dreams2I am a dreamer – both literally and figuratively. I tend to wander off into my own head, imagining different realities for myself. I explore unknown places in my mind while I sit at my desk or am relaxing in the sun. And, when I close my eyes at night, I usually escape into a world where all my challenges and all the difficulties that would otherwise keep me lying awake are strewn out before me in landscapes and textures that are both real and tangible while also cryptic and complicated, offering me fodder to process and explore. Everything comes out in my dreams. So many issues are solved through the deeper meaning of my dreams. I usually remember them and they often stay with me for days weeks, months and even years.

So, when I woke up this morning, startled awake from a dream that was so real that all my senses were heightened, smelling the smells and seeing the sights in rich Technicolor, I knew I needed to pay attention. I knew there was something going on. I’ve been quietly and privately working through some issues in my mind for months and the disorientation I felt when I sat up in bed assured me that some headway was being made. I simply needed to navigate through it to figure out exactly what I was supposed to be paying attention to. There was no clear map. It was more like a scavenger hunt without the big X indicating the treasure. There were clues buried all throughout my dream and, as I revealed each one, more information would become available and the pieces would begin to fit together

Typically, I gently ease out of my dreams, resting in a transitional state nestling me between my dream and the light of day. I often fade in and out of dreams, sometimes returning to them and often finding myself intertwined between several different ones, all typically very real and seemingly literal. I do not dream about creatures with multiple heads, magical places or figurative symbols. My dreams include people, conversations and images that are all part of my everyday life. Because I believe that many of the people in my life appear in my life to help me sort through past challenges and to reinform me about lessons that might not have been absorbed earlier in life, I also believe that these individuals show up in my dreams as a representatives of others who have challenged me or pained me, serving as guides through my subconscious journey.

This morning I bolted from my bed after awaking from one of the most unusual dreams I have had in years and quickly started processing it. I needed to understand its meaning because it was so odd and so disturbing that I realized it had layers of complexity all lined up to provide me with a very important message. Even though it was still very early, I knew I had no chance of falling back asleep so I came downstairs and sat on the couch, beginning to piece together all the parts of the puzzle in an attempt to try to understand the deeper meaning.

My mother, dead for a year and a half, made an appearance in my dream and was as real and alive as she ever was. The color of her lipstick and the signature scent of her perfume permeated my senses, chilling me. I have not dreamt much of her since her death and, when I have, she was more of a faint figure in the background. I have had no interaction with her in my dreams. I might see her image or know she is around but she and I have not faced off in the time since her death. And, oddly, in this dream my husband and kids were non-existent. Often I will have dreams where they are not present but I know they exist. In this dream, they had no existence and, when I awoke, I was very disoriented. It took me a minute or two to get my bearings and realize the body next to me in my bed was, in fact, my husband and this was my house with my family. In my dream, I had been transported back to a time in my life before this family existed and, right there, was a critical piece of the story. There was only me, alone and trying to find a safe harbor. There were echoes of my life here in New Jersey (which, oddly, didn’t exist before my husband) but I was clearly on my own. The beginning of the dream, as I remember it, I had driven to Kansas City (which was apparently only a short 7 hour drive instead of the more realistic 18-20 hours) after attending what appeared to be either a Halloween or a Super Bowl party on a block in my town where several friends lived. (The actual location was quite significant to me after I thought about it because of the people I know who live there and what they represent in my life.) There was something bothering me at the party and I felt the need to escape so I got in the car, knowing there was only one place to go and that was to my friend in Kansas City. I felt confident that visiting him would alleviate my discomfort. As happens in dreams, the trip flew by and I was magically transported to his house, arriving midday on Sunday. It was summer and the sky was an odd midwestern color. There were no clouds and, as I have heard and even once seen, the sky had a tint of green which suggests that a major storm is nearing. My friend was pleasant, as was his partner, but he was surprised to see me and not sure what to make of my visit. I realized quickly that they were having a party which started with just a single friend sitting in their living room to, ultimately, having people streaming through the door by the dozens, all carrying trays of barbecue which I do not like. Rather than putting me at ease, everything about the setting was making me uncomfortable. I briefly talked with my friend to share some unpleasant news about another friend who had contracted a serious illness and noticed my lips quivering as I was talking to him, ready to cry. I was uneasy, feeling like I was again somewhere I did not belong. It was similar to the feeling that I had at the party earlier in the dream which prompted me to take the road trip in the first place. This overwhelming discomfort was underscored by the fact that I thought I was in a safe place – a place where I would otherwise feel very comfortable and secure. Instead, I felt out-of-place, unwilling to talk to the other party guests and quickly made my escape, saying over and over, “I really need to get back home.” Perhaps it was a Dorothy moment, trying to click my ruby slippers to return home and awake from the dream.

I left the house and proceeded to walk down the long front path, passing more and more guests as they made their way into the house. I remember feeling poorly dressed, looking shabby and embarrassed by my appearance. Perhaps that was one of the reasons I didn’t want to stay at their party. Seeing the endless streams of people flowing into the house added to the mounting tension. I was troubled for sure. I was conflicted. I desperately wanted to seek shelter in my friend’s home but I could not escape the feeling that I was an intruder – an interloper who was unwelcome and unwanted. I felt sad and scared. I got back into my car with my mind racing trying to figure out the best next move. I knew I should head home but I had a nagging feeling that it was not the right decision. I ultimately decided to head back hoping that the familiarity of my house would bring me some peace. On my way out of town, I stopped at a small grocery store to get some food and drink for the long drive but, all the while, my head was filled with thoughts, wondering why I had made such a long drive just to talk to my friend and why I was leaving just because he had other friends at his house. If it was so important that a call would not suffice, why wouldn’t I have just stayed? When I went into the store, I had a nagging sense that I had been there before and then found a set of car keys on a table in the small dining section of the store. I was perplexed why no one had cleared the table since it had to be at least hours since I was last there and I was curious as to whom the keys belonged. I focused in on that a bit and then swiftly moved around the store in search of sustenance.

Suddenly, my friend was there with me in the store and now it looked a bit more like a diner. There was a brick wall partitioning off the space with doorways at either end of the wall that opened into another section of the diner/shop. I wandered around the corner of the store into the section on the other side of the wall in order to see what other food items were available and there I first saw my mother sitting at a table, clearly enamored with a gentleman friend. The sight of her took my breath away and my already tense body became more rigid. I knew, in this moment, that I was a young adult. I could not have been more than 19 or 20. I was so alarmed to see her there, an odd juxtaposition of her unpleasantness in a location that typically makes me happy and peaceful. Besides, my mother never ventured far beyond New York City except to go to Florida so, to find her in Kansas City was highly out-of-order. Her presence there was dominating. What had been a very dull backdrop up to that point was now awash in color. Her bright red dyed hair glistened. Her makeup – always overdone and poorly applied – was as vibrant as ever with her lips bathed in a bright pink shimmer. I could not help but look at her because she stood out so boldly and I could feel the gravitational pull towards her.

I walked over to her table and stood before her, feeling very small. I had a familiar feeling from when I was a young girl, worried that I was in trouble. I realized instantly that much of my anxiety was rooted in my fear of her wrath after she realized I was gone, having dared to get in my car and drive all the way to Kansas City without first asking her permission. I was worried about the consequences of such a decision. I understood that my nagging feeling about having to get back was because I feared the consequences of my impulsive move. I felt trapped, without options. I knew my only course of action was to head home immediately so as to not get into any further trouble. But, at the same time, I couldn’t help but realize that the cat was out of the bag and the source of my angst was sitting right before me in this shop. She smugly looked at me and made several remarks which left me feeling nervous and tense. I went back around the corner of the store, grabbed my friend and asked him to come over to see my mother. I had the real-life consciousness to understand that he had never met my mother because I was estranged from her when we met and then she died so no opportunity presented itself. I wanted to capitalize on this because I needed him to see her in living color. I needed him to bear witness to the misery she put me through.

When I introduced him to her, she was cordial and pleasant as she often was when meeting strangers. She adeptly put on her show, smiling big, showing off her white teeth and pretending she was delighted to meet him. She introduced her gentleman friend to us who was busy adoring her and leaning across the table to press his head to her chest. It was an odd gesture but it was patent behavior for my mother’s suitors. Always insecure about her appearance, she surrounded herself with men who doted on her both emotionally and physically. My mother, not a great beauty, found men who desired her so she could feel better about herself and then withhold her affections from them – a strange game of cat and mouse that allowed her to always be in control.

I began to get emotional again and but mustered all the strength I had to not allow myself to cry in front of her. I was not willing to show any weakness for fear that the predator would strike and eat me alive. Throughout this, I continued to grow more fearful and felt even more alone. I held onto my friend’s arm as I needed someone to support me and comfort me and I looked to him to provide that. I wanted him to fight my mother alongside me but, of course, this was not his fight. And, while he might, in real life, capitalize on such a tantalizing opportunity, in my dream, he simply stood beside me, physically prepared to catch me should I collapse but merely acting as an observer. I glanced down at the table as I stood tall, trying to stand up to my bully and noticed that my mother and her friend had rented some adult movies. I was disgusted and embarrassed to see the DVDs and I found myself yelling at her, chastising her for her inappropriate behavior. Yet, throughout it all, I felt judged and small and this was simply an attempt to level the playing field.

As the tension heightened, ironically, I began to have clarity about the situation. I was awash with the realization that I did not have to accommodate my mother’s requests. I suddenly felt empowered and needing to escape her grip. I leaned in to my friend and said “I need to talk to you afterwards. I have something really important to tell you.”

And then I woke up.


abuseMany survivors insist they’re not courageous: ‘If I were courageous I would have stopped the abuse.’ ‘If I were courageous, I wouldn’t be scared’… Most of us have it mixed up. You don’t start with courage and then face fear. You become courageous because you face your fear. ― Laura Davis

I never wanted to admit that I was the victim of abuse. I suppose I always knew it in the back of my head but something about the powerlessness that comes from that type of admission along with the shame attached to it, prevented me from joining the club of survivors. I struggled with the notion of being a victim. That moniker never worked or me. Instead, I labeled myself as strong, as powerful, as having free will. I never considered myself to be weak and incapable of defending myself. How would I ever fall victim to someone else? No, not me.

When I came out of hiding. When I shed my skin and unveiled my truth, I could not help but acknowledge that I had, indeed, been abused. Consistently. Painfully. Extraordinarily. It was outrageous and unacceptable. And, for me, I was born into it. I had no sophistication. No awareness. I never saw it coming. Yet, I was no more unaware or blindsided than a fully grown adult who might find themselves in what they believe to be a loving relationship that ultimately becomes abusive because the abuser has set their sights on prey that offers up love and warmth and acceptance, only to be betrayed and exploited.

As a young girl, I adored my parents. More my mother than my father because he was quickly absent from our lives. His philandering ways were present long before I was born. After all, he and my mother began their relationship while he was married to his first wife and, unbeknownst to her, had landed himself a pregnant mistress. Honesty, loyalty, respect and fidelity were not strong character traits for my father but how could I possibly know that at the tender age of 4 or 5? My mother, on the other hand, was ever-present in my life. I believed that she loved me like all mothers do and every day, before school, I would kiss her goodbye, affectionately expressing my love and adoration for her. I somehow failed to notice her growing inability to offer me unconditional love as I matured, began to think for myself and had more sophistication. I grew suspect of her lack of empathy, compassion or ability to wholeheartedly support my emotional growth but I continued along my flower-lined path worshipping her and aggressively shoving away the negative feelings that were beginning to overtake my mind.

I was nearly 40 years old before I admitted (only to myself) that I was abused. The word would shout out in my head and I would swiftly shut it down, unwilling to entertain the notion. I stifled my feelings, like I had for so many years, masking them with pints of ice cream or cookies or anything I could shove into my mouth, forcing back the words abuse and victim. Sure, my mother hit me but practically every kid in my generation endured the same punishment. It was commonplace. The welts from the belt buckle or the stinging pain from the spatula that she beat me with seemed an appropriate response for when she became frustrated with my behavior. This did not make me a victim. The years of being told “I love you but I do not like you” as a pre-adolescent as I naturally explored my boundaries while hormones began surging through my body were her way of indicating that my behavior was unacceptable and that I needed to change. The emotional torture resulting from finding envelopes in my mailbox in college addressed to “Palazzo,” signifying her disconnection from me, her dehumanization of me, her attempt to annihilate my identity were a just response to my lack of frequent communication. Then, years later, her lashing out at me the day after I helped her to move into a new condo, closer to my home in New Jersey to be closer to my family was simply her right because she was stressed and overwhelmed. Telling me that I forced her into making the worst mistake of her life after I spent months and months, at her request, helping her find a new place, packing her house and supporting her through the sale of her home was simply something she had to do and I had to accept as her loving daughter. It was my job to absorb her pain.

The day when I was down on my kitchen floor, on my knees and 6 months pregnant , and I begged her to stop hurting me and she looked at me with cold, empty eyes telling me how worthless I was, I started cracking. Even though I begged for her forgiveness as she reminded me of all the mistakes and bad choices I had made in my 36 years of life, I looked up at her through tear-stained eyes and pleaded. I knew this was not ok. And yet, I continued to beg her to love me despite the fact that I didn’t believe I was worthy. I still did not look at her as my abuser. I was not the victim. I had disappointed her. I was faulty goods. I could do better.

It was several years later, as I, once again, sobbed to her on the telephone, begging her to stop hurting me, feeling the strikes and blows she so brilliantly issued with her tongue, that my awareness shifted. When I slammed the phone down, hyper-ventilating, sobbing to the point that I thought I would stop breathing, I suspected I might have a problem. When my four year-old son asked why grandma made me cry so much, the lightbulb went off. Thousands of lightbulbs, flashing in my eyes, burning holes in my skin indicated that something was not right. My son, so innocent, so gentle, so sweet and so, so smart and insightful told me what I could not tell myself for nearly 40 years. Grandma was not supposed to make me cry. No she was not but, sadly, it was sport for her. She played games with my mind to entertain herself and used me as her emotional tampon. Her pain was transferred to me in order for her to cope, to survive. While my instinct as a parent was immediately to protect my son when he shared his concerns with me, her instinct was always to protect herself. She never considered her job as a mother to be about making me better or stronger. She was about self-preservation. Sure, you are supposed to put on your own oxygen mask first before assisting your child but, once your mask is securely in place, you do not then sit back in your chair and watch your child suffocate.

I was a victim.

She was the abuser. It was often a quiet battle and sometimes more obvious to those wiser than me but it went on every single day of my life. I endured it for 13,505 days. I lasted 324,120 hours. I tolerated it for 19,447,200 minutes. 20 million minutes of my life were spent being abused. That’s a very bitter pill to swallow. A terrifying admission to make. A shameful recognition. A shattering discovery. I felt weak and broken and not ready or courageous enough to tackle the mountain of recovery.

Admitting that I had a membership to this not-so-elite club was perhaps the most painful moment of my life. It stung far worse than any strike my mother could issue. Suddenly I felt like I had allowed this to continue for so long and I could see with new eyes and a laser-sharp clarity all the damage that I had incurred as a result. I realized quickly that her abuse certainly wasn’t a secret because most of the people in my life knew my mother and knew about her behavior. I told stories of the awful things she had done to me and made jokes over the years of the absurdity of her behavior. But I kept it at arm’s length. Sure, it was part of my story but I strategically removed myself from it. She was the central character and I was simply the narrator. I bore witness with minimal scars. I had survived it. I was all good. I was all good. I was all good…

I was not all good. I was so incredibly broken but I had not allowed myself to open the door to the room where all the pain lived. I masqueraded myself as someone who just had some challenges. I did not wear the badge of abuse victim. I did not honor the power of my truth. I did not respect the pain. I was not ok and could not begin the healing process, could not attempt to repave my road until I accepted that fact.

For years, I have worked on recovering. I have unpeeled the onion, studying the many layers of the trauma of emotional abuse. I began to relearn so many basic aspects of life. I would never get the apology, the acknowledgment or the replacement of what was lost. I had to be courageous, dive into the waves and tumble through the rough seas only to find my way back to the shore. Only I had the power to fix things. There were no carpenters or repairmen I could call on to fix my broken house. I was the only one with the proper set of tools. I could try to bring in some helpers but, ultimately, it was my journey to travel, my pain to heal, my abuse to confront.

I still struggle with the idea of it all. I have long since come to accept my mother for who she was and have begun the process of forgiveness. It is not an overnight fix. You do not heal 20 million minutes of pain in a day, a week, a month or even a year. It is a process, slow and steady. There are detours, setbacks, roadblocks. Often there are new doorways that need to be opened and more layers to unpeel but now I take them on a bit more boldly. I stand up strong and tall with my hands on my hips and say there is no kryptonite that can destroy me. I can take whatever comes my way but I cannot promise that it won’t knock me down sometimes.

I try to remember now that victims of abuse don’t always walk around with black eyes and overt bruises. More often, their pain and scars are on the inside. They mask their trauma – no one wears a suit with a giant V on their chest to properly identify themselves. I try to take the time to look deeper when something seems off. I try to empathize and acknowledge that something might have gone wrong somewhere along the way. They may still be hiding behind the shame, the pain, the fear, the absolute exhaustion of trying to pretend everything is just fine. In the end, though, trauma leaks out of us. It seeps out of our pores and shows up in ways that make no sense to us. Until we are ready to connect the dots and feel the pain, one more time, we often deflect it, redirect it or shove it down but the trauma is strong, mighty and fearless. It will not be stopped. It will not be boxed up. It will not hide out. It will rear its head, however it sees fit.

I am grateful to my son for those words that day. He may never know how his innocent comment, his tender words meant to comfort his mommy as only a small child who adores his mother can offer, affected my life. He may never think of himself as my savior for how can a little boy accomplish such a herculean task. But, heroes come in many shapes and sizes and display themselves in ways that we often miss. I’m just glad that I paid attention that day so many years ago.

I am no longer a victim. I am a survivor. And, I am proud.