Just like a little girl

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A dear friend — my much loved friend — my friend who loves me — once told me that whenever she hears Dylan’s ‘Just Like a Woman’, she is reminded of me.  At the time that she said it I felt hurt.  I even felt a twinge of anger.  At the time that she said it, she was right.  It had been three years since my husband passed away and I was in the midst of an untenable and abusive relationship with a man that daily stripped me down to a trembling shadow of the person I was before.  I broke ‘like a little girl’ on a weekly basis until little by little, through the years that followed, I no longer felt hurt, sad and broken.  Instead I felt nothing at all.  Oh, he continued to regularly abuse and humiliate me, but I had so thoroughly vacated my emotions and my body, that I experienced it more like one witnessing the onslaughts from a distance.  The spectacle was disturbing, but not as internally devastating as it had been in the initial years.  I became stunningly detached from him, from pain, fear, anxiety and grief.  I detached from nearly everyone and everything.  Then one day, I simply and without fanfare left him.

Numbness.  The absence of pain and complicated emotions should not be confused with contentment.  My numbness was like being encased in this body that belongs to me, but did not feel like me; this body that felt detached from the air that surrounds me, from the thoughts, feelings and perceptions both inside and outside of me.  I find it difficult to describe.  It is as though I (dis)engaged with the world around me, people, pets, whatever environment I inhabited at any particular moment in time, as though I was surrounded by protective glass.

Break through.  Chisel through. Smash through.

As I was gearing up to leave him I had this assumption that once I was ‘free’ I would simply return to being the woman I was before I met him.  I assumed that Numb-Heidi would retire her post and quietly evaporate into the space I left behind.  I assumed I’d just pick up the discarded mantle of that other Heidi, who had checked out, who was hiding somewhere in the wings, waiting for me to signal that it was safe to come out now.  I’d throw it over my shoulder and Voilà! my former self emerges from the wreckage, hands on hips, like Wonder Woman, roaring my happy return.

That’s not how it works.  I’ve got a renovation project on my hands.  It’s not a complete demolition/reconstruction job, but there’s some faulty wiring that needs addressing, some rooms that need freshening up.  There are some walls that need windows, and some door hinges that want oiling.  It’s not a condemned  building – far from it.  The foundation is strong.  It’s not perfect, but so far, I like what I’m doing with the place.  I’ve even opened it up to guests now.  It’s still a work-site, but a warm one, a welcoming one.  Most importantly, it’s not a little girl’s playhouse; it’s becoming a woman’s home.

Oh, and the song?  I like it again.  It’s not my song anymore, which is the best part.  This version by Richie Havens is from Bob Dylan’s 30th Anniversary concert.  It’s one of my favourite versions.  I hope you like it too.

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The Incident with the Gun

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Two years ago my boyfriend sent me a text inviting me over for a cup of tea (code word for sex).  I had the day off from work, so I went.  I almost always went.  I drove the three minutes to his house and went around to the back door, letting myself in, as I also almost always did.  As I walked through to the kitchen, he emerged, pointing a shot-gun at me.  I froze.  I said something to the effect of ‘what the fuck’?  He lowered the gun, telling me he’d thought I was a prowler, (He was expecting me!  He invited me over!), then he turned and walked to another part of the house and put the gun away.

I want to say that I turned and left.  I want to say that I called someone, told someone, asked for help.  But I stayed like I almost always did.  I fucked him, put fresh bedding on his bed, and made him a cup of tea, like I almost always did.  Then I drove back home where I ruminated on what happened, growing more and more angry; more and more frightened.  Later when he phoned me, I confronted him.  First he told me, point-blank, that what I said had happened, did not happen.  Gaslighting.  But I was well familiar with that tactic.  I wasn’t having it.  Then he told me he was just ‘joking’ around with me, that I had no sense of humour, that I was taking it too seriously.  I told him it wasn’t funny.

I want to say that I never went back.  I want to say that I ended it then and there, but I didn’t.  For another two months I continued to go to his house, get into his bed, make his bed, make his tea, then drive back home to sit and wonder why the fuck I kept doing that to myself.

It’s been nearly two years since I left him.  I’ve had a lot of time to think about it.  I cannot stop thinking about it.  Every day I think of the seven years I spent in that relationship.  The catalogue of incidents and abuses turns over in my head, a silent newsreel, haunting me daily.

He could have killed me.  He could have blown a hole through my head, or through my body and left my adult children to deal with the mess.  He may or may not have faced consequences.  That’s neither here nor there.  I would still be dead; a pile of torn tissue and shattered bone in a puddle of blood, collapsed on his kitchen floor.  Final.  Un-fixable.

How did I get there?  I was not an innocent.  I was not a twenty-year-old virgin unversed in the vagaries of romantic relationships.  I was a forty-eight-year-old widow; a mother, a grandmother.  He was not my first ‘dangerous’ man.  I richocheted my way to adulthood through an obstacle course of physical, sexual and emotional abuse from which I emerged broken, but alive and with my sense of hope still intact.  He was something I thought I had left behind; but I realize now that He represents someone that can happen to anyone, given the right place, time and set of circumstances.  He happened when my eyes were closed, when my defenses were down.  He was not a random accident.

When I finally left him, it happened so quietly.  There was no heated argument, no violent event, no ‘spoken’ words at all.  I simply shot off a polite, but matter-of-fact email announcing that I was done.  I did not respond to his replies.  I was quiet, but vigilent.  Nothing happened.  Later I moved to another county.  About a year after I left he threatened me with blackmail.  I still did not respond.  It’s conceivable that he could carry out with his threat, but he has not yet and I don’t think he will.  He wanted a response.  He wanted to intimidate me into engaging with him.  It failed.  I believe he has moved on.

I was lucky.  Every day women are murdered by men they loved.  The liklihood a woman will be murdered by her abuser goes up exponentially when, or after, she leaves the relationship.  I did nothing unique or special to account for having left without becoming one of them.  It took me several months to realize that I survived the relationship, the gun incident and my own departure because he elected not to hurt or kill me.  If he had chosen otherwise, there was  little I could do to stop him.  I was lucky, but not entirely unharmed.  Once a week I pay a woman to listen to me as I try to sift through the wreckage of those seven years. Once a week I try to do the work of understanding and more significantly, forgiving myself for the damage that ‘love affair’ did to me; for the craziness and isolation that cut me off from the people that love me, and for the lies and ommissions that enabled the madness to continue under the unsuspecting noses of my children and my friends.

Why am I telling this story now?  Why am I exposing myself, in an open forum, where I could be subject to judgement and ridicule from complete strangers?  How might this affect my family or my friends should they read this and learn of the things I never ‘fully’ disclosed to them?  I do owe them the truth, and we’re getting there.  Gradually.

I’m not entirely sure why I am doing this, but it feels right.  Partly it’s a sign of the times.  In the age of Me Too, Time’s Up and March For Our Lives, so many survivors are standing up and telling their stories.  It’s encouraging and emboldening.  For the first time in nearly a decade I finally feel safe enough to speak my truth.  All this year I have been reading the stories of other women who also survived what I am surviving.  Their stories helped me to understand my own struggle and encouraged me to push through my feelings of shame and isolation and reclaim my dignity.  I want to add my voice to that chorus, so that perhaps my story might resonate with another woman who is struggling, so that she too might harness her strength and join the chorus.

I’m telling my story because my sense of hope is returning, because Spring has emerged and the children have marched, because I am not dead, I am not disfigured, and because far too many others did not escape that fate.  It could’ve been me too.