“Nothing fixes a thing so intensely in the memory as the wish to forget it.”
-Michel de Montaigne
Memory is a weird thing for me. I once testified in court, and later before Congress, because of “my amazing recall and memory.” I used to drive my ex-husband crazy with my ability to recount arguments word for word. However, for years I have had no memory of the first 10 to 12 years of my childhood…a trauma response to severe abuse. I used to get flashes and pieces of memories that reminded me of looking through one of those viewfinder toys I had as a kid, but it didn’t seem real…they couldn’t be real (I thought) as they were just too much to handle.Those suppressed childhood memories started to come back in 2017 after my mother and stepfather both died within a week of each other. My mom passed the day of my stepfather’s funeral. At my mother’s funeral, the walls holding up the false persona I had been presenting to the world were shaken when I was confronted with my abusers. These walls became a prison shortly after her funeral due to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness..I had to “put on a good face” for the funeral and “make nice” with those who hurt me deeply…and it was overwhelming to the point of breaking that persona I had held onto for so long for survival.
That year (2017) marked the beginning of a long and painful turning point. It started with my near obsession with uncovering and chasing down my lost memories. A journey through several “dark-nights-of-the-soul” as I chipped away at all of my illusions, fantasies, and preconceived notions of self…I was on a quest for truth. However, the thing about Truth is that it doesn’t care about your wants, your dreams, or your feelings. Truth is said to set you “free,” which is why I was running after it with such zeal. But people forget to tell you that Truth is painful and raw…and persistent. It is not for the faint of heart, my friend, at least not the type of Truth that reveals traumas and abuses…nope, that SoB hits like a freight train and leaves scars.
Fast-forward to a few months ago when I woke up one day and realized I was in a severely emotionally abusive relationship with an unprincipled and compensatory narcissist (actual terms for him)…I felt so confused. It was like waking up one morning and realizing I was down “Alice’s Hole in Wonderland,” where right was wrong and up was down… my entire reality had been an illusion and there I was trying to “play nice” in a huge pile of sh#t.
Thankfully, I have enough awareness to recognize a pile of sh#t when I finally see it… so, with a bit of help from friends (the ones he hadn’t pushed out of my life), I left my little “Wonderland Hole” in New York City and the dung pile of a relationship with it. Over the past few months I have been trying to figure it all out. What went wrong? It’s easy to blame the narcissist for their lies, manipulation and gaslighting (all valid points), but it’s harder to look at yourself in the mirror and ask, “Why did you let this happen?” “Where does it hurt?” And then listen for the answer that pesky little friend “Truth” drops in response to such questions.
Looking back, I can see how everything from that point forward has been a response to losing my “life partner” and my “identity” in the matter of a couple of weeks. Reeling from the suddenness of it all, I have spent the last several months unconsciously retracing my steps trying to piece together all the little things that compiled my journey into toxic codependency.
After leaving NYC, I ended up in the little Texas town of Magnolia where it all began in 2017 after Hurricane Harvey. I remembered wanting to die in the days leading up to my mom’s birthday that year. That was when I became heavily involved with humanitarian aid…it was like a life preserver being thrown to me in the form of “doing something for others.” I couldn’t fix myself (at least not at that time), but I could help others.
I would console myself in knowing that even if I had to drink myself to sleep at night to get through it, at least I was helping people. Now don’t get me wrong, I was good at what I did. Surviving a natural disaster, losing everything, that is trauma… and I understand trauma. I knew what that lost look in people’s eyes meant. I knew they didn’t know where to start, how to begin to heal and be made whole again. I couldn’t find my way, but I could help them find theirs. It was an outlet that helped me feel less trapped by my own traumas and memories.
After helping in Texas, I found myself in Miami after Hurricane Irma hit. I had met up with a team and we hit the road to the Florida Keys to support a coalition of disaster relief groups. I spent time in the Keys helping where I could, and becoming “friends” with my new team. It felt good to be active…and distracted. I would eventually leave Big Pine Key and head back to Miami after Hurricane Maria, to help in Puerto Rico. While it’s not politically correct to say, I was grateful for an active hurricane season that year.
During that time, however, I had a growing dependency on my love interest and others to help guide me. It seemed safer to trust others, since I felt so out of touch with myself. Unfortunately, that choice landed me in so many sketchy situations, but back then I just kept going. The good I was doing outweighed the bad. Sure, I had predators after my inheritance (seeking funding for their questionable projects), and people leeching off my kindness for personal gain, but at least I wasn’t alone, right? It became a game of denial, and I played it with as little pain as I could…numbing the heartache by going along with the crowd and their drugs and alcohol, and I threw in endless hours working to help others in need to ease my mind. Honestly, I’m grateful I’m alive to be looking back on it all.
Like I mentioned, I have been physically drawn back to many of my “origin story” locations this year (2020), and it’s been like opening a time capsule. I had put some things in storage in Miami after my partner and I had come back from 6 months in Puerto Rico. I had been paying on it for almost three years. Last week, I went back to that unit in Miami and pulled everything out. Sitting among those things I saw the life of a woman I didn’t even recognize anymore. The ultimate time capsule. Following the breadcrumbs to uncover my elusive Truth. Trying to remember what she was thinking. Trying not to judge her choices… but failing to do so.
In the items strewn around the storage unit, I saw the “Old Anita,” and remembered how no one had ever taken care of her. At the age of four she became a “mom,” raising her little sister, protecting her from the abuse she endured. That protective instinct extended to all those around her, family, friends, lovers…but never to herself.
I began to see more clearly how the brokenness Old Anita experienced could lead her to follow the “idea of love” to New York where she was asked to care for another lost soul…the mother of her new partner who was dying of cancer. From here it seemed logical and even natural to protect and lie for the man she loved, even as it was destroying her sense of self. The Old Anita found stuffed in boxes in the Miami storage unit wanted love at any cost…she would be whomever she needed to be, as long as she didn’t feel alone or unloved anymore.
I sat on the floor of that storage unit for a couple of hours and picked apart the journey and more importantly I remembered and began to see things more clearly.
The anger, the rage at all of the lies, empty promises, false hopes, and disgust at myself…it all came rushing back. This woman allowed herself to be used. To play along with a new false persona. To face the world again with a beautiful lie. To allow her trauma to be used as a prop, an excuse by others for their mistreatment. I was done with her and everything that storage unit contained of her. I left that storage unit with a few items that still held value to me, but the rest I threw away. Another dark-night-of-the-soul. Another illusion slipping away.
To say it was a cathartic experience would not be accurate…it was a wall breaking experience. I was ready to move beyond my fears and self-imposed limitations founded upon trauma. I was ready to experience me…just me. And for the first time in years…I felt like I mattered again.
After leaving the “boxes of broken dreams” in Miami I decided to ask myself, the inner child, what she wanted to do and she said, “Drive.” So, I rented a car that day and drove to the Florida Keys. Each step along the way I embraced the child within. I didn’t feel guilty for indulging her. No one else ever honored or indulged her, so it was up to me. We played with dolphins, played around on a jet ski and went parasailing. We swam in the ocean at night, floating without fear in the darkness. I could finally be wild, be free.
I let it all go in the ocean. Every label and idea of who I thought I was. I will no longer hide behind those labels. I will no longer wait for someone to save me. I will no longer protect abusers. I will say “no” when I need to and when I want to without guilt or justification. I will let go of trying to “save the world” while ignoring myself.
I know now the only way to make a real difference is to heal..and that is the Truth that has set me truly free.
“Some of us think holding on makes us strong but sometimes it is letting go”