am making a pact with myself to learn self-love. I'm going to start by allowing myself to do things that I enjoy; yoga - meditation - prayer. Writing, singing, target-shooting; it may sound contrary to my nature, but I do love to shoot - and gardening. I'm the proud owner of a shovel now, and there are lots of plants out in the yard that need some attention. Wish me luck.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011


I’ve never believed I had a lot of choices in my life. As a child with three older siblings, I ended up with a lot of hand-me-downs. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it is difficult to develop a strong sense of your own likes and dislikes when most of what you own has been chosen by someone else. My first car was a Ford Maverick that had been wrecked by both my older sisters. I was really glad to get that car but it wouldn’t have been my first choice. My second car was chosen by my father – a Mercury Marquis that resembled nothing so much as a battleship – it was even the right color. When I was thirteen, I was invited to join a college-level math-and-science class that met on weekends, but my parents decided not to let me attend. I wasn't allowed to participate in sports or to join clubs that met outside school hours. And of course, sexual assault takes all your choices away. Some of these things may seem small, but as I aged without being allowed to form opinions or make decisions of my own, the ability to even know my own needs and wants gradually faded away.

I left home and got married when I was nineteen years old, and I transferred the decision-making power from my parents to my husband without so much as the blink of an eye. He didn’t always like it, but we both took it for granted that our marriage would be that way. I had never seen any other behavior modeled in any relationship. His approval was so important to me that I negated my own sense of self in order to become what he wanted, at least at first. Later on things changed between us and I became more autonomous, but neither of us really knew how to exist with each other once I was no longer agreeable to everything he did and wanted. It made for some deeply stressful times. Ultimately our marriage dissolved.

When we divorced, I promised myself that I would never again give away the power of decision. I would have the power to make my own choices. Sure, I would always give due consideration to what was best for my kids and the other important people in my life, but my own needs would also be a huge part of the equation. After all, only I can live my life. I was going to be kind and fair, but firm; I was going to make sure that my needs and ideas were an equal part of any relationship I entered. 

I went into the first relationship after my marriage with a very healthy set of boundaries only to have them torn down and destroyed by my abusive partner. Because I had always lived my life without choices, I had no defense against his controlling behavior. I believed him when he told me that it was selfish of me to want to know where we stood, to want him to talk to me before changing our plans, to want to know that he was going to be faithful. I had no clue about how to get my needs met, or even that it was okay to have needs. He trampled my rights and left my self-esteem shattered. The first time he hit me, I was so concerned about what would happen to him if I reported his abuse that I decided not to tell anyone. I was so numb and so convinced that I deserved the treatment he had given me that for months after that relationship ended, I had no boundaries or limits at all. I could ask for nothing. I could pursue no rights of my own; I had no concept of what that would even look like.

So here I am, more than a year later, and I am in a relationship that is mostly positive. The man I’m currently with is a good man; kind, loving, and intelligent. There are a lot of good things in the relationship, but - as with any coupling - there are also some negatives. For the past fifteen months, I’ve sold out my needs and behaviors to match what I felt he wanted. I’ve laid aside any notion of who I am so I can be the person he wants me to be. He has never asked for this – I did it so unobtrusively that neither of us had any idea what was going on. A recent incident opened my eyes to how completely I had subverted myself to him, and when he failed to reciprocate in even a small way by placing me first when I really needed him to, I realized that I had allowed and even encouraged him to ignore my needs and boundaries and to discount my feelings. I don't know how to start over in this relationship and be the person I am, instead of the one he wants me to be.

So, how do I stop doing this? How do I throw away a lifetime of training and behavior? How do I become the strong person I am determined to be? I am sick at the thought that I’ve done it again – why don’t I just get “WELCOME” tattooed on my forehead and be done with it? I’ve made myself into the most accommodating of doormats; go ahead, wipe your feet, I don’t mind. Maybe I stop by just stopping. Maybe it really is just a choice – one I’ve never been allowed to make before. Christians are encouraged to meet the needs of others before meeting their own, and women are often forced to do so. But I don’t believe that God wants me to be miserable, worried, and hurt. I don't believe that God intends for me to put myself dead last and to treat myself as if I don't matter. After all, it was God who told us "love your neighbor as you love yourself" - this assumes, of course, that you love yourself. I have never really loved myself or treated myself with compassion. Maybe it really is as easy as saying, “This time, I choose me.”

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

What Happens Next

It has been a difficult couple of weeks. Stress is cumulative, as I’m sure most of you know from experience. Take the stress of buying a new home, packing, and moving, and add the stress of an impending court case, the surety that somewhere out there is someone who wants to cause you harm and who cherishes his rage against you, and you have a recipe for total exhaustion. So last week, when I got news about the hearing from my attorney, it was a pleasant shock to find out that the communication sent from my abuser which broke the order of protection I got last year was apparently sent by mistake.

I sat at my desk, holding a letter from an online jobs-by-fax company, which was written “to whom it may concern”, that stated that my abuser had paid for their resume dissemination service, and that he had specified that no resume be sent to my work-place. The resume and cover letter I received was sent in error, the letter explained. It was all a misunderstanding. Upon reading this communication, I felt nothing but relief. My attorney asked me if I wanted to pursue charges or getting an extension on the order of protection, but I declined. It had always been my intention, I told her, to leave him alone if he left me alone. And according to the notice I held in my hands, he intended to leave me alone.

A weight left my shoulders then. It had been traumatic, seeing him again, being in close proximity – turning around while holding the gate in the courtroom for the next person and finding out that HE was the next person. Even with the knowledge that he did not send that fax on purpose, I’ve still been having nightmares about him. Last night, I was unable to sleep because my heat-pump stopped working and the house was hot and uncomfortable. Lying on the couch in the living room, I heard the sound of a car approaching. It slowed and came to a stop in front of the house. I sat up, checked the clock – 1:51 am. I had started to lie back down when I heard someone shouting – a high-pitched, male voice, screaming obscenities. I pulled back the curtain and looked out. The car was speeding away. It was small and dark, but I couldn’t make out any features. It could have been anyone, I guess, but it made me wonder…

I wonder why we never received another of these faxed job applications from anyone else, for example. I wonder why, the weekend before we received his resume, I saw him twice near the house where I was cat-sitting for a friend. I wonder why he was looking for work in an area two hours away from where he currently lives. I wonder…

I've said it before: once trust is destroyed, it is impossible not to question motives. Where my abuser is concerned the only things I believe in are his duplicity and the uncontrolled nature of his rage. I guess questioning is fruitless. Maybe I’ll never know what his intentions were – or if he had intentions at all. At this point, it’s just back to waiting to see what happens next.