Nine years ago I left an abusive marriage, through which I'd had a daughter. Though I'd done as much as I thought I could for around two years to try and help improve the situation (we were together longer than that, things didn't start out explicitly abusive), it finally became clear that nothing in the relationship was getting better (except perhaps overall financial gain), and in fact my life was becoming both more closed-off, and less safe. When I initiated the attempt to have a reasonable discussion about he and I splitting up, he first responded by being far too reasonable (which was freaky), and then by threatening me. As a result, I stalled on my departure, and then left a month later without him knowing that was what I was doing. The little one and I were just going to visit my family, as far as he knew, but in actuality we left without our things and never returned. It was several months before he finally called and asked if I was ever going back. Around two years later I managed to secure full legal and physical custody of the now-ten year old, and we've never had contact with him again.
The truth is I still feel ill in my body when this conversation comes up, like a rush of lactic acid has fallen into my limbs. I stopped screaming in my sleep last year, and my claustrophobia faded a few years ago, though I'm still touchy about people putting hands on my face. I haven't "seen" him around town during stress for a couple of years. That is, when I was stressed out I used to hallucinate other people that happened to be walking around town looking just like him, or seeming to be him. I'd know they weren't actually him (though in the first couple years of this happening I wouldn't be sure), but nonetheless their facial features would morph into his somehow. Just to be clear, it wasn't just anyone that would look like him to me, it was only men that did bear some kind of general resemblance to his appearance. This kind of hallucination I haven't had in a couple of years. In fact, for the most part, people that know me are surprised such things ever come up, because to them I look to be generally well-adjusted. Honestly, I think I probably am too. It's just that I've also had various stress symptoms to face after escaping an admittedly difficult situation.
Even with these various symptoms going away, more recently I've started dreaming about him as a kind of warning when my intuition is telling me something in my life isn't quite right for me. This is something I'm not entirely comfortable with, but at the same time I realize there is a great gift in having such a clear way to communicate such a message to myself --there is a situation that needs serious change, here's a dream about a time in your life you seriously changed to point that out.
The ten-year old and I have been going through our house getting rid of things, and rearranging the furniture. Yesterday, in the middle of my hanging in the kitchen a purple paper star light a friend from Alaska gave us for the holidays, the ten-year old walked into the kitchen and interrupted me, holding a photograph and emphatically saying, "THAT is my momma!" (pointing at the image of me). It was the wedding portrait from the marriage I've just described. So, there I was in the picture, holding some flowers, and beside me was the man I'd had the ten-year old with. I'd had no idea we still had such an image in the house, though I never got rid of photo albums from that time because I wanted the ten-year old to be able to see them when or if she ever wanted. But an actual wedding portrait I just didn't remember us owning. I asked her if she knew what the picture was. She didn't, having assumed it was from a different event than the marriage to her biological father. I explained to her what it actually was --a picture of me, and the man that helped her be born, gave her a hug, told her she could keep the picture if she wanted, adding that I'd rather though it wasn't on display in her room. Then, after making sure she was adjusting to the information okay, I asked if she could let me finish hanging the star while she went back to work on her room. The truth was I felt completely sick, shocked to see a picture of me willingly marrying the man I'd later have to run away from, leaving quite literally with the child we'd had together in my arms.
I finished hanging up the star, making a point of doing yoga style breathing to help get the lactic acid feeling out of my limbs. Then after feeling calmer again, I called to the ten-year old and asked if she'd come out so we could talk for a bit.
Something I'm sure of is that the man I had the ten-year old with loved us both very much. I have no doubt that he wanted us to be married, to be a family, and wanted our daughter to be born. I believe too that he tried about as hard as he could to be good in the ways he would need to be for all of that to happen. I think in the end having a family, and feeling like he was in charge of a family staying together was too much pressure for him. It's important to me that the ten-year old understands how much he loved/s her, and me too, and that I offer her a way to make healthy sense of a horrible situation. In many ways it's an awful thing that I lived through something I thought could kill me, that marriage, and that I had to go through literal escape to survive it. I can't pretend there is anything about that situation I could easily relive if given the choice of whether or not to redo my life. I also, though, can't ignore how much that situation, and all I've had to do since, quite simply has shaped me as a person and given me abilities I could never give up.
The ten-year old and I talked about somethings we've talked over before --there are two ways a person could have parents. Because they helped you be born, or because they help you grow up. I'm her mom for both reasons. She has a father that helped her be born, but isn't helping her grow up. And she has lots of people in her life that love her and help her grow up in a variety of ways. I have friends that joke they're the corrupting influences, for example. Our good friend Marcus she thinks of as the man that helps her grow up, even as he and his wife live four hours south of us in a different town. She goes to stay with them for a week or two at different points in the year, and they talk on the phone about her life every couple of weeks. This has been true since she was a toddler.
I also reminded her of everything I said about her birth father loving us, wanting us to be a family, and wanting her to be born. And then we talked about something that I think is often harder for many of us to understand --that someone can love us with such certainty, and yet not be able to treat us well even so.
The ten-year old and I talked over how some people don't have very good self control. They don't know how to decide how they want to behave, and then actually behave that way. And that there are times when I'm firm with her, when she tells me she can't do something, and I tell her to just take some time and do it anyway. I explained that I do this because I can tell (some of the time) when she'll be able to actually accomplish something on her own, even though it feels hard, and that I want her to know for herself that is true by experiencing it. That she'll develop that skill by actually doing it, so that over time she can learn to judge for herself when she's capable of something even though it feels hard. That I believe it is in understanding how much we are capable of, even in the face of difficulty, that gives us the genuine opportunity to choose what we will do, and who we will be. That I want her to have the opportunity to live in that sort of genuine freedom. Then we talked through how even though her father loved/s us he didn't have the self control to treat us well, and that meant he wasn't able to take very good care of us. So, to take care of us I had to help us both leave.
The ten-year old listened closely, and tears fell on her face a little, but she also told me she understood. She said that she can know that people can want good things, they can feel good things too, but they might not be able to act in good ways. But what that means is we can look at people and see when they want to be good (in whatever ways they might mean --they might want to be nice to others, they might want to be successful, they might want to be and have good friends, as examples), and compassionately support what they want to be, while also having the clarity to see when their behavior means they aren't actually being those good things.
The balance then is in willingly loving others for who they honestly are (in both their best hoped for wishes, and the ways they struggle to meet them), while knowing in what ways they can be trusted by us, and in what ways they perhaps can't (because of how they do not fulfill their own best intentions). Loving them would also seem to mean operating with the kind of genuine discernment this implies --that is, recognizing when someone does or does not follow through on things in their life, while also supporting who they want to be, even in the midst of such a mismatch of intention and action. This is one of the trickier tasks of friendship, I suspect --being able to honestly love and support each other with a clear vision of how we tend to be, while at the same time not pre-judging that our limitations (the things we tend not to be able to do) simply do predetermine how we will behave. Thus, holding for each other the possibility to be that person that is and has learned how to be who we want to be.
To put it a different way, in loving each other, we must care for ourselves by understanding how our friends can or can't be trusted, but we must also love each other by holding the space, so to speak, for all of us to be the people we are trying to grow into being. We also help each other become our own best selves by recognizing honestly the things we tend to have a harder time succeeding at, so that our friends don't have to try and either hide such tendencies, or explain them away, but can recognize such struggles honestly with themselves too.
The truth is that when people don't have the self control, or follow through to live in the ways they wish to, or in the ways their potential would indicate they could, they can't be trusted to fulfill those wishes, or their potential. It isn't that they are bad people, and it isn't either that we must give up on them. Any of us fail in this sense in little ways all the time --I'm way behind on my Star Trek blog, for example. It is just that there is a conflict between their intentions, and how they actually live. Some of us can learn how, over time, and with self-discipline, to resolve such tension. Though, we might learn to resolve such tension in some aspects, while still struggling to do it in others. Some of us are hooked on chocolate, after all, and eat more than might be good for us, even while we easily meet other sorts of demands we put on ourselves (like getting our homework done on time, or going for a run in the morning, or scrubbing the toilet once a week, for example). Then, there are other situations, like with my ex-husband, where the mismatch between his desire for us all to be a family, and his ability to be a stable and positive husband and father was too great. It simply wasn't safe for the now-ten year old and I to stay there, even as I may also continue to wish a positive, and stable life for him now.
People that can be trusted, in the kind of way I'm talking about here, then, would seem to be people that are capable of matching their intentions up with what they actually do. That is, they are able to act either without the tension, or irregardless of the tension, thereby following through on what they've set out to do. Being able to accomplish such a feat would seem to come from people understanding themselves well enough to know what they are capable of, and also from them being strong enough to actually meet the demands they put on themselves --the demand of following through with what we say we will do.
In being someone that gets to help a now-ten year old grow up, I have learned so much about the idea of life as a long term project. At a coffee shop several months ago the ten year old was helping to hand out coffee mugs of hot chocolate to a group of people. On the first mug she happened to grab the mouth of the cup to hand it to the person that was going to drink it. I quietly said to the ten year old, "don't touch the mouth of the mug, because a person will drink from there. Instead, grab the mug from the sides and hand it to them so they can take the handle." I was helping her understand a simple point about a polite way to pass cups so they stay clean until they arrive to the person that will drink from them. Some people think this is a silly, extra thing to worry about. We won't really get sick from someone else this way. Others might not notice whether the lip has been touched or not. But, for some people such a thing is a crucial, though subtle, thing akin to washing our hands, that a server should do to help keep their customers both healthy, and comfortable.
The person receiving the cup happened to hear me and quickly said, "Oh! It's okay." They were worried about the ten-year olds feelings being hurt. There are two things about this moment that I think are relevant to bring out --first, it's wonderful that the person getting the hot cocoa didn't mind, and I'm grateful for that. It's important for the ten year old in that moment to know she was doing a good thing in helping others get their cocoa, and that the people were happy to get it as she was giving it to them. It's also important for us all to be soft with each other as we do things, even if there might be subtle corrections that can be had. We can remember that in the long run, one quick hand on our coffee cup lip probably is just fine for us and our immune systems. But, secondly, developing awareness of ourselves, and what we do is a long term project. It doesn't happen in just one moment, and it isn't just about what is okay right now in this one thing we've done. It's also about how we'll continue to develop as people. So, even if it was okay for that person to drink from a cup on which my daughter's hand had touched the lip, it's valueable still for the ten-year old to understand there is a subtle, and polite way to pass out coffee cups of hot chocolate. It's okay if we do this one thing differently now than we will turn out to do it later. In recognizing that both things are true, we can still seek to develop various habits in the long run for the sake of ourselves and each other both now and later.
When we're learning something new, doing it "right the first time", so to speak, means developing the habit in exactly the way we'll want it to continue from the beginning. That means having an easier relationship with ourselves around the various things we do in our lives, because it quite simply means matching what we intend to do with what we actually do from the very beginning. It's a way of never developing the tension discussed earlier. I take it part of my job as a parent is to negotiate these two points for the sake of my daughter developing into a trustworthy, and well-balanced person --that is, acting with her in a way that shows what we do now is very often just fine, and we can also strive for the sake of long term goals around who we want to be. The example of passing out coffee cups is rather inane, but it's a simple version of this kind of striving. It might not matter too much, with the right person, if we've touched their coffee mug, but it's also no more work to grab the coffee cup in a way that avoids touching the lid, and in doing that from the very beginning we can, in a sense, just not think about it again. We've already established how we'll pass out coffee cups, and it happens to match some kind of health, or politeness standard, so that we don't have to relearn passing out coffee cups later. (Again, coffee cups and the possibilities of germ-o-phobia isn't really the relevant point here at all. It's just an easy example for the sake of illustration.)
As a parent, I must also be careful not to be too neurotic about such things. Raising and operating in such self-awareness must come in balance, it would seem. So, today, I'll rearrange my own bedroom a little bit more. But we're also going to take a break from revisiting our own boxes from the past. Instead, we'll do a little work to catch up on the Star Trek blog, so that we can simultaneously relax a little and fulfill our commitment of the warp project.