There is a difference between healthy pursuit and unhealthy pursuit. And each of us should pay attention to boundaries, whether we are being pursued or the one pursuing someone.
With self-righteousness I’d proclaim, “I’ve never turned to drugs or alcohol or thought about killing myself.” It was how I gave myself permission for what I did do — the self-sabotage, the name-calling, the abusive words I flung at myself in front of others, the self-bullying.
Crooked nose. Long face. Small breasts. Wide thighs. Short. Mousy brown. Bad teeth. Boring eyes. Ugly.
The media already tells me I’m not considered pretty, but it was the words of another lifetime that continued to speak to me.
I’d stand in front of a mirror and hide behind a tent of my hair, my one acceptable feature. If someone said I looked pretty, I smiled (not too wide!) and called them a liar under my breath. Compliments were not to be believed. The truth floated on the wind of yesterday’s whispers: worthless. disgusting. stick-girl. freckle-face. stupid.
Beauty does not live among those carefully directed arrows of hurt.
After cutting my hair off yet again (it’s for charity, it’s for a good cause, it’s only hair, it’s not a big deal!), I hated my reflection even more. As I sat across from my counselor, I said “I don’t even like my hair short. Why do I do it?”
But I knew the answer. It was because I like my hair, and if there was one thing I wasn’t supposed to do, it’s to like myself. Because my past tells me so, and I don’t believe the “lies” of the present.
My counselor let me think on it, to talk it out. It was such an “ah ha!” revelation, I cried. I did a lot of crying in that small room, sitting across from a woman who spoke what she called truth into my heart. It took a while before I saw that she could really be speaking truth, because her words began as “lies,” as they all are.
Within months, we peeled back the layers of the abuse from the first 22 years of my life, and we revealed a swan hiding beneath the lying mask of an ugly duckling. And somewhere in the time that came after, I started showing up in pictures more often. Sometimes I would cringe – too much smile! too much profile! too much tummy poking out! – but eventually, I accepted that not only was the reflection from the mirror not so bad, but maybe I was even photogenic after all.
Nothing changed, other than my hair growing out. My weight was the same, my freckles still coming and going with the seasons, and my nose certainly hadn’t shrunk. But my heart was mending. I recognized lies for truth, and truth for lies, and upon sorting out what was genuine and what was ghosts from a past of pain, I could see a different woman.
In the last couple of years, I’ve shown up in more pictures than ever. At my son’s wedding, there are many where my tummy is poking out, which is considered unflattering in general. But I look at the photos and I see a beautiful woman, a survivor, a girl who blossomed into glory. Age is starting to creep in, but I’ve lived those lines, those few silver hairs.
I’m a woman with a body that is mine, that has seen 40+ years of life, that has carried me through the best of times and the ugliest of times. My skinny arms are strong regardless and have held babies and children and family and friends, as well as the weight of more pain than many endure. And those wide hips? They were support for growing three little lives inside my body. Further, I have a profile that I used to always hate, and now I love it. I have stretch marks that are unseen to most, but they are my beautiful scars. And I could go on and on.
I have outlived pain and ugliness, and now when I see myself in pictures, I see a whole person who is loved and cared for and beautiful.
“I have outlived pain and ugliness, and I am beautiful.”
I am beautiful.
And that is truth.
*Original photo in screen shot by Kelsey Ann Photography
This is one of the number one things people ask me. Also, let’s talk about how “no” really does mean NO!
The lawyer leaned forward to speak into the microphone and said, “You didn’t post anything about domestic violence on Facebook,” basically saying, “If you didn’t post about it on social media, it didn’t happen.”
I sat in the gallery of the courtroom and tried not to cry out about how ridiculous his words were. Who openly shares the pain they’re going through when they are in the middle of being abused by someone? Who puts out a billboard to point the way to personal trauma?
When I look back over the pictures from my relationship with my abuser, I see smiles. Christmas after Christmas has me grinning through the opening of gifts that are for “me” that I would never choose — a tea maker, an iron, knives, etc. — because to look ungrateful could lead to pain. To look unhappy in any photos led to pain.
“What’s wrong? Aren’t you happy to be married to me?”
“Did you hate the gift I got you?” (followed by smashing of said gift)
“You can’t at least pretend like you weren’t being a bitch to me that day? I can give you a reason to be angry.”
Wearing the mask of a smile is a pretty normal thing for victims to do. Sometimes that mask plays out in words about our abuser, about how wonderful he or she is. Sometimes it plays out in social media with posts that are meant to boost an ego, or even to speak of the real and true good parts about the abuser. Sometimes it’s a peacemaker, a way to avoid a beating or a blowout.
In a photo from early 1994, I appear with my ex-husband and we look genuinely happy. It’s a group photo of a bunch of us smiling for the camera, beers and wine coolers in our hands. Outsiders see joy. But the story behind the picture is one of a fight I was trying to avoid. I didn’t want to drink. We were planning our second pregnancy, and I didn’t want to do anything in case I was already pregnant. Plus, I hated when he drank. He became meaner and would often sexually violate me. After the picture, that’s how that night went. But you’d never know it, because I look happy. I look like I’m having a blast.
Photo after photo feels like a lie, a role I played to avoid the wrath. If social media had been around, and if I had been allowed to even participate in social media, my feeds would look the same. The lies would the painting of a happy life, of a happy marriage. I would have likely never posted a thing that would have gotten me in trouble, and so the outside world would not know of my pain.
Shortly after my ex-husband’s death, when I was sharing the story of what happened with a mutual friend, she leaned back against my kitchen counter and said, “Well, you don’t seem very upset. I don’t really know what to believe because you never said anything before.”
That response, and many others like it, led me to clam up and shove it all down. People don’t believe me because I didn’t say anything before. Fine, I won’t say anything now, either. That was unhealthy, and it ultimately led to a breaking point where I had to address the pain or implode.
I am thinking of my friend in the courtroom that day. Essentially, the lawyer said, “I don’t believe you.”
To this day, people still see my smiling face in old pictures and believe I am lying. But when I look at those pictures and compare them to the woman I am today, there’s a huge difference. My smiles reach my eyes now, and they come from my heart. No longer do I have a practiced smile; I now show up in pictures making all kinds of faces from all kinds of real emotions that I am allowed to express.
Just because you can tell your story without looking upset, or just because you always smiled in pictures, or just because you never told anyone or posted on social media that you were in pain, I still believe you.
Let’s talk about teen dating violence. This month, we are going to unpack more of my story and how teen dating violence can look big and explosive or small and quiet.
“I was already a broken girl. I thought he could fix me.” #teendatingviolence
The first time I sat on a counselor’s couch, I had no idea what to say. It wasn’t that I didn’t have anything but rather I had no idea where to actually begin. The same can happen with writing and journaling. Let the following prompts get you started.
1 – The start of something new. What does starting over look like? Where are you? How does it feel?
2 – When you think back on your happiest times, which memory comes to you first? Why do you think it stands out?
3 – You’re standing on stage. The spotlight is on you. An audience waits, leaning in. You have 20 minutes. What message are you going to share?
4 – We’ve all sat in the pit before, the hole where it’s dark and feels hopeless. But then a face appears, someone showing up for you. Who is it, and what happened next?
5 – It’s 3:00 in the morning and you’re awake. What has you awake at this hour? What can you pour out of your heart that will allow you to sleep?
6 – What is the one question you wish people would ask, and how would you answer?
7 – Write about 3 things that you learned about yourself since surviving your painful past.
8 – How do you face the whispers of fear and anxiety that creep in when you’re trying to grow?