Sometimes, just when you think you have placed it back on the shelf, tucked away safely in a box, it comes to life, pushing itself out, forcing open the lid, jumping out in front of you. All while you were looking the other way.
The other night, I was having dinner with my business partners while in Boston for a few days of business meetings. We were taking a respite from long days of planning meetings, financial discussions, strategy sessions and all the hard work that goes along with birthing a company. We needed a break and some time to interact with each other as friends. It was a little maintenance.
Many of our meetings recently have been with those who have walked before us – brave souls who took the leap into entrepreneurship, put everything on the line, worked day and night and then, miraculously, reaped big rewards. These are the success stories that catapult you forward. They inspire you to believe that you can do this. That there is a chance that you can succeed. These are the role models and advisors that force you into the arena and encourage you to brave it all. Without them, it is hard to navigate this obstacle course. In fact, the evening prior to our little team dinner we had met with one of those brave souls whose life was changed from his venture. He made many millions of dollars and managed to retire from his corporate life in technology to spend his time dabbling in real estate on Cape Cod. It’s a dream story.
At dinner that evening, one of my partners was sharing more stories of this friend who had hit it big and talked about how he celebrated his victory. While telling the story, my partner wistfully began sharing his own visions of what life might be like if we have a successful outcome. And then my other partner chimed in. One told of how he would take his extended family to Hawaii because his father always wanted to go there. The other shared ways in which he would provide his large, extended family with security and stability. And then they looked at me. They smiled and waited expectantly for me to talk about the dreams that motivate me. They looked for me to share the ideal that propels me forward each day. I was meant to discuss the place that I go when thinking about why I put in all the hours each day, struggle through the uphill battles to create something out of nothing.
But, I had long ago tuned out of this conversation. Because, for me, there are no dreams like that. For me, it is always about survival. I just want to survive. And, for me, the success is to survive more easily. There are no dreams of big family vacations or summer houses or leaving a legacy for my parents or siblings. There is no extended family to share my success with. There is no one rooting me beyond my little family of four. For me, I celebrate when I’ve made it through one more day, one more week, one more year without slipping into darkness. My legacy will be to not perpetuate abuse.
It was difficult to share with my partners – two men who come from robust families rooted in love and strong values – that I did not have such visions in my mind. “What motivates you forward?” was the question my partners asked. And, meekly, shamefully, painfully, I admitted that all I could ever think about is getting to tomorrow. Watching their twisted, pained faces reminded me of what I had managed to tuck away and forget: I am a child of abuse.
Sometimes I forget where I come from. I have managed to create a life for myself that resembles one of normalcy. You have to look really close – pull out your magnifying glass – to see the deep wounds that have settled in under my skin. The scars are barely visible but they certainly know how to erupt out of my skin at the most inopportune times. Like many other abuse survivors, I have constructed a world that allows me to operate at a high level, dodging the triggers that may set off the landmines that are scattered around, buried just deeply enough that I rarely see the tripwire laying beneath my feet. From the outside, most people have no idea of the gyrations that occur each day to allow me to function. In fact, most days even I don’t see them. It is second nature. It is reality. It is normal.
Until those days that I am reminded that I am not like everyone else. And the bomb goes off. Just like that – “boom” and I am hurled backwards, flat on my back, covered in debris and I pray that I can dust myself off and get back up again.
During the discussion the other night, I excused myself to use the ladies’ room. I needed to get away from the table because I couldn’t breathe. Their innocent question was like an assault rifle in my face. I could feel the cold metal tip pressing into my flesh and I tightened up awaiting the blast to come from the barrel that would blow me to pieces. I quickly walked to the back of the restaurant, scurried into a stall, sat down and sobbed. I was blindsided as I often am. I never see it coming. I get lulled into complacency and forget that I need to be aware of the perils that often lay before me. And, like this night, they seem innocuous. They are wolves in sheep’s clothing. Of course, my partners were delightfully bantering about their hopes and dreams and could never imagine that a conversation like this would induce anything less than positive chatter. Of course not. They have not been abused. And that recognition left me feeling isolated. I could not help but see, in bright neon lights, the message that I am different. My eyes see something so radically different. My brain functions with a different operating system. And, no matter how I try to engage, I cannot escape my reality. Nor, probably, should I.
Later that evening, after succumbing to the pain when the bullets sliced through me. As I bled out, back in my hotel room, I tried to make some sense of my feelings. After all, it has been a long time since I’ve fallen back into that space. It has been months since I found myself flying in this cockpit. I had reframed it all for myself, acknowledging that my reality today is so different from where I came from. All of my abusers are dead or have been forcibly removed from my life. I am living in a safe space, protected from the ghosts of my past. As I thought through the reaction that even surprised me, I could not escape the painful reality that no matter how hard I try to paint over the ugliness, no matter how many different ways I attempt to rewrite this story, I cannot erase it. I cannot undo what was done. I cannot unknow what I know. Every experience in my life is coupled with my past because I am always a part of it. I cannot untether myself from myself. I cannot selectively slice out the cancer for it long ago spread into all of my cells. And, while it might lie in remission, it is always there and there is always the possibility that the disease will flare up.
I sat in my hotel room and mourned for that little girl once again. The little girl whose light was so abruptly dimmed. The one who knew, without really knowing, that life was not going to be the same as all the others around her. The one who walked around shattered, holding herself together with scotch tape, hoping no one would notice that she was frequently coming apart. The adhesive has gotten stronger over the years but the glue still dries up and pieces fall off, needing to be mended.
Through my tears, I saw that little girl, so broken and sad and tried desperately to comfort her but, on this night, I was depleted. For no particular reason. The winds blew me down. I lost my footing and I stepped on the mine. I was blown to pieces and could not protect that little girl. I was weak and vulnerable and she peeked out, scared and alone. I could not rescue her. I could not shield her from the blast. I could only acknowledge her, sad that she has not been able to rest in peace.
It’s going to take some time to put the pieces back together. You see, mine is an intricately-woven mosaic. There is no blueprint for how it all sits together but, when firmly in place, it’s beautiful to look at. As the tiles fall off and the cement below is bare, it looks battered and bruised and it is difficult to remember which pieces go where in order to restore it to its original beauty. For me, I need to, once again, process my truth. I need to take this new piece of information about myself and add it to my mosaic and find a place to put it so as not to disrupt the others. I need to gather up all that fell off and try to restore myself to perhaps an even more magnificent array. But, for now, I will contemplate my design. I will try to heal a bit before I get back to the work of restoration. I will conserve my energy and prepare for the marathon that lies ahead.
And, I will try to move beyond. I will try to adopt the thinking of my partners. Perhaps there is more for me than mere survival. Maybe I can envision a world that offers a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. But first, I need to find the rainbow so I can climb on up.