What Saved My Life

After you get attacked, you want to pack everything you care about into a van, move across the country, and never talk to anyone again.

My attacker had spent a long time telling me everything was my fault. So, there was a small voice in my head saying, “Maybe this is my fault. Maybe everyone thinks I deserve this.” And I didn’t want to face anyone with my broken nose in plaster and stitched.

I wasn’t going to tell anyone who didn’t hold me in the ER. And I ran on fumes, unable to return to my house for a couple of days. It was as broken as I was. Desecrated. My son’s birthday was four days later, and I wrapped all of his gifts in rainbows I didn’t feel, curled ribbons mocking my bruised face. And we opened them at Starbucks and spent all day out, living an unspoken pact to pretend the day was beautiful, and we were normal.

I tried posting my pictures of the day to Facebook, absent selfies with my boy. But I was angry. All of these people couldn’t see I fought like hell to make it through that day.

Then, I had an epiphany. No one can help you if you don’t tell them you have a problem.

I was so scared of people hurting me again that I was assuming my whole community would attack me. So, I posted the birthday pictures. And then I posted the truth in all of its ugliness for all four hundred or so of my Facebook friends to see.

And a remarkable thing happened–no one attacked me; in fact, my community gathered around me and didn’t leave me alone with my fear, panic, and whirlwind of decisions.

If I could only tell a person who’s just begun the long road to recovering from domestic violence one thing, it would be: Tell everyone you know what happened to you. Some of them might not care. Some of them might help you for the wrong reasons. And some of them might bring you back from the brink.

How I Handle Difficult Anniversaries

It’s Domestic Violence Awareness month. And I am all too aware of the cruel irony of having been attacked on this day, two years ago, during domestic violence awareness month. Here’s what I know about making it through hours, days, months, and years so far.

I panicked through every day at first. How do you live, knowing your attacker made bail? How do you sleep? I can tell you that I took every bit of medical leave I could, and it was not enough.

Then, every month, the fourth slapped me in the face. I tried to be kind to myself on those days. I lowered my expectations, and I let myself have things I looked forward to. I couldn’t immediately read books because I was too panicked to focus. But I’d buy myself books I knew I would’ve wanted, and I put them away as a visual sign of my faith, when everyone else lost faith in me.

But I knew I couldn’t handle the one-year anniversary. And I am lucky. There was no expectation that I would. When I told my boyfriend that I wanted to leave town, to not be in the house I was attacked in, on the anniversary, he made it happen. We hiked for days, soaking up the mountains and waterfalls, distracting me and honoring my wish.

Not everyone wants to take off on a difficult day, but I like to give myself something to look forward to. It’s a way to balance out what should be sad. I choose to live vibrantly that day, the day I could have died instead.

Whatever you choose, be kind to yourself. Balance out the sorrow and pain with things you are looking forward to. Give yourself reasons to be happy you’re breathing–especially on the hard days.

I’m writing this ahead of time. I suspect I won’t be out of town, fleeing my memories. It’s a class day. (Being a doctor and an author is a priority.) But it’s a hard day for me. So far, it looks like a night out with friends who don’t want me to pretend everything is normal–throwing axes and having a couple of drinks. I hope to get out of town on Fall Break.

Books That Helped After My Attack

So, October is domestic violence awareness month. And I’m a survivor. I want to spend the month telling you what worked for me. Today it’s all about the books.

I had a difficult time focusing after my attack while living with PTSD. Don’t get me wrong–it took a long time for me to get well enough to read anything. But here are the books that made an impact–both fiction and nonfiction.

The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk. This was the first book I read after my attack. And I loved it. It described perfectly what was happening with my body. And the author has decades of experience treating trauma and discussed the nuances of which treatments offered what benefits. It made me feel like I was responding normally to what happened to me, when most of the people I was close to were treating me like I was crazy. It prompted me to seek trauma therapy that really helped me move forward.

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. I am lucky. I am not only an author. I have friends pushing me to succeed in every area of my life, and I have started back on the journey to med school. (Move over, Michael Crichton and Andy Weir.) Gladwell taught me that success is not only effort. It’s opportunity. Not succeeding immediately is normal. Tenacity and shining moments of dumb luck are what creates success. It’s a book that might help you reframe your journey and pick yourself up.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed. This one was a beautifully written memoir from a broken woman who dealt with her trauma as I wanted to. She hiked the Pacific Crest Trail and was candid about the moments that get one thinking, “I’d like to walk thousands of miles in the wilderness now. Solo.” I like people who are broken, beautiful, and remade.

The Alpha and Omega series by Patricia Briggs. It might be a trigger for some. The main character, Anna, is a survivor. And Briggs did an amazing job of capturing how trauma stays with us, while also showing Anna growing. I needed this urban fantasy tale of recovery. It gave me hope that someone could love the broken. And I met a man who loves me as I am, who didn’t bat an eyelash at my noise cancelling headphones on our first date. But I had to believe it was possible first.

Karen Marie Moning’s Kingdom of Shadow and Light. This is the end of the Fever series. And I adore Moning’s treatment of traumatized characters and her let’s-be-real author notes. I cried when I read the afterword. Honestly, it did more for me than the book, and I loved the book. Moning had major health issues that she thought might have impacted her ability to write at all. And she fought despair and stubbornly continued until she was able to finish the book. I worried I’d never write again after my attack. So, I know her despair. I’ve published two books in these two years, and I have two novels in the works now and a new poetry book awaiting my editing. I cried with her, and she didn’t know it. If you write (or wrote) and think someone might have beaten your art out of you, I think you should hang on and not let go of what you love without a fight.

I hope the books help you or your friends. As Moning would say, stay to the light.

What Domestic Violence Is

You think you know what domestic violence is. It’s a man beating his wife, right? You’ve seen it in Lifetime movies and mysteries and Nancy Grace yelling about which man has slaughtered a woman so normal that she’s practically a piece of salt in the ocean.

And you think you’ll know the warning signs. You’ll never let it happen to you. If a man hits you, you’re gone. If anyone hits you, they’ll never find you to do it again.

But what counts? When is the moment you leave? Is it when your partner loses his temper and throws a glass? Is it when he punches a wall? After all, none of that is punching you. Is it when you’re scared? (But you’re always scared.) Is it when he threatens you, but doesn’t really mean it? Is it when he shows up uninvited, when he’s keeping tabs on where you are? Is it when you start wondering how to leave without setting him off? How do you make him think it’s his idea to break up? How do you get out alive?

What if all of this happens without you ever actually being hit?

Domestic violence is violence directed at anyone by anyone they’ve dated in the last year. They don’t have to live with you. They don’t have to be currently dating you. You certainly don’t have to be married for it to count.

All of those things I listed above were things I recognized as blazing red flags after a lot of trauma therapy. I didn’t know I was experiencing daily abuse because I wasn’t beaten until the end. I was just terrified.

And I was so heart-breakingly selfless, small, and kind. And I didn’t want to bother anyone with my problems. Surely the police have better things to do, I told myself. And I wasn’t even sure when my door was in splinters and my blood was everywhere–is this the moment one calls the police? And I gathered my nerve as I wondered, “If not now, when is the moment one calls the police?”

I will be sharing my experience and things that helped me get through the aftermath of my attack for all of October. It’s Domestic Violence Awareness month. I want you to know it happens to people who look like pretty young, affluent, intelligent women–the best moms, the best first responders. It happens to damned good writers. It can happen to anyone.

Update and Poetry: The Club

October has been an interminable month. It used to be my favorite as I chased down the fall colors, carved pumpkins, and reveled in cardigan and boot weather. I had been dreading the anniversary of my attack and scheduled my book releases and tours to be done before that day hit me.

I tried to block it out with hiking. Mount Rainier, the Smoky Mountains, and other wilderness areas filled my days. I got muddy in caves with my kids. But I’m still me, and the adrenaline still floods me at nightfall, bringing panic attacks and insomnia.

Then, I switched to updating parts of my house. I have steamed wallpaper, patched walls, and left my house in piles of chaotic clutter. It reminds me of being a third of the way through writing a novel. I can see the end in my head, but I’m surrounded by loose threads. And there’s a lot of work to go. Only I can see how it will all work out; I think the rest of the household are humoring me.

I don’t know if you knew, but October is Domestic Violence Awareness month. And I laughed at the bitter irony that I was made indelibly aware of domestic violence in an October. My poems have been darker, like I’ve embraced the month’s black cats, cobwebs, and fishnet stockings and left out the cardigans and pumpkins.

The Club

There’s no glitter here.
And the lighting doesn’t flatter.
But all of the alcohol you can pour is included with a lifetime membership.

We all get our own photo shoots.
We’re models you see—
of blossoming bruises and chokers stuck to our skin.
We skip the lines—
at the ER.
We take off our clothes—
to don backless gowns.
We do interviews—
with men who forgot their microphones.

Our breaths come in ragged gasps.
We have nights we can’t forget
and friends who won’t remember us.

I won’t welcome you to our club,
but I’ll tell those waiting outside to go to hell
when they say you deserved your membership.

Poetry: 1 in 8

1 in 8 girls who witness domestic violence grow up to experience it.

I saw the tsunami coming for my daughter when I read that.

And I was desperate.

Those are not her stars!

I threw the tea leaves back.

Braced against the shore, I wrapped myself around her.

I drew a circle,

summoning generations of women who endured

punches, burns, neglect, and misplaced blame.

Men made us invisible shields for their egos,

and now we hold the line.

We inscribed “Never Again” on her soul

and shared our grimoire.

Darling, here’s what we bled to learn.

Here’s when to run.

 

**Author’s Note: I read the statistic in my first line in a book that changed the way I fought PTSD, The Body Keeps the Score. And that statistic made me desperate to change my life, to heal, and to be stronger than anything else that came for us. Now, I like to think about the strong phoenix women who are raising even stronger women as we show them that we come back more formidable than before.

Hell and High Water: Round Three

I wrote the poems featured in this book over the course of years. The love, failed relationships, and Southern life parts of my book might feel comfortable, but the PTSD part won’t. “Honey Whiskey” is old, but the wounds are still fresh.

When you’re in an abusive relationship, the violence often escalates over time, and this poem is about one instance in a series of many before I was beaten badly enough to need doctors, police officers, surgeons, and contractors for my house. I know that so many people wonder why a person doesn’t walk away at the first sign of violence, at the first hint of insanity. And there are many reasons, unique to every trauma victim. And it’s usually not a lack of intellect.

There are a few reasons I am so open now about what I endured. One is that I still live with the PTSD symptoms and need my friends and community to be kind when I show up wearing my noise cancelling headphones and don’t remove them for anything. (Honestly, I did consider bedazzling a pair for a formal event last winter.) Our villages can’t help us if we decide to suffer in silence. So, I gave mine the chance to be amazing, and they didn’t disappoint.

Another reason that I didn’t let my outspoken posts about domestic violence and trauma dwindle is that every time I post something real, something raw on social media, a friend of mine will message me privately and confide all of the terrible things she’s living with. So. Many. Brutalized. Women. And we’re all just quietly holding each other up and showing up when we’re needed, the outraged sisterhood activated at every new assault. But I’ve been done with quiet, silent, and comfortable. I’m fine with being a voice that lets women around me know their situation isn’t unique, it’s not insurmountable, and no one has to hide–that we’re not alone in this aggrieved sisterhood. So, here’s a poem from a day that I should have run away and never looked back…and didn’t.

Honey Whiskey

I shiver—loneliness, fear, desire—all war within me.

You shiver, but on an angry frequency.

There’s not much time.

I fumble my shoe and freeze.

Were my ancestors rabbits?

You still see me.

I race to get away.

But you’re a one-man melee.

You snatch a honey whiskey bottle.

Like you, it held sweet fire.

Like me, it shatters.

A florence flask next.

Stout glass, weak throw, dumb luck?

It mars the floor, whole.

I’m gonna be glass like that—unbreakable.

The divots are in my soul.