Sometimes I congratulate myself on what I’ve managed to accomplish despite the shaky ground under my feet. I have a masters degree, and I have published literary work in respected journals. I have published two poetry chapbooks, and have been told by numerous people how my poems and other writing have moved them. I can pay my bills and feed myself. I have not ruined myself with alcohol or drugs, and despite the fact I weigh more than is socially acceptable, I’m mobile and active in the world. Instead of congratulate, I should say I marvel at myself. How can I be so broken and still accomplish so much?
That question originally read “feel so broken” instead of “be so broken.” I changed it because I don’t feel broken day after day. It’s more that I observe the way I react to situations—a certain look from a coworker, a father and daughter interaction between two strangers, my day dreams—and that tells me, yes, this wound or that wound is not quite yet healed. There are days I do feel broken—when I’m depressed or manic, when every interaction, even the kind ones, feels like a lash against raw skin. But brokenness for me is about more than my emotions; it’s about seeing the patterns of behavior that are reactive, that escape from me into the world unbidden. In some ways, brokenness is a habit that I haven’t yet been able to give up entirely though I know its no good for me.
The brokenness that comes from emotional abuse is not a clean break. It’s a series of fissures that seem to never completely heal. Some of the wounds become less painful; some even appear to scab over completely. But my wounds are like a lake that you might presume to be completely frozen over, given the look of it. Yet too much pressure in the wrong place and you are plunging down down into the icy water, which steals your breath and—if you cannot resurface in time—steals your life.
Or brokenness is like lava flowing under what appears to be solid, ancient rock, bubbling to the surface with such force and such heat that the rock melts instantly, and there is the wound you thought you’d so assiduously and carefully dressed, screaming red and splintering you into a puzzle of jagged pieces you’ve no map for putting back together.
In movies before the icy surface gives away or the lava breaks through the rock bridge you’re fleeing across, you always hear the splinters forming the moment you accidentally step on the weak spot. But it’s not like that in real life. It’s more like that time when after you sit in your therapist’s office, sobbinb, you head home, with perhaps a stop for ice cream or a bottle of wine, finding solace in the fact that you have dug into a particular wound without permanently injuring yourself. Until you find yourself at work the next day, an ordinary day filled with ordinary tasks, and there you are suddenly in an empty office around noon, shaking and wailing uncontrollably, repeating to your (panicked) co-worker over and over, “But my mother didn’t love me.” Brokenness likes nothing better than to flash a big smile and greet you with a big sucker punch.
I don’t know how to end this blog post. I’ve deleted this last paragraph several times and can’t quite get to the end of this particular story. And perhaps that’s the truest metaphor of all.
I read this blog post by my friend Jonno and I started to respond by writing this:
“We are told to let it go, whatever it is. Childhood abuse, a broken marriage, a friend’s betrayal. We are never told to go at our own pace. Or that letting go is a process. Or that letting go is a convoluted kind of thing that happens only in pieces. That it’s a dance where you never quite learn the steps.”
Jonno had found himself still enraged by abuse that happened decades ago, and was struggling with the idea that that rage was still roiling inside of him though he thought he had worked through all of it. I was angry on his behalf at that idea that our processing of trauma had some kind of time limit on it. At least I thought that’s what I was angry about.
My blog post petered out after 16 sentences. I told myself it was because I’d been doing so much writing and editing—as I was on the verge of being out of the office for two weeks—that I just didn’t have any mojo left. I was out of words. I was out of space to think. And maybe, to be kind to myself, I should say that that was partly true.
But what was more true was that I recognized in Jonno’s post a similar anger in myself. He wrote:
“I see it all the time in my work. I teach actors I try to prompt them, try to get them to lose their fear of that rage I see in so many of them. I tell them it’s okay to give in to it, that the fire they are so afraid of will not, cannot, shall not consume them.
“But I’m lying. My own chest contains a bomb. I am terrified of its power.”
I am terrified of my own bomb ticking, my possible detonation. I am terrified that the engine of these poems about my father is not a need to understand nor a need to forgive but sheer rage. I know that without the poems, I would ignite and each time I run out of words, the ticking asserts itself, its volume undiminished by the years, by the poems. My rage is rarely heard by the outside world, yet it never decrescendos.
I do not want anyone to see my anger. If they do, I might learn that the story it took me so long to untell myself—that I carried deep inside a monster, a feral creature of black and pitch that made it impossible for anyone, particularly my parents, to emotionally care for me—may be true after all.
I tell myself it’s better that I stay alone. Sure I can exist in civilization for short bursts. Sure I can have friends and I can love and be loved. But I’m not sure I can let anyone close enough to hear the ticking. I am not sure I want to let anyone close enough to hear the ticking. I do not want to indelibly bruise anyone with my anger because I’ve been indelibly bruised. Sure, I’ll show you my bruises, but I’m not sure I can let you close enough that you might accidentally graze them. I cannot let you touch me with your accidental trigger finger.
One last thought from Jonno:
“I have finally had to admit that I contain so much anger, so much atomic fury, that I fear if I let it out I’ll never come back to myself.”
Without that rage-built metronome, what will I write about? If I run out of that anger, how will I know that I’ve survived and I’ve not been broken entirely? When that trip wire finally snaps, who will I be? What if I can’t find the words to put myself back together? What if even all of the hands of every single person in this whole world who loves me even a little just isn’t enough to heal me? And if the detonator is pushed and nothing at all happens, who am I then?
This is a lightly-edited version of what I found myself journaling about this morning before church…
I love my life, but still, there are sometimes those moments when I wonder how I’ve made it to 43 without the expected benchmarks—a husband, kids, a few heartbreaks. Truth is my heart was broken so early, so repeatedly before I was even a teenager by people who should’ve known better that I couldn’t see past the wreckage for a really long time in order to let someone in. I’m wondering why it seems the only men I can ever expose all of myself to are married or gay. Is it because they won’t demand anything of me more than what I’m willing to give? Or is there just a certain type of courage I lack?
With a married or gay man, I can have a deep and intimate friendship but I still retain—I’m not sure what the right word is—is it my identity that’s at stake? Is it my selfhood? What is it that we give up when we enter into an intimate, romantic relationship with someone?
I have platonic friends of both sexes who have seen both my best self and my worst self. They’ve known me to be kind and generous and sweet, but they’ve also known me to be arrogant and jealous and mean. So, if I’m okay with giving all of that to my women friends, my married male friends, what is it that I’m withholding or scared of showing possible romantic partners and why? What is it that I’m afraid they’ll demand of me that I haven’t already willingly given to my friends?
I’m fairly certain it’s not just sex. Will it be fumbling and awkward given that it’s been more than a decade since I’ve even made out with anyone (and didn’t have much practice before that)? Sure—but I also know without a shadow of a doubt that it also will be so much easier than before cause I don’t intend to sleep with someone (or marry someone—they go hand in hand for me) until I feel utterly and completely safe.
Is it possible then that I’ve kept myself closed off from true romantic love not because I’m unwilling to open myself up but because I was raised with the deep knowledge that men are in fact bogeymen, that the most tragic thing that can happen to a woman is heartbreak, is being abandoned with mouths to feed and school fees to pay? What if I’m not actually afraid of romantic love but rather I’m scared of its aftermath? What if the real bogeymen is the dread of heartbreak turning me into a reflexively controlling woman who lives her life from a place of fear, becoming more and more impervious to receiving and giving love as I get older?
Growing up in my family of strong-willed women, I saw few happy endings. I learned that men always cheated and women (and the children) always suffered. As an adult, I can look around and see the relationships that have lasted, where there is mutual love and respect and tolerance, but those stories came a little too late.
So my real challenge is, I think, not just learning to be open, but convincing myself down to every fiber and cell, down to the DNA level, that the story of my mother, the story of my grandmothers, are not my own. That a happy ending for me is not only possible but is absolutely and positively worth the risk. The challenge is remembering that even if I do suffer a broken heart, I am resilient. That a broken heart or a string of broken hearts won’t make me brick myself up again unless I let it. I can not only be free to love, but I can be free to heal and free to love again, wounded, maybe, but also wiser, with a heart broken open to let love in, not keep it out.
Okay, it’s time to begin…
Allowing yourself to be loved is scary. Last week I sent out an e-mail to a group of friends asking for their help with various tasks—grocery shopping, laundry—while I’m recovering from surgery. After hitting “send,” and waiting for what felt like a long time for a response, I had some terrible moments of, “Well, no one really cares.” “They have just said they want to help cause that’s what you’re supposed to say.” I had to remind myself that not everyone checks their e-mail every five minutes like I do, that my friends had to check their calendars, and that surgery was still three weeks away and some of the tasks I was asking for help with were even farther out than that. But it took a certain self-awareness—that I still look for any excuse to prove that people don’t really love me—for me to take a deep breath and realize the spiral I was allowing myself to fall into.
It’s almost easier to expect—and perhaps even to want—disappointment than it is to expect people to show up. With disappointment you get to eschew your responsibility to others. If they don’t love me, then I’m not responsible to be loving back. And if I don’t have to be loving back, then there’s no possibility of me disappointing them when I’m mean or cranky or thoughtless. There’s no possibility of me feeling unworthy of their love, their care, their tenderness.
Given that risk, I suppose the question is: Is being loved worth it? And I don’t mean someone loving you just when you’re your best self, but being loved head-to-toe, inside and out, through misunderstandings and misapprehensions, through mistakes and flaws and disappointments and disconnects. Is love worth letting someone close enough to you to see you as you are?
I suppose if you think there’s nothing in you worth loving, which is the story I told myself for decades to understand why my parents were so emotionally selfish, then you’ll always want to keep people at a distance. But the reality is, the only way to discover/embrace/ understand that you are worth loving, even in brokenness, the only way to see that there is no monstrous something lurking at the heart of you that disqualifies you from being loved, is to somehow find a shred of bravery to let people in. And to also be courageous enough to keep looking until you find those people who are quite willing and able to both see you as you are and to love you as you are.
There will be many false prophets, so to speak, along the way. My experience has been that brokenness attracts brokenness, and, in some ways, no matter how perfect the childhood, how loving the family, we are all broken simply by virtue of being human, and having “fallen short of the glory of God.” But if you can find the courage to let yourself be loved, I think, I hope, you’ll eventually start to see that while there are those who try to get a fingerhold on your cracks and crevices to break you further, to keep you in the club of the mean and the scared and the closed-off, there are also those who are willing to pour into you what they know of wisdom, of their own healing. There are those who will take from their own stores of the balms of kindness, of understanding, of forgiveness and deploy them in service of your healing. They are the ones who will seek out your cracks, your crevices, your jagged places because they know those are the holy places where love can begin.