Monday, October 31, 2011

Miles and Years

Ah, could I lay me down in this long grass
And close my eyes, and let the quiet wind
Blow over me--I am so tired, so tired...

~ Edna St. Vincent Millay

This morning, the tallest tree in my back yard stretched its naked branches skyward and swayed in the wind. The last amber fragments of leaves spun free and swirled over the still-green grass before coming to rest in a drift of red-gold-brown piled against the fence. The dance of the leaves was beautiful, but now they just look weary and faded like the rest of the foliage that has fallen over the past few days. Today I feel about as substantial as those leaves - dry and wispy, as if a stiff breeze could carry me away.

It is October 31st, Halloween and also the end of domestic violence awareness month. I had intended to post at least five articles about intimate partner violence this month, but personal issues have intruded and I am left struggling to stay level. The difficulties I've been facing have forced me to take a long look at how far I've come in the past two years. I am not displeased at the progress I have made, but I still find myself at risk of sacrificing too much for other people. Love often demands sacrifice, and I am not adverse to reaching compromises, but all too often I find myself laying my desire for consistency and stability down on the altar of another's needs and wants. It is constant struggle to find some semblance of peace between the tension of the lives of others and my own. I don't think relationships should be this difficult, but it is all I have ever known; how do I find my footing on sinking sand?

If I had distance and perspective it would be easier. I could look at this situation from the outside like a stranger peeking in through a window, seeing life in snapshots and glimpses and making decisions with the comfortable surety that they could not really affect me. From the outside the choice is simple - I determine what I can and cannot live with and I act accordingly. But on the inside, I agonize over what those choices will do to people - real flesh-and-blood people whom I love. many times have I said that in order to love others we must love ourselves? It is finally time for me to think first about what my own unwillingness or inability to choose will do to me. I cannot afford to let my core be destroyed on someone else's altar. We are adjured to love others, to put others first - those of us who have been abused have not only been told to do so, we have been forced to, in the most painful of ways and because of this, acting in my own self-interest is well-nigh impossible for me. I have been preconditioned to feel selfish and evil when I even consider it. I have been taught to deny myself, to sacrifice all that I am so that others can have what they want in the moment, whatever that might be. The question is no longer "should I put myself first?" but has become "how can I reconcile a lifetime of learned behavior with this voice crying from my own inner wilderness that a straighter, better path must be made?"

Oh, but I am tired. My mind swirls like the early morning mist. My heart is withered and wasted with the struggle to find balance between myself and another. I know the journey is worthwhile but I am so tired; there may be miles and years ahead, but I can't bring myself to care. Like the leaves, I want to let go and just be carried away, to drift, and float, and fall...

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Courage to Change

There is a price that is too great to pay for peace…. One cannot pay the price of self-respect.” ~Woodrow Wilson
Those of you who read this blog know that I have been on a journey toward recovery, self-acceptance, and healing for the past year. In the process of that work, I have come across several valuable written resources. Some of them were given to me by friends, some I found through exploring the ideas of others, and some I just happened upon by chance. A small publication by Al-Anon which I recently read falls into the last category. I have never been to an Al-Anon meeting, though I would likely benefit from attending. I have been in relationships with alcoholics on and off for more than half my life, and my patterns of behavior, coping, and living have all been affected by alcoholism. While I was not specifically seeking assistance in dealing with those issues, something about the title of this book – Courage to Change – caught my eye. That spoke to me because it seems I sometimes lack the courage to make necessary changes in my life. The book is a collection of daily meditations or devotionals for use throughout the year. Some of the writings were meaningless to me, but others reached into my heart and brought comfort or challenge, like the following passage:
One of the first things I heard in Al-Anon was that we didn’t have to accept unacceptable behavior. This idea helped me to see that I need not tolerate violence or abuse, and that I had choices I hadn’t even recognized before. I set some limits, not to control others, but to offer myself guidelines so that I would know what was and was not acceptable and what to do about it.” (Courage to Change, 1992; p. 51)
This goes along with something that I learned while reading Boundaries by Drs Henry Cloud and John Townsend. You can love someone without loving his behaviors, and this love cannot be allowed to prevent you from having healthy boundaries that protect you and enrich your life. Setting limits is not a way to force others to change. It is not a refusal to share or show love. It is a means by which you keep you keep your identity and your sanity intact. Healthy people seem to do this without effort. I have never been able to set limits or boundaries in my relationships until now – and it is still extremely difficult.
The author of this particular meditation goes on to state that though she considered herself healthy these days, there was one person from whom she still accepted unacceptable behavior – herself. She berated and blamed herself for everything that went wrong and never gave herself credit for her efforts. She told herself how ugly, lazy, and stupid she was. Then she realized that those were things she would not say to someone she cared about and that she would not accept those words from anyone else. She learned to start treating herself as though she were a treasured friend. Only then was she assured that she was truly in recovery.
I have spoken before about how Christ’s command to “love your neighbor as yourself” is a double-edged one; it assumes that before we love our neighbor, we love ourselves. This is still the most difficult hurdle for me to cross. It is so much easier for me to love others, to give myself completely to someone else’s wants, and to forgive them for the most painful hurts while continually castigating myself for the least little imperfections that I often feel as though I have spent my life binding up the wounds of others while I slowly bleed to death. It is not enough to say that I won’t continue to do it – despite my best intentions, I still find myself falling back into the pattern of giving people what I know they want, even when it hurts me to do so.
What is the solution? There are plenty of days when I feel that it would be easier to withdraw from every relationship until I am healthy enough to set my boundaries and hold to them. Then I wonder if I will ever be that healthy. Will it simply be that I hold firm until I am faced by the challenge of someone else’s needs? In the face of someone else’s desire will I just collapse into the old habit of saying, “Do whatever you want, it doesn’t matter”? There is a part of me that knows that withdrawal is not the answer and that I don’t want to be alone for the rest of my life. Another part of me is so damned tired of the struggle to maintain my sense of self that it frankly doesn’t care if I have relationships or not. That part of me says it’s better to be alone than to feel used, hurt, and resentful. For a long time I seemed to be divided this way, with two modes of thought and no way to choose between them. But lately, as I’ve been working to heal, there is another way of thinking that is emerging. This other part of me recognizes that I have the right and the power to determine what goes on in my life, and if someone else’s behaviors are unacceptable then I do not have to accept them. I can draw a clear boundary that says, “You have the right to choose what you do, and I have the right to choose what I will tolerate. I will not tolerate this behavior.” This feels healthy to me, and yet it also frightens me terribly.
The fear stems from several sources, but the strongest is the abusive relationship I was in two years ago. In the beginning, my partner often said that he appreciated my independence and my desire for autonomy. Later on, he told me I had no rights in our relationship and that I was the most selfish person he had ever known. When I did try to assert myself in that relationship, the emotional abuse was immediate and horrific – diatribes and alcohol-fueled rants lasted for hours and at the end of the eight months I spent with him, the screaming sessions were interspersed with physical and sexual assaults. Now when I even think about saying “I choose not to tolerate this” my heart races and I tremble all over. Panic attacks and flashbacks threaten and in order to keep peace, I end up saying nothing at all. This is a kind of self-protection that is detrimental because it leaves me in anxiety over the things that I did not have the courage to change.
Nearly everyone is familiar with the Serenity Prayer and how it asks for the courage to change what can be changed along with the serenity to accept what cannot be altered. I know that I can't change what others choose to do - they are free to exercise their will in their own lives. Their choices are their own, just as my responses are mine to determine. Where they are unhealthy I must change them – now I just need to find the courage to do it.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Stop Ignoring - Start Acting

Domestic violence isn’t easy to understand. From the outsiders' point of view, it just makes no sense that someone would stay with and continue to love and protect an abusive partner. From the insider's point of view, there's a whole host of fears interlaced with shame, hurt, and longing which keep us enmeshed in a web of deceit and pain. It is possible to love someone when you do not love their behaviors or actions, and love doesn't just go away because someone is cruel or abusive. For these reasons a culture of myth and secrecy has grown around domestic violence and society perpetuates these secrets and lies with comments like:
   “It’s none of my business.”
   “That’s between the two of them – it has nothing to do with me.”
   “A man has the right to keep the peace in his own home.”
   “It only happens every now and then, and only in lower class families.”
   “She must like it, or she’d leave.”
   “He says she provokes him.”

What would the world be like if we told the truth about domestic violence?
   “I’m afraid for her safety.”
   “I could do something to help.”
   “No one has the right to harm someone else.”
   “It can happen to anyone.”
   “She doesn’t leave because there’s no one to help her, no one to keep her safe.”
   “He should practice self-control instead of hitting when he’s angry.”

This October, commit to looking at domestic violence in a different way. Don’t turn a blind eye to the victims. Don’t ignore what you witness. Domestic violence happens to one in three women, and one in fifteen men. Chances are that you know someone right now who is suffering or has suffered. Ask what you can do to help. Here are some ways to start:
   “I’m afraid for your safety, and for your kids.”
   “It’s only going to get worse.”
   “I’m here for you. What can I do to make this better?”
   “I can help you find somewhere to stay.”
   “You deserve better treatment than this.”
   “Let’s make a safety plan for you.”

Get a list of the shelters and helping organizations in your area. The information is readily available with a quick Internet search. Get a list of phone numbers for crisis lines – 1-800-799-SAFE is a good place to start. Be willing to listen and be supportive, not judgmental. You don’t know what kind of hell the victim is living with – she may have been hearing for years that she isn’t worth helping, isn’t worth saving. She may believe it. Yours may be the voice of reason that cuts through the destruction in her life and makes her know that she is worthwhile and that someone cares. Stop ignoring. Start acting. Someone's life may depend on it.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Be the Change

"If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor."
~ Archbishop Desmond Tutu
"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."
~ Dr Martin Luther King, Jr.

Our culture is one that promotes violence. Turn on network TV at any point during prime-time and you're bound to see half a dozen murders, beatings, muggings, or rapes before the 11:00 news comes on. We are enured to violence. Once we have become desensitized, it is hard to care about the neighbor in the apartment next door, even when we hear her crying at one in the morning because her boyfriend just punched her in the mouth. We may see the bruises but until we feel them, the pain we witness is remote and doesn't have any impact. In the same way we are able to sit comfortably at home with a bowl of chips and salsa and watch news reports about the starving people in Somalia. Their pain is miles away - it is meaningless because it cannot affect us. It cannot touch us.

Our society happily enslaves millions of people just so we can have conveniences like ready-made clothing, designer-knock-off purses, and discount stores where we can pick up a case of beer anytime, day or night. If we stop to give thought to the plight of the ten year old workers in Indonesia who made our fake Prada bags, we often smugly state that they must be grateful for the money they earn. Never mind the fact that in some factories in some parts of the world, children whose thigh-bones are broken so they can't run away are forced to sit and sew those purses that we paid $30 for. Never mind the fact that workers the world over go home to starving families subsisting in tar-paper and tin shacks and know that even the money they earn with their eighteen hour work-days can't feed their kids and their aging parents too. We live as if it is only our comfort and needs that matter.

So what does this have to do with violence against women? After all, that's my usual subject. Well, in a word - everything. When we refuse to fight oppression, we give license to the oppressors. When we turn a blind eye to evil, we are propagating evil. When we ignore the neighbor who sits on her porch, staring blankly out through swollen, bruised eyelids because it isn't our place to say or do anything about her suffering, then we might as well throw the next punch.

October is domestic violence awareness month. I've thought for a while now about what I should post to help raise awareness, make my readers think about intimate partner abuse and what it does to people, but I confess that until this afternoon, I've had trouble deciding what to say. Not because I have run out of words; not because everything that there is to say has been said, but because it seems like an uphill battle and just now, I am really tired of fighting and climbing. I'm tired of trying to make a difference in a world that doesn't seem to give a damn. I'm tired of working to change attitudes and then watching commercials where women in bikinis are used to sell everything from cars to cheeseburgers as if their bodies were just another commodity to be bought, sold, or traded. But if those of us who have suffered do not use our experiences to bring light into the darkness, then who will? The media? The government? The church?

No - it is individual voices that begin to affect change. It is up to us - to me and to you - to raise our voices in solidarity until society can no longer ignore what we are saying. In every situation of injustice, if those of us who see and understand choose to remain silent, then we join the oppressors and the enemies of humanity. Your cause may not be the same as mine, but whatever you believe in, don't make the mistake of staying silent because it "isn't your place" to speak up. Speak up! Be heard! Do not be silent about the things that matter. Victims of all kinds need you, because their voices and their choices have been taken away. We must live the change we look for - if we don't, then who will?