Shame and silence benefit only the abuser. Use your voice.
The pain of betrayal chars the most beautiful memories to ash.
The beginning of September saw my faith in humanity shatter as I discovered that the first man I’d fallen in love with post-divorce had manipulated, lied, and cheated his way through our five months of (explicitly agreed-upon monogamous) dating. Adding insult to injury was the revelation that a (supposedly) dear friend had been part of the lies. I couldn’t even pretend it wasn’t true; I couldn’t deny it. I had texts. Pictures. Screencaptures. Recordings. Videos. It was real. And it was ugly.
Nothing stings like learning that your truth had the emotional weight of a fistful of cotton candy.
On Days One and Two after the sordid story emerged, I cried nonstop, shaking with hurt and regret and embarrassment, my shock as fine and feathery as ash, my regret as strange and dark as a murder of crows, my hope as fragile and translucent as glass.
On Day Three I began hearing from other women who had experienced similar abuses from the same man. Oh, how I wished someone could have told me sooner. What I wouldn’t have given to have been warned. (Would I have been ready to listen?)
In the wake of my divorce, I was terribly vulnerable. Even as Dan and I agreed to be kind and separate gracefully, numbness enshrouded me. And when I wasn’t numb, I was a tight wad of anxiety. And when I wasn’t anxious, I wanted to die.
But I did not die, as most of us do not, even at our lowest moments when we would welcome the swift splat of a meteor barreling to earth as we lay in our beds staring blankly at the ceiling. The meteor never came. And as the days passed, I ate, I showered, I was held up by the strength of friends and family.
And I fell in love with a man who positioned himself so perfectly to be my knight in shining armor – my boldest champion, my best companion. But he was a wolf wearing sheepskin. (He wore it so well.)
On the fourth day, I woke up from a nightmare, feeling sick and sad and so very alone. I was sleeping on an air mattress in my friend Ara’s loft, a cool Oregon breeze wafting in through the open windows, the first glow of sunrise nudging me fully out of my dream world. I threw my journal in my bag and buckled on my boots and tip-toed out of the house.
And I walked.
For two hours I walked through north Portland, tromping down the sidewalks past dreamy clapboard cottages and streamlined modern bungalows, under arched tree limbs and the delicate fingers of flowers overreaching their boxes.
And I rejected the mental utterance of his name – He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named – and looked forward. No more backwards. Only forward. That was the rule.
Because I cannot control what he says or does. I cannot seize and stop his spin on reality. I cannot help who is swayed by his charm and his dimples and his complex tangle of lies.
I can only know that I know the truth.
And at the core of that truth is the certainty that this is my one life. I do not have time for those who would taint it with lies and abuses.
As I walked up and down and across and through, my Wise Mind said to me, “What will you do next with these legs and hands and heart and voice? Which steps will draw you closer to the person you want to be? Which direction will bring you nearer to the life you’ve always imagined?”
I thought about the work that drives me, and the people who inspire me, and the adventures that await me – the long, meandering drives and the heart-pumping hikes; the thrilling dives into the ocean and the late nights of talking over warm whiskey and plates half-finished; the early morning meditations toward the face of the sun, and the quiet connections with new people, new places, new dreams.
I also thought about the loves I have yet to kiss. The kindreds I have yet to embrace. The beauty I have yet to unearth.
“No one will love you, “ my Emotional Mind said.
“Someone will love you,” my Rational Mind said.
“You are already so terribly loved,” my Wise Mind said.
On the side of the road, among a smattering of leftover garage sale items carefully discarded for interested scavengers, I found a small train case, identical in color and texture to one my great-grandmother had owned. It was wet with the morning damp, but not damaged beyond use, and I claimed it and carried it through north Portland, clomping down the sidewalk past a playground slide hosting three ruffled crows, under swaying boughs and drifting leaves and misty sunlight.
Back at the house, I kicked my boots by the stairs. I laid the compact blue case in front of a box fan to dry. I spread my blanket roughly over the air mattress. “Do the next thing,” my mother always tells me.
Physical aggression, verbal manipulation, compulsive lying, blatant cheating, and gleeful disregard for the standards of commitment all demand that I extract He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named completely and unerringly from my life – as a friend, as a colleague, as a lover.
Compassion, caution, and the basic tenets of feminism demand that I use my voice to warn the women and men of my tribe. He was my boyfriend. He may be your husband, your next-door neighbor, the man dating your daughter or son, the man pursuing your wife or husband. He will be the heaviness in your gut you cannot quite identify. He will be the foul taste in your mouth you cannot explain. He will find you at your weakest and tell you you’re at your best. He will massage and maneuver you as his needs dictate, because he does not control his desires as the rest of us do. He does not own his tendencies and temptations. They own him. They control him. And they have no regard for the tenderness of your heart or the delicacy of your bones.
You will never fulfill him. And you cannot fix him. You can only let him go.
Honor your intuition, my darling sisters and brothers. Pay attention to your Wise Mind, that masterful intertwining of head and heart that is telling you the truth – whether or not you want to hear it. Listen to the throbbing in your temples and the aching in your spine and the tingling in your fingertips. You know. You know. You know.
And then walk away. Walk, and walk, and walk some more, until you are far – far from even his memory. Walk until all you see around you is the sun bathing the sidewalk; until all you hear around you is the murmur of wind through the trees; until all you feel around you is the warm authenticity of true friends, steadfast colleagues, unwavering lovers.
I am gathering the remains of my lost five months into a box to set upon the highest shelf. It will remind me of where I have been. It will warn me of where I should not go again. It will propel me forward every time misguided nostalgia or irrational fear threaten to drag me back.
The fire of betrayal may burn and rage. But the sand of my soul can take it. Because my sorrow is as fine and feathery as ash. My love is as strange and dark as a murder of crows. My spirit is as fragile and translucent as glass.