The Value of My Body

My body doesn’t belong to me.

Or so I’ve been told and believed most of my life.

Who, then, does it belong to? It is God’s temple; it is my husband’s property; it is the government’s, the church’s, a politician’s to make decisions about. I am merely the innkeeper. I keep it clean—in every sense of the word—and free of disease. I feed it and primp it and use it to grow life. But if I am to believe what I’ve been taught, I do none of these for me. And the value that exists has everything to do with the world and nothing to do with me.

And so when a man touches me or presses me for intimacy, it is not for the value of me that I say no (or don’t); rather, it is for fear of shame and damnation, and sometimes, fear of flashbacks. I do not say yes or no because I’m thinking about the value of my body, because I don’t actually value my body. I’ve never had need to. I’ve never learned to—or I’ve unlearned how to. My body has never been mine to claim more than guardianship over. It is a lot more challenging to take care of something you have little personal interest in, no matter how precious it is.

I broached this in counseling this week, and my counselor reminded me that a few months back she had asked me:

How long has sex been a currency in your life?

We’d been talking about how, long after I knew I wanted to end my marriage, I kept having sex with my husband. I did it because I thought I had to while I was married to him, but why didn’t I leave sooner and just stop the sex? I was sick back then. Chronic pain crippled me as often as once or twice a week. I’d been to the ER for it, and the neurologists still didn’t know the cause or how to alleviate it. I couldn’t take care of myself; I needed my rapist in order to survive. I paid for my husband’s care by having sex with him. Sex as currency.

I concluded initially that only in those final few years of my marriage, 2012 to 2015, had sex been a currency for me, and I planned to tell my counselor this. Then time got away from us, and we didn’t discuss it again until this week, when I wondered at how little I seem to value my body right now. And when my counselor asked about sex as a currency again, I realized it’s lot longer than those three years. It had been since I was a teenager, since before I was even sexually active, because, based on my beliefs, I thought my sexuality determined, at least in part, my value in God’s eyes. Having pre-marital sex would destroy my worth, and eventually I felt it did.

I told my counselor this and she didn’t deny it likely went back that far. And then she raised the question of my primary love language being touch and asked if that’s why I gave my ex-husband sex, so that he’d reciprocate, touch me, make me feel loved. For the first time in over a year, I remembered that my ex-husband did not usually reciprocate after sex. We touched during sex, but not after. He usually went to his side of the bed and didn’t touch me.

And what’s more, if I couldn’t have sex because I was sick or had an infection or was menstruating, I didn’t get held or touched. Unless I physically pleased him another way. So I gained my touch, my love, through performing sex acts. It caused plenty of arguments. I wanted to be touched, feel loved, even if I couldn’t give sex.

In a way, it’s the same thing I do now. I trade intimacy to feel loved, and it’s easier for me because I give my body such low worth. I have few boundaries that aren’t related to religion, and now that I doubt the rules laid out by religion, I have few boundaries. But I still feel the pain. It is, after all, my body.

I know now it’s time I take ownership of it, restore to myself, my body the value and worth I deserve—deserve because life comes with value, period. I didn’t earn it; I didn’t have to. And I don’t have to do anything to retain it.

Yet it isn’t this simple. Before I can own the value, I need learn how to see and understand it—and I don’t right now—and I need to unlearn what I have always believed. I’m not even sure if those are mutually exclusive. I have a long, long journey ahead. Change, lots and lots of change, but above all, growth. And I can make a difference.

Please don’t be like me and assign the value of your body according to your god or spouse or church or government. Don’t let anyone tell you what your value is or how to determine it. Your body is yours, period. Your body is valuable, period. Tell your sons and daughters and your friends and loved ones. Tell yourself. Say it until you believe it. Make it your daily affirmation.

My body is mine. My body is valuable.

And when you make decisions about your body, make them for you … because it’s yours.

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Knowing What I Know Now

I had a date last night, a first date with a guy I’d met on an online dating site. We’d hit it off right from the beginning, and there was definite chemistry when we met in person. We ate a late lunch and talked for hours. He asked me to be his girlfriend before the night was over, and I politely declined; it was too soon (really too soon!). I told him a little about my past, and he told me I was safe with him and that I could trust him, and when I left, I felt safe and did trust him.

Don’t get me wrong; I had my concerns. In an earlier conversation, he’d told me how religiously conservative he was, and referred to my (religiously and politically) liberal leanings as “liberal proclivities.” (I wondered if he realized “proclivity” had a negative connotation; though, I think he did.) Religious conservatives make me nervous already, for obvious reasons, but he did more than disagree with my beliefs and opinions; he criticized them.

And he spoke excessively about the future, our future. I thought maybe he was just a little too smitten. When I told him my plans for after my kids leave home, they became his plans too. And he talked about wanting to buy a house with me. And when we talked about Disney world, and I said I would like to take my kids but couldn’t afford it, he said that such things were possible now with “two incomes.” To all of this I replied, “Let’s get through the first date first,” move slowly. He wanted exclusive, long-term, and while exclusive might be okay, I’m not ready for long-term; my marriage only ended a year and a half ago.

And he’d mentioned he used to be more controlling and particular about the way he liked things. I won’t be controlled again, not for anything or anyone. But he said he’d changed, and I wanted to believe it was so.

Overall, the date ended well, and we agreed to see each other again soon. To be honest, I was taken with the cuddling and kissing and the warmth of someone wanting to spend time with me.

By morning, though, the red flags (of him being a potential abuser) that I’d stored away in my subconscious were crimson and the size of Rhode Island and waving like the Star-Spangled Banner over Fort McHenry.

  • One, he’d told me he’d once broken a woman’s spirit through constant criticism and being mean, but that he’d decided to make up for it by making people feel good about themselves. I thought his change of heart was noble, but “broke a woman’s spirit”? Can people really change that drastically?
  • Two, the criticism of my liberal tendencies and his disdain for some of the decisions I’ve made since my marriage ended: being in a polyamorous relationship, for one. He was judgmental and even declared that he thought I was “rebelling” in response my long, difficult marriage, and suggested the rebellion would end and that I would eventually go back to being conservative. In hindsight, I see that this is manipulative and shaming, telling me I don’t really know what I want or what I’m doing or what’s good for me, and that I’ll eventually see the light.
  • Three, he mentioned that his first wife (first wife?!) had a lot of guy friends that she’d hang out with, and that it really bothered him. This was an issue in my marriage, and I am not going to let it be an issue again. I have guy friends, and that’s the way it is, period. So I told him up front my best friend was a guy. He replied, “It would help if he was gay.” I said he was not but that he lived in another state, and he said, “That’s the best kind of friend.” When I caught myself thinking today about listing off for him all my guy friends and which are gay and which are far away, I knew I’d been shamed.
  • Four, his first wife? He’s had more than one?
  • Five, his references to the long-term future and his taking ownership of my future plans.
  • Six, he said he’d been abused in his youth, and having discussed red flags at my domestic abuse and sexual assault support group, I knew this was a concern.
  • Seven, I discussed briefly my reasons for not being simpatico with the church (not Jesus or my faith, but the church itself) right now, how it was through mentors at my church that I was told to allow my husband to use my body as he pleased. My date, though he said what the mentors said and what my husband did were wrong, quoted St. Paul’s discussion of women submitting to their husbands. Yes, my date was pointing out that husbands were also to love their wives as Christ loved the church, sacrificially. But he didn’t deny at any point that wives should submit, and I noticed.
  • Eight, he kept saying to me, “I’m afraid you’re going to do what women do, and go home after this, and think about this too much and change your mind about dating me.” And I kept saying I didn’t think I would, though I didn’t promise anything.

Perhaps it’s strange to you that I listed all these things that worried me out. But knowledge is power, and we need to know when there is potential danger. I’m sharing because you need to know.

I didn’t feel confident enough to make a decision on my own this time around, so I reached out to trusted friends and thought about my concerns and listened to what I was saying to those friends, understanding through my words what I was actually feeling. And I messaged my support group leader. Members of a support group take care of each other, and I knew without a doubt I could trust and depend on her.

I was assured by all that these things were, indeed, red flags. And because they’re good friends, the decision of what to do next was left to me.

I won’t say my decision-making process was great; I obsessed over it a good part of the day, wasting mine and my friends’ time and energy, but in the end, I trusted my instincts. I told my date I didn’t want to see him again because the things we’re looking for were too different, and I wished him good luck. The reasons for my decision are my business, not his.

And then, true to my concern about him being controlling and manipulative, he replied:

I kind of figured you’d do that girl thing girls do. .. ok well … what else is new? …

I guess his response wasn’t completely unexpected. With his expression of fear last night about me changing my mind, he’d set me up as the bad guy before the first date was even over. And not a bad guy with valuable opinions and feelings, but merely a “girl” who only did what “girls do.” Essentially, he removed my worth from the equation. He shamed me.

I’m sad. I could have really liked him. And if he’d been genuine, I might have loved him eventually. I’m sad to have had another potential relationship turn to naught. I’m sad and angry that he shamed me, and that I felt shame, even knowing what it was. I’m frustrated that I feel a hint of guilt for having hurt him by choosing not to see him again.

But I’m confident now too. I saw what was happening this time, understood it, and though it took me all day, I made the best decision and protected myself. And I did the right things to reach that decision. I made a list and I reached out, and before that, I recognized the flags. I’ve grown, in wisdom and emotional maturity and stability. I’ve come a long way, and what I did today will help me grow even more. Today, albeit its stress and sorrow and the low hum of shame in the back of my head right now, was a good day.

Keeping a Handle on the Trigger

I haven’t written in while. It’s not that life has been quiet but that it’s racing past me. School has started for the year, and I can’t believe the summer is over. Vacations and work and counseling and memories and still taking days one at a time.

I am moving forward, healing, having more positive days than bad. But I’ve learned over the past months that it doesn’t matter how good my day is or how peaceful I feel or how long it’s been since I felt sad, I am still susceptible to the trauma of my past. It hides in words and faces and actions and tones and songs and voices. And, often, it’s only a breath away from being triggered.

I recently discovered the irretrievable loss of several documents as the result of my computer crashing last spring. I thought I’d managed to save all my files. It was frustrating and saddening. A friend tried to ease my disappointment by offering some advice: he told me to learn from what happened. He suggested I take a “lesson” from it. It was a harmless suggestion, merely encouragement to choose a different perspective. But it felt more like a slap that night.

I argued that I’d done nothing wrong, that I’d saved my documents, and that my computer had crashed on its own. He tried to explain it again, that he wasn’t accusing, but he used the word “lesson” a second time. I felt the shame go through me hot and fast and knew “lesson” was the word that had triggered it. I told my friend to stop using the word, shouted it. I needed to get away from the word and the feelings it caused. I needed to stop the physical reaction.

I started crying and I couldn’t breathe. I was shaking, panicking, afraid of I didn’t know what. The shame felt heavy and demoralizing. My friend became angry that I’d yelled, but I fought the urge to apologize. I focused on what was happening inside me, on stopping it before it was out of control.

Preventing, stopping, and coping with emotional and physical reactions to shame is something my counselor and I had been talking about less than a week before this happened. My assignment as I left that day had been to think about how I react to triggers, what triggers me, and how I calm down after being triggered. So how to manage my shame reaction that night was already something I’d been thinking about, and I realized through all the emotions, that I already had the skills and resources to calm myself down.

I started taking deep breaths, counting through them, a technique called box breathing. In for four, hold for four, out for four, and hold for four more. Repeat. And some time ago, I’d put together a shame first aid kit, with things to remind me that I’m lovable and a good person and worthy: a letter I wrote to myself saying these exact things, pictures of people who love me unconditionally, a rose quartz to remind me to love myself. There were also things for soothing and calming: lavender scented soap, notecards with breathing exercises, something soft to touch.

I pulled my first aid kit out that night and used it to calm myself down. I read the letter and did the breathing and looked at my friends’ faces and I relaxed. Then reason took over again: I’d done nothing wrong—I had nothing to be ashamed of. What my friend had said was just words.

After I was thinking rationally, I considered why the word “lesson” had triggered the reaction it did. It was simple: remarking that someone should “learn her lesson” is shame speak. Someone somewhere used those words to shame me.

I still didn’t apologize to my friend, but instead I explained what happed. I told him that when I shouted, I was feeling traumatized and attacked, and that I did what I needed to do to protect myself, to stop the panic and shame from breaking me down any further. I did what I’ve been slowly training myself to do. I understood that I was having a trauma reaction, and I identified the cause and got away from it. Then I used breathing and self-encouragement and loving myself to calm down, and I did it on my own. No one needed to remind me or guide me or encourage me. I took care of myself. A little less than a year ago, a trauma reaction took three days to overcome. This time, it took me thirty minutes.

I’m learning. I’m healing. I don’t do it gracefully, not yet at least. I shouted at one of my closest friends. I cried. I needed my shame first aid kit. But I did get through it.

I’ve grown from the experience. And even more importantly, I recognize what I’ve accomplished personally over the last year and a half. I know without a doubt today that I’m worthy, that I’m a good person, that I’m lovable. I know I deserve to have good, happy things in my life. I know that when the bad days find me, when the triggers are beyond my control, when I feel broken, I have everything I need to come back and be stronger than before. I believe everyone does.

If you’re doubting or afraid or ashamed, take a few deep breaths.  Look inside of you. Love yourself. Recognize that you’ve come this far. You did it. You are strong too.

Lousy with Deep Red Roses

In my haste to minimize my belongings, I didn’t see the brick wall coming. I opened the box: photo albums and picture frames. Easy. Save the pictures, give away the frames and albums.

And then it was there staring at me: my wedding album. White and pearly with the words “our wedding” written in calligraphy on the cover.

Apprehension filled my chest, but I can be brave when I need to be, and I opened the cover and stared at my 20-year-old face. I was an ugly bride. My hair was half-grown out and awkward, and the hair stylist curled it, sprayed it, and then ratted it to fit around the veil. No one helped me with my makeup, and I didn’t have a manicure, though all my bride’s maids did. And though the wedding dress is a beaded work of art and the bouquet is lousy with deep red roses, it’s all overshadowed by half-hearted smiles and sad eyes.

It doesn’t even occur to me to look at my stomach, though it’s all I could think about that day. I was five months pregnant with my daughter. It’s impossible to tell. The wedding dress fit perfectly without a single adjustment. Swollen breasts and stomach made the dress fit when it had been too big three months before. The only indication something is off is the shame I can see covering me from head to toe. It stained everything that day, from the glow of wedding candles to the matching white-gold rings we put on each other’s fingers.

I felt my shame acutely that day. I wonder now if anyone knew the torture inside me. Did anyone know how much pain I was in? Probably not. But I cried as I walked down the aisle with my parents, and it wasn’t the first time I’d cried that day.

I thought everyone was so kind to me. Friends and family circled and fussed and asked how I was doing. I didn’t understand it. I was overwhelmed by their goodness because I believed I was unworthy of it. I was so ashamed, so completely undeserving of anything good. And even now, it’s difficult to discern their unconditional love from the memory of feeling like a burden.

Most of the pictures I stacked and set aside out of sight for my kids to look at some day. It might be fun to look back and laugh at mom and dad and grandmas and grandpas. But a few pictures I saved for me. My dad looks so handsome, and he’s smiling at me. My mom is too. She’s so beautiful and happy. And there’s one with my grandparents, all four them.

I touched the picture of my mom’s parents. They’ve been gone a long time now, my grandfather dying just thirteen months after my wedding. My dad’s dad is gone too. And I cried and wished my ex-husband wasn’t standing next to me in the center of the picture. It was a battle between sentiment and disgust, but I chose to save the picture.

It was the first time I overlooked the sick feeling I get when I look at pictures of the man I now know took advantage of me. And it was love that conquered that feeling. No matter what, my grandparents always thought the best of me. I love them so much, and when I looked at their faces in that photo and remembered that, my ex-husband quickly faded.

This doesn’t surprise me, now that I think about it. I can’t stand to look at myself in these pictures, but I’ve rescued the ones with my mom, dad, sister, and grandparents. I saved a picture of the wedding cake with the flowers a now passed friend grew just for my wedding. I can look past all the hurt I felt that day and all the sorrow I feel for it now for the people I love, and that’s something worth knowing. But what about me?

I don’t feel the shame anymore, but I remember it vividly. I remember a scared young woman who was desperate to be told “you are worthy.” I feel pity and sympathy for her. I want to hug her and tell her the truth about herself.

I’m a little angry no one told me I didn’t have to get married to earn my worthiness back or to make things right, that I was never unworthy and things were never wrong in to begin with. I’m so sad for all the lies I believed back then, about myself, about the man I married, about right and wrong.

But I also feel a little less unworthy about that day. People were kind because they were happy for me, and they loved me. I won’t say I deserved it, but I was worthy of it, if only because I loved them and they loved me.

The bad feelings don’t miraculously go away just because I feel love and a little worthiness. There’s still a heavy weight in my chest and a darkness to my day that won’t be penetrated by either 40-watt bulbs or afternoon sunlight. My wedding day is still a difficult memory and it still makes me sad. But I’ve faced down one of the challenges that awaited me since I left my husband last August: the wedding album. I won’t have to do it again.

And there is something else that I know after today. I will not be that forlorn woman again. I will speak my heart and I will search for the truth. I will trust in my goodness and overcome my shame.

I Bring Myself Flowers

Today would have been my 15th wedding anniversary.

I remember my wedding day in emotions and moments that flash like snapped photos. Waking up with my sister beside me. My hair ratted and pinned in a way I both hated and felt I deserved. Getting dressed with my closest friends all around me. Laughing, smiling.

Shame.

My grandmother annoying the photographer by stealing his flash. My grandfather, who’d I’d lose in a year, watching with joy.

Guilt.

Crying as my parents walked me down the aisle and not knowing why. Wondering if everyone knew I was pregnant, if everyone despised me for it. Crying through the beginning of the ceremony and the pastor trying to calm me down.

Sadness.

A rose falling from my bouquet with a resounding, mic’d thud. Laughing, finally. Tulle catching on fire after we’d left the church. Being overwhelmed in the reception line.

Embarrassment.

A cake decorated by a dear friend. Kissing my bridesmaid and not understanding why she was sad. Thinking everyone was being so kind to me and that I didn’t deserve it, not even on my wedding day, and especially not because I was five months pregnant.

Shame.

Not wanting to have sex with my new husband on our wedding night and not understanding why. A foot of snow overnight. Pizza for breakfast. Finding out my bridesmaids’ sadness was because their grandfather died on my wedding day and feeling somehow responsible because it was my growing belly that made that day what it was.

Shame lies at the center of even what should have been one of the happiest days of my life. I have never remembered it as such. There was happiness that day, but every minute of it was tainted. I didn’t believe I deserved a single good thing that happened to me that day. I didn’t believe that my friend should have grown flowers to decorate my wedding cake and reception. I didn’t think that friends should come help decorate the church and reception hall. I didn’t think I deserved to look beautiful. Or feel beautiful.  I was ashamed of every part of my body, and I thought it was a just punishment.

I was hurt that friends had chosen not to come because of my “delicate situation,” and sad that everything was so rushed that my best friend couldn’t be there because he was on the other side of the world at the time. I was embarrassed that everyone knew I was pregnant and so grateful people were nice to me anyway.

Today has been a difficult day. The memories, the emotions, the sadness of what today might have been mixed with the relief for what it is no longer.

The night a friend called me out for still feeling ashamed about getting pregnant before I was married, it changed my entire perspective, almost in an instant. So many things happened in that moment: I realized he was right; I still felt shame. I’d just managed to lie about it, even to myself, for years. I also realized how much in life I’d missed out on because of that shame. And I realized that my entire marriage had been based on shame and that I no longer wanted to be married. I wanted my life back; I wanted to be myself again.

Today reminds me of how much my world has been overshadowed by shame. It made me believe I didn’t even deserve to be loved or treated well. It made me believe I added nothing to this world, that I was worthless.

So what I can do tonight is combat that shame with the goodness I now know I have.

I am loved. By my kids and my friends; they have acknowledged me and my struggles, and they love all of me. And I deserve that love, not because of anything good I’ve done, but because I live and breathe.

I am strong. After more than a decade, I have survived the steady beating of shame against my soul and still come out whole. Bruised and scarred and hurting, but still standing.

I am brave. Courage is being afraid of something and facing it anyway. Fear has never stopped me. Not when I was unmarried and pregnant, and not when I left my marriage six months ago, alone and against the will of even my own sister.

I am good. I am kind and loving and I care about people. There are good things about me that no one can take away. And I deserve just as much as anyone else to find joy, be loved, and make peace with myself.

I love myself. For so long I didn’t think I deserved even my own love, but I’ve learned that I do. And now I love and take care of myself. I bring myself flowers and take myself out for coffee. I am kind to myself.

I am me. As the shame is peeled away layer by thick, painful layer, I am finding beneath an amazing woman. She’s funny and interesting and worthy of good things, and she has amazing dreams for the future. She’s going to be okay.

It is these things that have taught me that shame cannot hold me. It cannot prevent me from living a good life. Not anymore.

Today is sad day because it marks the going dark of something I thought would be a part of my life forever. But it is a happy day too because, though I’m marking what was and what might have been, I’m acknowledging what is. I’ve come so far, accomplished so much, and I have the entire future ahead of me.

Secrets

We all keep secrets. Sometimes we keep them from ourselves. I’m an expert at this.

I think it must have been something I learned to do. I think it must have taken some time to learn. But I don’t remember a beginning. I don’t remember the first time I lied to myself. I don’t remember developing the skills I needed to hide the truth. I only remember realizing I’d been doing it. For years. For more than a decade.

When I was 19 I was raped.

The man was someone I knew, someone I loved, someone I thought loved me. But it turns out I was raped by a man who lied to me.

I didn’t know what was happening to me was rape. Yes, I felt violated and ashamed. Yes, I told him no (I told him again and again) and he did it anyway. But I loved this man and he loved me. So it wasn’t “rape,” not that terrible thing we talked about in health class, that thing that was “about power and not love.”

Instead, I believed that what happened to me was completely about lust. The sin of lust, to be specific. My sin. Each time I was raped, I begged God to forgive me for me for what I’d done. You have to understand that at this time my beliefs in good behavior and purity had been twisted by my church upbringing into a sick belief in a need for perfection.

I believed with all my heart that what had happened was my fault, that I could have, should have prevented it, was perhaps even the cause of it. I prayed over and over again for cleansing. I thought the dirtiness I felt was my own guilt. I know now it was violation, a coat of hell I’m still trying to scrape off my skin.

I felt completely worthless while I was dating this man. I was sinning; I was causing the man I loved to sin. I apologized to him. I told him I would try not to let it happen again. I thought I was lucky this man still loved me after what I’d done. My greatest fear was that he’d stop.

I told no one.

Until about a year ago. “You were raped,” my best friend told me. “No,” I told him, “it was never not consensual.”

This is where the lying comes in. Even as I explained what had happened, even as I described hands touching skin I didn’t want touched, sexuality forced upon me, fear and shame and not wanting it to happen, I told my friend it was my fault, that I’d been guilty of sex before marriage. I told him the shame I felt was my own fault because I’d sinned. I deserved that shame. And the disgust I remembered was with myself, not this man.

I believed it. I told my friend the man I’d now been married to for fourteen years was a good man. It didn’t matter that when we were dating he was a senior and I was a freshman, that he had taken advantage of my innocence and inexperience, that he hadn’t been considerate of my feelings or my boundaries; he’d married (worthless) me and was a good father and a good husband. The sex was my fault because he was a good man and I was bad.

“You were raped.”

The words sunk in as I tried to unravel my shame last spring. My friend told me I was worthy, told me I had a right to say no to anything, even sex, even if the man loved me, even if I loved him, even if I was married to him.

I found a way to share the blame I felt with my husband, at least fifty-fifty.

And then I found out this man had lied to me to make me trust him while we were dating. I discovered he lied a lot. Enough that I knew I couldn’t trust him anymore. I divorced him.

I’d been angry for years that my husband never felt the shame or remorse I felt for the sins we’d committed before we were married. He told me he’d made peace. But as spring turned to summer, I was suddenly disturbed and suspicious of his lack of emotion.

I was raped.

I started to own the words before I believed them. Yes, I remembered being violated. Yes, I remembered saying no. Yes, I remembered being touched in ways that made me sick. But I thought I was mistaken, that the last thing I wanted to do was accuse an innocent man, even if he was my ex-husband, of rape because my memory was false and I’d said yes when I thought I’d said no. I couldn’t blame him if I was wrong and had actually wanted what happened to me.

I spoke the words I was trying to own in a very small circle—to my two best friends, my counselor, the man I was dating—I denied it to myself, refusing to let go of the blame. And then I found proof.

Sixteen summers ago I kept a journal, a record of the year I was 19. It was explicit:

“I had sex with him last night. I told him no, but he didn’t stop.”

I was raped.

It hit like a wave, at the same time filling my lungs and pulling me so deep I could no longer see the light above the surface. The secret was out. I couldn’t deny it to myself anymore. It’s impossible to argue with a first-hand account. The man I married raped me.

I’m still drowning. The sadness I feel is profound, consuming. I can understand why I kept it from myself, told myself it was my fault. Because realizing someone I loved and trusted violated me so completely is so much harder to accept than a mistake I made.

I understand that honesty is the first step to healing. And the honesty of this should lift my shame and free me from guilt, and maybe it has. But the void that remains is deep and dark. The man I once loved more than anyone else betrayed me. That image of a “good man” is now no different than Dorian Gray’s painting. And, worse, memories I once refused to remember are flooding back in all their truth. I was raped.

My friends keep telling me it’s not my fault, and I need to hear those words over and over again. I need to know I’m worthy and loved and braver than I ever knew. I need to know there’s goodness left in this world, a light at the end of the darkness, and even though my secret is out, I still deserve some of that goodness.

Be brave. Tell your secrets. Tell the truth. Even to yourself. It’s difficult and painful, I know. But honesty is so much better than living a lie. It’s so much better than losing yourself in a lie. It’ll be okay. You’ll survive. And best of all, you’ll no longer be alone.

What Pain Didn’t Teach Me

It somehow seems logical, doesn’t it, that the introduction and relief of physical pain would mimic the same in emotional pain? And that, therefore, existing emotional pain might find relief in the introduction and removal of physical pain.

It doesn’t, though. It doesn’t even make the emotional pain more tangible. Instead, it just tears the flesh and creates more cause for pain of both types. The weight of that which is inside becomes heavier, anchoring in shame instead of healing.

For it is healing that is needed, not simply the release of what hurts.

My skin burns today where I tore it open as I tried to scratch the shame from my soul last night. Did I intend to break the skin when I brought pen and fingernails to the surface? I don’t know. But I did want to hurt. I wanted to feel the pain that I hoped would both punish me for what I saw as fault and release what I knew were lies: I’m worthless, I’m stupid, I suck, I make a mess of everything, I’m wrong, I deserve shame.

It’s a contradiction, but it’s where I stand in my healing process: knowing it isn’t true but feeling it, believing it anyway.

There are healthier ways to deal with the shame and hurt, and I am aware of and have used several over the past months. But in the passion of my hatred for myself, I saw no further than the inherent mistake that was me. Self-centeredness is a cyclical effect of my shame, a symptom but also a force that blinds me and holds me captive within the cycle. Round and round. I see only me and how worthless I am. I exist in a bubble made from two-way mirrors: the truth is hidden, while I see only the distortion of my image.

A week ago I wrote my grandmother a letter and told her I was getting divorced. She called me the day it arrived and told me she loved me and that she was sad, but supported me completely, whatever the reason for the end my marriage. I have not been given this much support in every loved one I’ve told. There has been much questioning and there has been judgment.

When my counselor asked me yesterday what my grandmother’s words told me about me, I struggled to come up with an answer. It took much prompting and time before I finally found the words:

“All I can think about it that my grandmother is a good woman,” I told her.

“But what about you?”

“She loves me; she isn’t judging me.”

She gestured for more. I knew what she wanted to see something from my perspective, not hers, but I couldn’t see anything. To me it was about reactions; my grandmother was kinder than others, less judgmental. And then:

“There’s something in me she thinks is worthy enough to love. Something about me that she thinks highly enough of to trust my judgment when I make a decision.”

It took a lot of work, a lot of reaching beyond the opaque, shame-made bubble to be able to stand on the other side of the mirror and see myself, and the truth, from my grandmother’s eyes. For her, it isn’t about what I’ve done, but about who I am.

Hours later, I still didn’t understand what I’d learned in this conversation with my counselor, and I turned on myself. In a wave of shame triggered by an interaction with my future-ex-husband and fed by a perceived mistake and an ever-changing friendship I’m struggling to find a balance within, I turned vicious. Words and pain and damage I regret today.

I can’t take any of that back, not words spoken or written or typed, not the scratches on my skin. But I can heal from it and make a plan so that next time—and there will be a next time—I might be kinder to myself.

I started with compassion this morning, coaxing myself from my bed and into the day and gently washing away and treating the remnants of a dark night: gentle soap, a soft washcloth, and antibiotic cream.

I reached out to a friend, sharing both my shame and what I’d done as a result, getting it out of me without the need for physical pain. The relief came from just knowing I wasn’t alone.

I told myself the truth—I’m worthy, I’m smart, I don’t suck, I do not make a mess of everything, I’m right in so many ways, I deserve love.

I accepted last night for what it was—more emotional pain than I knew what to do with.

I forgave myself for all damage done.

I looked at myself through the eyes of someone who loves me for who I am and saw someone worth loving and trusting, just like she did—like she always will.

Have compassion, reach out, tell the truth, accept, forgive, and look from a different perspective. It is a path to genuine healing and plan to follow when the shame is triggered again. It reminds me that I’m worthy, and I will remember that again and again, as many times as I need to, until I never forget.

Progress: I rose from bed with swollen eyes and ink on my skin, and now I’m able to write the words “I love myself and I am worthy of that love” and mean them. I don’t know what the rest of my day will bring, but it’s okay. I will face whatever it is and know I will heal, and maybe, just maybe, I’ll remember that I can’t fight pain with pain; I need to fight it with love.