Worth

I used to feel weird when I’d curl up and hide

From the fear of the past, the horror inside.

To find a dark corner where no one could see

Where no one could find me and I could just be.

 

I never knew when they’d come along.

Would I be eating, talking or listening to a song?

Memories’d flash up in waves, that horrific past

Seconds to hours, I never knew how long they’d last.

 

It’s been three years since I’ve been swept away

Seeing the rot of humanity, smelling the stench of decay.

The memories are there, I can see them still

But their power has lessened, they only maim, not kill.

 

But courage and bravery,  and strength are no match

For the doubt, guilt and shame whose weight have attached

To the stigma of abuse and those who survive

Those women and children who make it out alive.

 

Because years later I still question God’s grace.

Am I good enough or do I have to earn my place?

But slowly I’m learning my worth is inside

Where good and bad have learned to live side by side.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Behind Glass

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I stumbled out of bed, staggering sightlessly to the bathroom. The sting of bright  lights dispatched the lingering fog of Morpheus, and with great reluctance, I cracked open my eyes. Leaning over the sink, I stared into the mirror. Blood shot blue eyes stared back, and a riot of strawberry blond waves tumbled in disarray over slumped shoulders.

“You screamed again last night,” my  husband said, toweling off from his shower. I turned around, unsurprised to see him already awake and ready for the new day. He smiled, though worry bracketed his eyes and furrowed his brow. I jerked my head away and stared at the woman trapped in the glass, both of us searching for answers neither of us possessed.

Shaky fingers fluttered and rested on the slim column of sinew and skin,pressing on the wildly beating pulse found there. “Did I?” That question raised an awareness of a raw, previously unnoticed stinging. I swallowed, the convulsive gulp abrading the tender tissues with its nervous action.

“You don’t remember?” he asked. He pulled on his pants and shirt, the casualness of his question recalling to mind fragments of terror, of immobility and fear.

“There was someone by the bed,” I whispered and closed my eyes.  There was always someone by the bed or lurking in the corners, a dark shadow that was never far away. “He was going to kill me.”

“That’s what you said.” He ran a comb through his dark hair, his efficient movements cutting through the noise and chaos clouding my mind. Watching him, I matched my breathing to his.

Inhaling when he inhaled.

Exhaling when he exhaled.

My breathing calmed. The frantic pace of blood pumping through veins quieted until all I heard was a regular thub-thub.

Thub-thub.

Though fear wrapped me in a tight embrace clinging more tenaciously than a vine to a tree, I concentrated on that rhythm. For in its regularity, there was comfort. There was order.

“What happened after that?”

I didn’t want to know, not really, but I had to ask. Because it never stopped at screaming. There was always an after. He didn’t respond immediately, and guilt took root in my stomach, clawing its way up to my throat until fear and pain mingled, creating a dread more potent than the echo of agony I relived in my dreams.

“I didn’t lash out at you, did I?” That had happened before. Locked in a nightmare, unable to awaken, I had kicked, hit and punched my way through the horror that kept me rooted in the past.

He put away his comb and straightened his tie, smiling at me in the mirror. “No, nothing so awful as that.”

“Then what?”

“You cried and held my hand until sleep came again.”

Relief, when it came, was swift. “Oh, that’s progress.”

“I thought so.” He came to my side and wrapped an arm about my waist, enfolding me into the solid surety of his embrace before taking his leave.

At the door, he hesitated and asked, “Do you ever wonder why after all these years you are screaming now?”

I regarded the woman in the mirror, and her empty eyes stared back. I knew her life before. I knew the terror she felt waiting behind closed doors, hiding from the dark shadows. I knew the sting of pain as it lanced through her body when she had been discovered, tasted the blood in her mouth as she bit her lips to keep in the screams. I had heard her silent sobs and had watched as her attempts to fight back were silenced.

Yes, I knew why I screamed. I knew why a decade after leaving those dark memories behind  blood-curdling screams shattered the peace of my slumbering family. Trembling fingers reached out and touched the glass, and the woman in the mirror cried, quiet tears streaking down her cheeks.

“No one heard my cries before. Now everyone does.” I turned to look at my husband, but he had already gone, leaving me alone to stare at the wreckage of the woman before me.

Her pain, as it had so many times before, nearly crippled me and her burden was too heavy to bear this morning. A mantle of shame and defeat descended, a tangible reminder of the past which refused to die. Far too long it had marked me as different, depriving me of a normal existence where fear did not hold me in its iron grip. 

I could not stand to look at her one minute longer. I closed my eyes, but not before the woman in the mirror opened her mouth and screamed, her soundless cry trapped behind layers of metal and glass.

© Sara Ackerman 2016

Surviving

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Dear Health Risk Assessment,

After taking your screener today, you told me my social, emotional, and physical behaviors are a danger to my well-being. In your cheery report with colorful fonts and strategically placed sidebars, you told me to get more sleep. You recommend exercising and eating healthier. You said go volunteer, go out with friends, relax.

You don’t know me, HRA. You don’t know what I have been through or where I am on my journey. Some days it takes all of my energy to get out of bed and go about my day without crying or screaming at everyone to fuck off. There are days I am so tired from sleepless nights or nights spent walking in my sleep that I am barely conscious the next day. Often I’m angry and sad; I just want to be left alone and not talk to anyone. Other times I am overly anxious. My heart feels as if it would pump out of my chest, and I have to check and recheck the locks on all of my doors to know I am safe.

But you didn’t bother asking me why. You took my data and you saw I was overweight, that I had high blood pressure, and that I didn’t exercise as much as I should. Do you want to know why I have social, emotional and physical behaviors that are dangerous to  my well being? Aren’t you a little curious?

I was abused, attacked, objectified, violated and sold. On multiple occasions.

Do you question my emotional state now? Is my anger and depression (some of those unhealthy behaviors you made sure to mention) better justified for you on your black-and-white checklist of acceptable norms? What I’d like to know is where on your checklist is the category ‘Scary Shit I’ve Lived Through and Survived?’ I want an emoji with scars on it to represent the terrible things people overcome every day. Don’t give me a fucking frowny face when every day that I rise from bed, go to work and take care of my family is a successful one. That is a good day and deserves a damned medal, not three disapproving, scowling faces in a row.

On those good days I can look in the mirror and I see the woman I have become–strong, courageous, successful, happy, beautiful, loved. Other days the image is fractured and I only see the broken pieces of my life staring back at me laden with fear, anger and guilt.

I sometimes catch glimpses of the girl I was before in those shattered pieces. I miss her. She was a little shy, but fun to be around once you got to know her. She smiled and laughed and was happy. She found joy in small things, like singing at the top of her lungs or dancing as if no one were watching. She embraced life.

I want to be happy again, but I still struggle with the aftermath of the abuse every day. Its shadow casts a cloud on even the happiest of moments. And as much as I try to distance myself from the abuse, those horrible events shaped me into me. How can I separate myself from that which has made me stronger?

So dear HRA, I denounce your red frowny faces. I denounce your claim I am a danger to myself and my well-being. I am healthy. Maybe not according to your definition, but every day I try to be the best me possible, and that says more about my mental, emotional, and physical state than your checklist ever could.

Sincerely,

A Survivor

Please support your local domestic abuse shelters or consider donating to The Pixel Project, an organization dedicated to ending domestic violence. You can find information about them here:  http://www.thepixelproject.net/

Unbreakable

It’s spring break and if you’re from the cold wasteland that comprises the Midwest, there’s not much to do besides watch the snow melt and binge watch shows on Netflix!

This week I binged my way through Unbreakable: Kimmy Schmidt and as an unintended consequence of said binge watching, I now have the Unbreakable: Kimmy Schmidt theme song stuck in my head. (For those of you who have yet to discover this quirky comedy from the writing genius of Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, you’re missing out. It follows the  reintegration of Kimmy Schmidt, a 30 year old woman who was kidnapped at age 15 and taken to live in an underground cult, into a new life in New York City. It sounds serious, but come on! It’s Tina Fey!)

The theme song is pretty catchy and has been running in and out of my head all week. For the most part, I can mute my inner dialogue if need be, but one line refuses to be silenced. “But females are strong as hell. Dammit.” I figured those words remained when the rest had faded to the background because I needed a little boost of confidence. Never above the self-love, I accepted that I was strong as hell and went about my week.

Then today on my home page in Facebook was a call to action for survivors of gender based violence to submit their survivor stories for the #pixelproject, an organization raising global awareness for violence against women (VAW). Normally, I would have passed this post by and continued reading others, but there was that persistent line from Unbreakable that would not leave me alone–Females are strong as hell. Dammit.

And so I submitted my story.

There’s no need to get into the gory details of my past. That part of my life is over, and I am in a good, healthy place. Yet the message from the song lingers. Females are strong as hell. (Yes, gents. Males are strong as hell, too, but since my story has to do with VAW, guys you are just going to have to take a back seat while I talk about some girl empowerment).

In the years following my own trauma, I have had the privilege of meeting and speaking with women who are survivors like me. They are courageous women who have experienced the horrors of life and have come out stronger for it. They are mothers, sisters, aunts, friends, wives, and daughters picking up the pieces of their lives and persevering. Every day they make a choice to get up and face the world in spite of what has happened to them. They go to work and school. They take care of families. They learn to love themselves again and to take charge of their own lives. Their actions and bravery are helping to ensure that the vicious cycle of VAW is one step closer to being eliminated.

Above all, these women have helped me see that we are not victims. We are survivors. And like Kimmy Schmidt, we are Unbreakable, dammit.

Please consider donating to the Pixel Project: http://goo.gl/Bz4Sfp or donating to your own town’s local abuse shelter to help women help themselves.

If you are a survivor of VAW, consider sharing your story with the #pixelproject at http://goo.gl/RAbx2V