THIS IS THE LAST TIME I TELL THIS STORY - Director's Cut
“For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts. The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.”
-Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
It’s January and I’m sitting at a kitchen counter, wrapped up in a blanket. Across from me stands a man, very tall and very beautiful, and he asks me to tell him a story.
“Something that defined you. It doesn’t have to be good.”
I knew what he was asking for.
After our first night together, we had laid in bed with black coffee and the cold morning turning from gray to purple outside the window and he told me I was guarded.
His observation, so soft and yet matter-of-fact, was like a swift punch to the gut and it felt like the wind had been knocked out of me and the ground dropped from beneath me at the same time. He didn’t know me. We’d only just met. And we’d been drinking. And was I really that transparent? I thought I’d been doing so well. No one ever called me out like that before.
He’d seen me. And it was terrifying. And now he wanted to understand what he’d seen.
I stared at the roasted vegetables on my plate. It was a story I knew by heart, one I had read over and over, thousands of times. One that I’d allowed others to read to me, that I’d tried to shove in the hands of family and friends and men like some user’s manual. Not because it was good or true, but because there was a strange comfort in its familiarity, a sense of safety in its predictability.
I didn’t want to show him my shitty first draft. But up until that moment, I thought it was the only story I had.
See, over the years I’ve worn the trauma of my childhood in different fashions. First as a cloak: I pretended it wasn’t true. I pushed it down, I pulled myself in. And by the time I was a teenager, when it was time for first kisses and second base, I perfected the art of leaving myself. I earned the reputation of a prude, who would turn bright red and get all quiet when my friends started talking about the weird biology of hooking up.
In college I got lost in drugs and waves of crippling depression and I slept with lots of guys, usually no more than once. I surrounded myself with the sweetest male friends who adored me and wanted so badly to be my boyfriend, while I fell for the narcissists, the players, the hot and emotionally unavailable.
I felt safe when I was wanted. When I was touched but not seen.
By my 20s the cloak became armor, this obtrusive, unwieldy home that I wasn’t comfortable in but couldn’t bear to take off. I had reached the point where I would sometimes talk openly about my past. After all, it explained so much. Why I chose the wrong guys. Why I was so sad. Why I hurt myself in tangible and intangible ways.
Then I met a guy. I started therapy, telling the therapist outright at our first session that I was there because I’d met someone, and I was afraid that if I didn’t sort myself out I’d ruin it.
But, eight months later he cheated on me and I lost my mind. I entered the “intrusive stage” of what would eventually be diagnosed as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I had nightmares and flashbacks. My anxiety was unrelenting. I quit my job. I took lots of Xanax and drank too much. I was suddenly drowning in it, this thing that had happened 15 years prior. Everything became about my abuse. It was the undying curse of my childhood, the excuse for everything. For bad sex. For bad fights. For my anger and my hurt and my feelings of distrust.
I wanted so badly to be beyond this horrible thing that had happened when I was little. To make love the way I thought one should, to welcome affection, to feel safe in my body. To not feel defective. But my shitty first draft had become the foundation of my relationship with the world. A dark vow taken in secret. An abusive relationship in and of itself.
“There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” -Leonard Cohen
The birth of my daughter cracked me open at the seams. I couldn’t hold her close the way I wanted to in the cold and spiky armor I’d been wearing. I didn’t want her to know me by my shitty first draft. I discovered meditation, and there found a flickering sense of solidity, a weightedness. Like an anchor, not an albatross.
I was convinced I was cured. The emerging consciousness of my higher self combined with some EMDR therapy and a new, primal, deeply satisfying sexual relationship had me convinced that I’d finally shed the awkward confines of my armor. I didn’t realize it had merely been appropriated into a shield and sword until the imperfect humanness of my new lover began to show and I wanted to cut and run, swinging my shitty first draft at him like a weapon to aid in my escape. “Oh yeah, well you know what happened to me?”
Then it was time to try vulnerability. Full disclosure. “Owning” it.
And so that cloak-turned-armor-turned-sword now turned gaping wound. Instead of leading with the woman I had become, I was sending my scared and violated eight-year-old self to the table to explain away behaviors before they happened. I was setting the stage with my shitty first draft, and getting left like roadkill on some murderous vulnerability highway.
So I stitched myself up and went back inside. I longed for my suit of armor, to feel the numbing weight of its cover, but I couldn’t find it. The only choice was to climb to safety. To go up. To find a higher place where I could sit and observe. I discovered the work of Byron Katie. Threw myself into my yoga and meditation practice.
And before I knew it, I’m sitting in this kitchen being asked about my story.
The words start running out of my mouth. I tell him about the cloak and the armor and the sword and the gaping wound. About the little perch I’d built above the fray. About moving back to the place I grew up six months earlier and seeing my abuser in the coffee shop. And how for several weeks I had constant revenge fantasies, where I covered his place of work with signs saying “pedophile” or walked by him in the company of others and casually asked if he was still into little girls.
My eyes moved from my plate to the place where the granite countertop met the cream colored wall and I stared into the seam. “But I see him now and he seems so small. I’ve made this extraordinary life in spite of what he did. It didn’t break me… he’s just small, and I’m magnificent.”
I looked at my lover then, surprised at what had just come out of my mouth and saw a look of quiet astonishment I’d never seen meet that story before, probably because it had never been told quite like that. “You are magnificent,” he said. “Tell me you really know that.”
“I do,” I told him, and I felt as whole as I ever had.
Brené Brown says, “When we own our stories, we get to write a brave new ending.” That moment in the kitchen I realized I was rewriting my shitty first draft. That I was writing my own ending, every moment. And because of that, I’d always be okay.
I’m still working on it. I’m still learning how to engage in intimate relationships. It gets ugly sometimes. I spin out, get triggered, flooded, shut down. There are moments — much briefer now than they used to be — where it feels like I’m pushing up against the wall of my past and it will never, ever move.
Because the truth is, what happened to me as a child was very real. Very tragic. Very unfair. I didn’t choose it, and I couldn’t stop it.
But I get to choose how much power it has over my life now, knowing there’s a very fine line between owning it and living by it.
So in those immoveable moments, I remind myself that I decide how this story ends. I remind myself that I desire patience and tenderness and respect in relationship not because I’m a victim or a survivor, but because I’m a human. A human with a big, hungry heart and an incontrovertible belief that we are so much more than the things that happen to us. That absolutely anything is possible if we are bold enough to write a new story everyday and fancy ourselves a magnificent hero, brave and unashamed of humble beginnings.
An edited version of this story was published by Elephant Journal, September 15, 2015.