I am being stripped down to the essentials by acts of loving myself.
A couple years ago I gave up my third child and full-time motherhood, my hometown community, and my professional standing for a special kind of family based in a radically open adoption.
About 6 months ago, after suffering disrespect for my experience and grief as a birth mother, I gave up the family and relationship with my birth son to restore my emotional well-being and heal my lifelong experience with emotional violence and trauma as languages of relationship.
In both cases I chose to abandon everything in order to stop abandoning myself. Loving me and choosing me for the first time in my life is stripping me down in a way I could have never anticipated.
When I started looking for work in Portland I said that I wouldn’t settle for an administrative support position again, and yet here I am in support positions for two organizations that are giving me opportunities for deep learning on many levels. But also, because I am not in any sort of leadership position, I have both the mental and emotional space to process my losses and traumas. I have the spaciousness to find my emotional footing for engaging with life beyond work and my relationship with my partner. While my ego has taken a hit, I don’t really care that I’m not a manager, I just want to work with people who have integrity and be of value to the people I serve.
When Eros and I first moved in together I said that I didn’t want to live in an apartment after living in houses for years, and yet when needing to save myself trumped personal preference we found an apartment in a spectacular neighborhood with natural beauty on all sides, ability to grow a container garden, and no drawbacks to apartment living (even the walls are thick so we hardly ever hear sounds from neighbors).
Then I said I couldn’t imagine living without a car because of Fibromyalgia pain and quality of life reasons. Now I’ve given up the car. Although there is an inevitable increase in pain after a couple weeks of walking at least 1.5 miles a day to accomplish life, I am feeling really good about the decision. Why did we give up the car? A car is a significant financial commitment that is no longer hanging over our heads, which feels liberating in regards to money and how much we have to work to sustain our life choices. It’s also the most significant negative environmental impact we were making. We’re learning how to do something different and live with more integrity regarding our values. We live in a city with the best public transit system in the country, as well as walkable neighborhoods that meet most life needs, several car-sharing options, and grocery delivery from our favorite local market. We really have no need of a car.
And honestly, I think this is just the impetus I needed to get serious about moving my body. While I made many lifestyle changes for the better the past few years, regular exercise has been a real struggle for me. It requires a discipline that I don’t seem to have, even though the medical establishment says that movement is critical to managing Fibro pain (it’s hard to imagine that when you are in pain). So now I’m forced to walk at least a mile every day just to get to work, or get groceries, or almost anything else. The unexpected gift is that I feel strong and capable in a new way.
It turns out what I’m stripping away are limitations. I had limited ideas about my body. I had limited ideas about where and how I could be happy. I had limited ideas about what life could be like after losing my son. I had limited ideas about who I am as a mother, a professional, and a person.
As time passes I am recognizing a steady, quiet joy at the core of my being. I am noticing how easy it is to access that joy through simple things like flowers and writing and sharing life with my partner. I am noticing that getting through each day with grace is enough. I am noticing that the accomplishments of my past are enough to know that I have lived my life well and my ambition is shifting to simply living my purpose. My purpose is to create belonging, for myself first and then for the other lives that I touch. Although when you think about our culture, it’s actually quite an ambitious purpose. I’m even struggling with it working for an organization whose mission is to build community and yet they believe they have to exclude our members from anything involving our donors. It’s not inclusive or honoring the whole person to say it would be problematic for the people we serve to interact with the people who support the organization. Belonging is a human need that isn’t being met. I want to change that.
I am noticing that being stripped of my limitations is giving me a sense of expansive liberation. I feel free from obligations and expectations, both interpersonal and cultural. I feel free to live a simple little life with my Beloved until I’m ready for something else. I feel free to decide what comes next in my professional and creative careers. And I feel free to speak and act in my truth – because I really have nothing left to lose.
Sundays are my sad days, mad days, stretch and sing, write and read days.
Sundays are solitude days, alone and lonely days.
Sundays are expansive, grow my mind and open my heart days.
Sundays are tiny, confining, stuck in the mind muck days.
Sundays are watch emotional porn days, Grey’s Anatomy makes me cry days.
Every other Sunday morning was supposed to be the time that I could spend time alone with my birth son, nurturing our relationship without competition with the other parents. Now my Sundays are something completely different.
With my work schedule and the challenges of managing pain after work because of Fibromyalgia (there is always pain at the end of the day), it is difficult to process the grief of losing my relationship with my son. There isn’t time or space for the twists and turns of grief, the sadness and faithlessness I am navigating, the descents into darkness that are necessary for healing. I am not familiar with this sense of utter failure and the inability to find meaning in the madness. Regret was previously unknown to me. I am covering new ground in my emotional evolution and need the space to find my way.
It wasn’t entirely intentional, but Sundays have become my sad days, my process days, my let-myself-feel-everything-hard-and-hurty days, and then see what I can do to gently move myself toward deeper healing. Sometimes that looks like reading, resting, crying, or writing a blog post, like when I wrote about how maybe resurrection isn’t for everyone. What I wrote in that post aren’t the only thoughts and feelings I have about this experience, but they are part of my truth, part of my story as a mother that needs to find voice. I am not punishing myself for my choices, but I have to be honest about the pain I’ve caused myself and the people I love most.
I have loved ones who worry because I write about the despair, the self-doubt, and the possibility that I have done something irredeemable. I don’t know for sure if I will find meaning and redemption, but knowing my life trajectory and incredible capacity for resilience it is likely that I will. No matter what comes I have to sit with the questions. I have to honor my regret. I have to own that I made a choice that no longer feels right and yet I can’t take back.
I wish desperately that something might shift to bring my son back into my life, but I have to keep myself safe from trauma as I heal. Safety means never allowing myself to be emotionally abused again. I had to relinquish my relationship with my child to save us both from emotional harm. My relationship with my son was used as a weapon and tool of power to emotionally terrorize me over a couple of months. I set boundaries around the adult relationship and consequently our relationship with our son was questioned, threatened, and taken away multiple times on an emotional whim, which is not at all good for a child’s heart and development. Removing myself completely from the relationship was the only way I could stop the violence against us both. And yet it continues three months after our complete removal from the relationship, as we were told “our son is happy without us” through text last week in response to a grief post on Facebook. It is this lack of respect and casual cruelty around our birth parent grief that forced us to abandon our son for our own well-being.
The best I can give my son from here is modeling resilience and living the best life possible under the circumstances. It will do him no good if I allow my despair to take over my aliveness. The best I can do is make some kind of meaning and beauty from our heartbreak, and find my health and wholeness so that I’m ready to hold him in his truth when he seeks me out some day.
This is the wake-up call that’s come from the tragedy (and previous tragedies whose messages I ignored) – I both need and deserve to live and work in emotionally safe environments. My grief, especially as a birth mother, needs to be held in safety, grace and kindness rather than diminishment, criticism, and threat.
ALL of Me – and ALL of You – needs to be held in emotional safety. This is why I am so passionate about safe spaces and creating belonging.
Those of us who grew up with neglect and abuse may have never experienced true emotional safety before – a place where we can be who we are and feel what we feel without being ignored, neglected, diminished, bullied, criticized, and/or terrorized. We talk about physical terrorism all the time, but we never discuss emotional terrorism and the toll it takes on those who live under the tyranny of an emotionally violent person at home or in the office. These relationships exist everywhere. I can think of many instances of bullying and emotional abuse between friends and co-volunteers in my five years with the Impropriety Society. In the last company I worked for as well. And there were instances where I was gaslighted, where I was treated as if I was the problem for reacting to being bullied, screamed at, or abandoned to pick up someone else’s mess.
I have been recreating and reliving violence as a first language of relationship from childhood until my relationship with Eros. I didn’t know any different or any better. He is the first partner who has come to learn how to provide me with emotional safety, and to teach me how to provide it for him. Now that I have experienced this sense of sanctuary and belonging I am unwilling to compromise it with partners or lovers, friends or bosses. Most of all, I am unwilling to compromise it with myself. I am an emotional being and I will hold safe space for myself no matter what those around me choose.
Eros works from early morning until late afternoon on Sundays, which gives me the solitude to allow my grief to unfold. It doesn’t matter what I do to start my day, something triggers the sadness and tears. Recently it was finishing Mary Louise Parker’s memoir, Dear Mr You (which is phenomenal by the way!), and being touched by the way she wrote about her children and being a mother. Three months ago I was feeling the elation of witnessing my child’s growth and evolution into his unique personhood. I could relate to her devotion. Now I no longer have that privilege. I do not get to know who he is becoming and I do not get to express my devotion for him. I do not get to witness the milestones in learning or celebrate his birthdays as he grows. If and when he comes to me years from now, I will not know him and he will not know me. And yet I believe we will recognize that we are bonded by love and blood, by generosity and abandonment, and by a story that I hope with all my heart we will be able to give a happy ending one day in an environment of emotional safety and care.
For now, I use all of the tools I have – including the open emotional space in my Sundays – to finally heal a lifetime of trauma so that I do never accept being treated carelessly or cruelly again.
On Easter morning, as sermons of redemption and poems of rebirth flood her social media feed, she considers whether and how one can be reborn after committing a terrible mistake that brings loss and grief to everyone she loves.
How does a mother find redemption when she naively – and selfishly – signed away her right to motherhood? How does she forgive herself for choosing a grief that will unfold over lifetimes in her child, her partner, and herself? And in her family, who will not have the privilege of knowing the lost child tied to them by blood and the kind of love that doesn’t have to physically touch to be felt.
How does she welcome community to encircle her if she cannot accept herself? She is terrified to face the Terrible Mother she sees in the mirror. She is ashamed of her, ashamed of who she’s become. She used to dance with Mother Kali and surrender to the fires of transformation. But what if she unconsciously embodied the violence of the dark goddess when she believed her dreams were being stolen? Maybe her weakness disguised itself as strength. Maybe her selfishness masqueraded as generosity. Maybe she was so afraid of losing the freedom she imagined that she cut away the best part of herself to claim it – the Good Mother. The Present Mother. The Mother who does not abandon. In abandoning her son, she abandoned herself and everyone she loves.
Once the abandonment started, it took years to stop.
The emptiness left in its place has no end.
Now she dances with the Goddess of Never Not Broken.
She was always the one to overcome, to turn tragedy into beauty, to rise from the ashes and lift her children with her. She just doesn’t know how to rise this time. Somehow she forgot that her children were her reason to fly. She denied that she was born to be a mother and offered the gift to a beloved instead, who later betrayed the gift and the sacred promise made when it was given.
She’s certain she lost her wings when she lost her son. She can’t see the beauty in the mess she’s made now. She doesn’t trust the future she’s condemned them to. She is hurt. She is scared. She doesn’t feel God here. She wonders if this is hell, a burning of the heart that can never be transcended. She imagines all the mothers who burn with the loss of a child – more mothers and reasons for the loss than can actually be imagined by a single heart or intellect.
Maybe resurrection isn’t for everyone. Maybe hell is alight here on earth with the flames of Mothers, burning in grief for the children they’ve lost to accidents, illnesses, and acts of nature; to choices, mistakes, and betrayals; to wars, hate crimes, and the decisions of men in charge of the institutions we all submit to. Christ may have risen from the grave but Mary still lost her son, the human man that she birthed and raised. Resurrection didn’t bring him back to her. She had to live with the burn of grief and the ache of loss for the rest of her life, as all mothers who lose their children do.
“Akhilandeshvari: ‘Ishvari’ in Sanskrit means ‘goddess’ or ‘female power,’ and the ‘Akhilanda’ means essentially ‘never not broken.’ In other words, The Always Broken Goddess. Sanskrit is a tricky and amazing language, and I love that the double negative here means that she is broken right down to her name.
But this isn’t the kind of broken that indicates weakness and terror. It’s the kind of broken that tears apart all the stuff that gets us stuck in toxic routines, repeating the same relationships and habits over and over, rather than diving into the scary process of trying something new and unfathomable.
Akhilanda derives her power from being broken: in flux, pulling herself apart, living in different, constant selves at the same time, from never becoming a whole that has limitations.”Julie Peters
I did not intend to pull myself apart this way. I believed I was in a state of coming back together rather than continued annihilation. I believed I was building a sanctuary of emotional safety rather than another crucible of violated vulnerability.
Kali – my Goddess sister of fire I once cherished for her powers of transformation – can to go Hell. Her destruction demands too terrible a sacrifice this time.
I am shattered. I work to gather each fragment, soaked in the blood of birth and betrayal, and lay them with great care on the hearth of my heart, to be tended with the warmth of compassion and the heat of self awareness.
Each day I pick up a remnant of who I was to study the places where I am broken, to discern the shape of the wound and the medicine it needs to heal. I learn the language of bloodlines and grieflines to understand the unfolding of this story over the generations of my family.
Today I discover something new about the wild little girl hidden deep in the cave of my soul. She is my Invisible Girl, the one who lashes out like a wounded animal when triggered by emotional violence. I learn she suffers from complex post-traumatic stress disorder. Each insult, degradation, humiliation, and threat from someone I trust tears through our scars, piercing the raw terror of our old wounds. She roars when we are triggered to chase our tormentors away from the places that hold a lifetime of pain, the places our mother and our lovers violated us again and again. She is not over-reacting. She is justifiably desperate to protect us from more violation. She fights for our need for emotional safety, not realizing she violates ourself and others by reacting with verbal violence.
We have lived in a ceaseless state of fear for too long. Today I break the spell. Her voice, our voice, can be a tool for healing, a tool for self-preservation, and/or a tool for verbal assault. I know that her words, our words, shine light into the shadows of family-of-origin emotional violence in myself and others. I am in the process of learning how to empower myself and speak my truth through love and compassion, rather than violate my perpetrators through loud voice, aggressive tone, and harsh words. Now I finally understand that no one can see the light if it is wrapped in the shadow of unconscious mutual violation.
I root around my medicine bag to find the tinctures of love and friendship and the potions of self-care, immediate remedies for my terrible grief. They nourish me as I do the work of piecing myself together and facing an unfathomable future with all the grace I can muster. The largest bottle, Eros, holds the devotion and steadfast love of the man who keeps choosing me, over and over again, remaining by my side despite the wild girl’s attempts to chase him away when we hurt. He truly sees me, and reflects through the mirror of our relationship the beauty of who I am in all my brokenness. Several bottles contain the unconditional love of my children, and the precious care of beloved heartsisters that hold safe space for both my unraveling and my resurrection, also reflecting my beauty in the process. There is always a pen and paper, because writing and art are my primary tools for transforming my pain into a narrative of triumph. And there are potions for self care – counseling, massage, nourishing food, rest, candlelight, reading, and making art – that slowly restore my body, mind, heart, and soul.
I also seek healing through the wisdom of experts and teachers. I am studying the neurobiology of trauma and complex PTSD as a consequence of repeated emotional abuse in childhood and adult relationships. I am exploring the concept of emotional violence as the primary language of relationship that many of us learn(ed) through our families, and how we perpetuate the emotional violence in our personal and professional relationships because we do not know something different is possible, and because we do not believe we are worthy of a relationship where love is the primary language. I am learning how change is not possible if we do not feel worthy, which is why so many of us spin our wheels with self-help books and workshops. We do not understand that it is impossible to have an experience of love that we do not feel worthy of.
In the sanctuary of my home and emotionally safe relationships I continue to do the healing work of unravelling my pain, discovering my inherent worthiness, and rewriting my stories of breaking into stories of restoration.
I am she who is never not broken.
I am she who is always facing the unfathomable and birthing new possibilities.
I am she who loves herself beyond all limitations.