Archive for the ‘fear’ Category

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Today is the six-year anniversary of the day I left my abusive husband. I didn’t even realize that was the case until I found myself wondering why I was having a PTSD flare up. I couldn’t pinpoint any triggers, but the last few nights I’ve been up with insomnia. I’ve been anxious, irritable, tense, and then today I started feeling paranoia set in, and I found myself trying to track my ex down online, and trying to make certain I wasn’t traceable through my old name. Nothing had happened to cause me to feel triggered.. and then I realized the date.

Six years ago today is the day the events in my blog post “Don’t Look Back” took place, and today I feel myself constantly looking over my shoulder, checking out my window, flinching in response to shadows. I feel a “twitch” insisting I look up a background check on my ex, just to be sure he’s still living in the same place, still hasn’t moved, still hasn’t come looking for me. I feel an obsessive need to find something, anything he’s posted online recently, just to be sure he hasn’t gone off grid. Just so I know where he is and what he’s up to. But to what end? How long will I keep having to deal with this fear?

I haven’t gone anywhere today. I’ve stayed inside, only stepping out long enough to let the dog use the bathroom. But that’s only seemed to increase my sense of paranoia. I’m near tears. Why do I feel this way? After everything I’ve been through, all the progress I’ve made, all the healing, all I’ve accomplished, all the time that has passed… How does my biological clock pick up on nothing more than a date and trigger my body into a panic?

Why don’t I feel safe? Why am I still terrified by his temper? Why am I still haunted by his angry eyes, the sense of his fingers pressed into my throat, his raised fist, his massive bulk? Why do I keep expecting to hear him pounding on my door, breaking my window? Why am I overcome with a desire to flee, to wake my son and leave everything behind and just drive away?

And as I contemplate that feeling, I realize I’m constantly preparing myself for the possibility I may need to flee. Minimizing my material possessions, avoiding social interactions with neighbors, avoiding community involvement, keeping disconnected emotionally and socially, keeping an emergency fund on hand… Without a moments notice, I could be out that door and driving half-way across the states. I’m used to starting fresh. Comes from being raised a military brat.

But there’s no need for me to feel so afraid. There’s no need for me to remain disconnected. There’s no need. I’m safe here. Aren’t I?

It’s been six years. I have a new name. I live somewhere he’d never think to look for me. I have a protective dog for a companion. Most days I’m happy and well and “free”. I don’t even think about him, or when I do I know it’s just an unrealistic fear triggered by something trivial that reminds me of one of our fights. I write about it, talk about it with my therapist, and move on. And then I have days like today… and I realize I’ll never really be “over it”. My PTSD isn’t going to go away. Healing doesn’t mean I’ll get “all better”. It means I’ll learn to cope, I’ll learn to deal, I’ll learn to handle the bad days and live for the good days.

On the anniversary of my flight from abuse, I want to remind myself that I made the right decision, that I have grown and changed in so many ways! I’m a completely different person now. A stronger person. A more confident person. A happier person. A more passionate person. I’ve escaped so much more than an abusive marriage. I’ve escaped the prison of my own closed mind and self-inflicted limitations. While it has been a struggle, I’ve not lost the idealism of my youth. I’ve overcome the threat of death itself, and I won’t let ANYTHING hold me back any more.

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I would like to thank A Strawberry Pushes Through Insanity for nominating my blog for the “Once a Victim – Now a Survivor” Award. This award is for those who have gone through mental illness of any kind, abuse, trauma, and especially PTSD. Here are the rules:

1.Thank the blogger that nominated you.

2.Nominate 5 – 10 bloggers to pass the award to.

3.Post questions for your nominees to answer (You may use the same as these below)

4.Inform your nominees and post a comment in their blog to let them know they’ve been nominated.

I consider it a great honor to be nominated for this award. My blog started as an effort to share my thoughts on the faults and dangers of religion, specifically how my experience with domestic violence opened my eyes to the similarities between an abusive relationship and a relationship with the God of any standard religious institution. I wanted to have a place where I could share my thoughts openly without fear and knowing that my words would be read by others who might be influenced to escape their self-enforced captivity. I wanted to share my journey, and show those still entrenched in their religious upbringing that atheism is nothing to fear- that opening their minds to the truth and their hearts to the possibilities is liberating.

But in a short time, my blog has become so much more than what I initially intended. I haven’t really written as many posts on religious topics as I have reflecting on my abusive relationship, my current efforts in coping with PTSD, and on my journey in coming to terms with my self-identity. I want to help people find freedom and connection, a sense of understanding and recognition… It is my hope that what I write will be read by those who NEED to see what I’ve experienced and see that it is possible to overcome trauma. It is for this reason that I’ve titled my blog “Inform, Inspire, Inflame”, because I wish to inform the uninformed, inspire the uninspired, and inflame the hearts of the apathetic, depressed, and disconnected so that they may discover their own passions and resume their lives with vigor.

My time as a blogger is still in it’s infancy, so it was quite a surprise to receive this nomination, and it has filled me with a sense of validation – that though my blog has meandered from my intended course, I am accomplishing something of importance. And so, it is with great pleasure that I name my own nominees for this award:

The questions I have been asked to answer (and my responses) are listed below, and I would like to ask my nominees to answer the same questions in their acceptance of the award:

  1. In what way do you feel blogging can help people with psychological trauma or mental illness?
  2. Why would you recommend blogging to someone who suffered from mental illness?
  3. How has blogging helped with your healing, or personal journey?
  4. Do you have any advice for a person who has a hard time understanding their emotions?

(Below answers all four questions. I started to break it down by question, but realized that it kind of all ended up flowing together.)

Writing is an extremely cathartic process, and blogging even more so. The simple act of putting your struggles to paper (or keyboard) allows you to process the pain and emotional turmoil associated with the memories that must resurface. You have to find the words to articulate it, have to think about how to break it down into sentences and structure it into something that makes sense. Taking the time to commit those troubling thoughts into written word is an opportunity to process what might otherwise remain trapped inside, and blogging it puts it out where others can see it. Others can read it. Others can comment and share. And you realize you’re NOT alone. There are others who share your pain and appreciate your efforts to put your thoughts where they can read them.

Blogging can be an immense help to those suffering from psychological trauma or mental illness, because it creates a support network. You make friends. You connect with others trying to process their own struggles, writing about their efforts, and sharing their own strategies for overcoming the turmoil. You feel validated. You feel strengthened. And you help others feel the same.

A few of my blogs were prompted by flashbacks and intrusive thoughts associated with my PTSD. Often, I find myself up with insomnia, with images coursing through my mind too quickly to follow and my emotions riding a roller coaster in response. When it gets particularly difficult, I know I have to get it out, but I wind up sitting in front of the computer screen just staring at it for hours, trying to think through the pain and find the words. Every time I write something about what I’ve been through, it’s the same, and I rarely even get one word down the first time I sit down with the intent to write it. I come back, again and again and sit and stare, until finally, the words start to form.

The emotions associated with trauma aren’t easy to understand. They are raw and powerful, visceral and intense. Don’t let them build to a breaking point. Talk with someone who can listen and understand. Talk with someone who can help. And write. Writing is amazing, because not only does it help get it out and in the open, it gives you an opportunity to look back. When you finish writing, you’ll likely feel a sense of relief and with that a sense of exhaustion. A weight has been lifted. Sleep it off. Then come back and read what you wrote. This helps process it further, as when you read it, you start piecing together clues and recognizing why you were feeling so stuck before.

There’s a whole world out there of people who share your pain and who want to help. You don’t have to be alone. Don’t remain a victim. You’re more than what happened to you. You’re more than your pain. You, too, are a survivor. And together, we are strong.

I used to enjoy playing cards. I never gambled. Never made bets with money. I wasn’t even all that competitive and rarely put in much effort to “win”. But it was fun to get together with family or friends and just pull out a deck. We’d play Kings in the Corners, Rummy, Solitaire, Speed, Bullshit, Five Card Draw… We’d laugh and joke and try to bluff each other and read each others “tells”. We’d bet with cookies or dish duty. It was fun.

So when I was about six months pregnant and bedridden by doctors orders due to severe morning sickness that had left me weak and dehydrated, and my husband found my old deck of Spiderman playing cards in the desk, it was a great opportunity to have a fun way to pass the time. I showed him some of my favorite card tricks, taught him how to play Kings in the Corners (which he’d never heard of before), and we played a few rounds of speed and bullshit together. Then he wanted to teach me how to play actual poker. With betting.

When I told him that I’d never played with betting and I wasn’t really interested in doing so, he insisted that betting was an important part of the game and he couldn’t teach me how to play without it. He dug out his poker chips, explained how much each color was supposed to be worth and how much people typically started with. Then he dealt us both a hand and a couple “dummy” hands so he could explain the rules of poker.

We played for quite a few hands, but because I was just in it for the fun of it and not all that competitive, I was losing pretty quickly. I considered it a good lesson – to never gamble for real, because I’d lose a lot of money, FAST. But my husband seemed to be getting frustrated with my lack of aggression in the game. He felt that the reason I was losing was because I just wasn’t understanding how to strategize for the win. He proceeded in trying to explain to me that some cards have a higher likelihood of being drawn than others. That… didn’t make any sense to me.

You’ve got the same number of aces as there are twos, or any other number in the deck for that matter. The same number of spades as there are diamonds… Each card had a 1 in 52 chance of being drawn. No card was more likely than any of the others, because there weren’t any doubles in the deck. “No, no, no” he insisted. “Here, draw a hand.” He tried to show me with an example. “Look,” he said. “You’ve got a Queen, a ten, a seven, a four, and a three. Now, it’s better to give up the queen, even though she’s a face card, because you’re more likely to draw a six or a five than you are a King or Jack”.

I started shaking my head. That STILL didn’t make any sense. What he was saying was WRONG. You are NOT more likely to draw one card than you are another in a standard deck of cards. You just aren’t. “No,” he still insisted. “You are.” He tried another example, and another, and I just started getting frustrated. I told him that he was wrong. That what he was saying wasn’t statistically possible. I told him that maybe certain “sets” of cards are more likely to be drawn than other sets, making certain hands smarter to hold out for than others, but no individual card has a higher probability of being drawn than another.

I tried to show him why I was getting frustrated. I separated out the deck, putting all the twos together, all the tens, the Kings, etc. I showed him what everybody who plays with cards knows, and what I knew he was already familiar with – you’ve got sets of four for each card, one of each suit for every number. So your chances of drawing any particular number had to be the same in a full deck. If you could remember what had already been played (count cards), you could keep track of the higher statistical probability of drawing remaining cards, but most people can’t keep track of that in their heads.

Now, though, he was getting mad. “No, that’s not what I’m saying,” he insisted. “THIS is what I’m saying…” and he tried yet another example, explaining it the exact same way as he had with every other example he’d shown me. After he’d gone through it several more times, I stopped him mid-example and asked if he could just explain it a different way. That the way he was trying to explain it didn’t make any sense to me and that it still sounded like he was trying to say you were more likely to draw a ten than a Jack, which wasn’t true.

Finally, after much deliberation, he changed his wording ever so slightly and stated that one was far more likely to draw a “number” card than a “face” card. FINALLY, it made sense, but… that was exactly what I’d tried to say to him when he first started trying to give me his explanation. It was pretty basic statistics. There are 16 face cards in a deck of 52 and 36 numerical cards. So when you lump it into groups like that, YES you are more likely to draw one than another. So, statistically speaking, it’d be smarter to go for a straight that included numbers than a straight including face cards.

When I breathed a sigh of relief that we’d finally gotten through some kind of communication barrier and made a connection, my reiteration that this was exactly what *I’d* tried to say at the beginning, just… enraged him for some reason. He didn’t like me pointing out that what he was saying before and what he was saying NOW were different. “No,” he said he’d been saying the same thing the entire time and *I* was the one who was wrong. I couldn’t know more than him about this, because I didn’t even know how to play poker. I didn’t need to bring statistics into this, because statistics and “book learning” were useless and pointless compared to hands-on experience. He knew what he was talking about, because he had experience playing poker, and he kept winning against me. So my input didn’t mean anything.

I felt insulted and belittled, and I couldn’t understand why he felt so offended by my desire to point out that we were on the same page. That what he was trying to show me and teach me actually matched up with statistics, once he worded it correctly. When I asked for the cards back, to try and show him what I was talking about one more time, he flipped. Literally. His temper had been building throughout our “conversation” and it had apparently reached a breaking point. He grabbed the few cards I’d picked up out of my hand, ripped them in half, and then flipped over the desk onto the ground, spilling and scattering everything that had been on top of it and/or stored within it’s drawers.

And if I hadn’t scooted my chair back and away in time, that table would have hit me too, and knocked me onto the floor. I felt weak and vulnerable, and I couldn’t move very fast. My stomach was protruding enough to cause me to have to waddle everywhere, and I was terrified by his sudden outburst. If he decided to treat me the same way he’d treated the desk, there was no way I could maneuver well enough to get away. All I could think to do was put my back against a wall and curl into the fetal position to protect the baby growing in my uterus.

He raged for awhile, and I waited in shock for the storm to pass. I couldn’t understand how something as simple as a card game could bring out so much anger. I couldn’t understand his insistence for being right, all the time. I couldn’t understand why he felt the need to push and push and push to make a point, but when I wanted to meet him half way and explain *my* side, he wouldn’t have any of it. It just made no sense at all. He was being completely irrational. How could such a horrible outburst, that left me feeling unsafe and insecure, be prevented if I didn’t even understand what had caused it, or if the cause was so far “off the wall” there was no way I could ever see it coming?

When he finally calmed down and helped pick up the mess, he refused to apologize. Instead, he claimed that he’d acted that way on purpose. That he had calculated and planned the whole affair and that he’d been in control the entire time. He claimed to have acted the way he did to teach me a lesson. He said he wanted me to see what it felt like to not be listened to.

At that point, with that overturned desk, the tables of our relationship had turned. I became wary, vigilant, and cautious, always watching out for his next outburst. And cards… were not “fun” any more.

“Crazy In Love” – A walk-through exhibit on display in the student center ball room. See how many early warning signs of a dangerous relationship you can identify!

I was between classes, and I had about an hour to kill when a representative from the Women’s Center handed me their flier. I didn’t have anything better to do while waiting for my next class, and the flier sparked my curiosity, so I figured why not?

When I entered the ball room, I found a row of “stalls” covered by curtains and a pair of young girls waiting at a table to instruct those arriving to tour the exhibit. They motioned me over, handed me a piece of paper, and explained what I was to do. Each “stall” depicted the bedroom of a college student as it would have been found at different stages in her relationship, and between each stall was a computer set to play a vlog post from this student. As I entered each room, I was to peruse and examine, looking for “clues”. Feeling a bit like a private investigator, or Sherlock Holmes, I was intrigued and ready to piece together the puzzle.

Enter the first room:

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The room was fairly typical of what would be expected of a college dorm. An open journal detailed the first meeting with the new boyfriend. A calendar on the wall indicated important dates – tests, study meetings, gym workouts, scheduled outings with friends, sorority activities, scholarship interviews, etc. There were pictures of friends and family on the walls, magazine cut-outs of potential purchases for the room, graduate school applications on the desk. It was easy to see that the girl who slept in this room was a hard-working, goal oriented individual with an active social life and a healthy drive for success.

The first vlog showed this peppy, happy girl introducing her new boyfriend to her family. Said boyfriend seemed eager to make a good first impression… and stake a claim on his new “territory”. I couldn’t help but notice his almost uncomfortably close proximity to his girlfriend through the whole video, arm draped over her shoulders and keeping her hand in his without ever letting go.

Enter room number two:

Another journal entry indicated that though they’d only been together a few short weeks, the girl and her new boyfriend were now engaged and planning on moving in together. She seemed to be madly in love. Infatuated, even, and the rest of her “plans” had taken a toll. Calendar dates for outings with friends were crossed out, cancelled, and replaced with “quality time” with the boyfriend or shopping trips to look for bridal gowns or other preparations for the wedding. A “to do” list indicated a need to pick a date, a honeymoon location, and other various pre-wedding preparations. The stack of applications that had been on the desk in the previous room was now on the floor – the desk flooded with bridal magazines and cruise advertisements. Little post-it notes from the boyfriend were scattered across the room, critiquing everything.

The second vlog showed a still “peppy” girl, now, however, intent on convincing her family that they weren’t taking things too fast, as they were just so hopelessly in love. The boyfriend was a little less interested in making a good impression now, and was instead focused on correcting statements made by the girlfriend.

Things start to intensify in the third room:

Now the room is flooded with messages from the boyfriend. Plans for an outing with friends are overlapped by a note stating “I thought you were going to spend time with me?” or “I thought you weren’t going to hang out with this person any more?”. Hopeful images for bridal gowns were plastered on the wall with question marks and synonymously shut down by the boyfriend with commentary that one was too revealing, another too expensive, etc. A phone log indicates missed calls from concerned friends and sorority members, a missed interview, and even professors concerned about late assignments. The journal entry now indicates that they’ve been fighting, and that the boyfriend got worked up enough to hit her during one of their arguments.

The third vlog shows a now disinterested boyfriend who has to be called to come to the screen and seems too busy to engage. The girl is telling her family that they are getting a dog, but the boyfriend isn’t willing to agree on a name. When he goes off-screen, the girl apologizes to her family for their delay in completing the vlog and blames their difficulties on the stress of wedding preparations.

The fourth room:

The boyfriend has now completely taken over. Everything is a chaotic mess of beer bottles, ash trays, cards… The attempted wedding preparations are buried under dirty clothes and pleading notes are shot down by further criticism. The journal entry is now written from the point-of-view of the boyfriend who indicates his distaste with his girlfriends decision making skills and his need to be there with her every moment for shopping and preparations to help save her from her own poor taste. A nasty note on the calendar demands the girlfriend get the room clean before his plans for having the guys over for another card game and drinks.

The final vlog, before the last room, the girl is alone now. She’s telling her family that she’s broken up with him, moved out, and gone to the police for a restraining order. She seems scattered, nervous, and confused, and half-way through the video someone starts pounding on her door. She looks panicked and gets up without turning off the feed. The boyfriend comes barging in, holding the restraining order paper work in his hand and demanding an explanation. He sees the camera, asks if she’s filming this and knocks it onto the floor. The video cuts out to the sound of breaking glass and the girl screaming…

At this point, someone else who’d been going through the rooms gives a dismissive cluck, rolls her eyes, and comments “so dramatic”… Meanwhile, I’m reaching a breaking point. With each room, I’ve felt my heart-rate increasing, my breathing becoming slightly shorter and more shallow. It’s not a fun puzzle anymore. I’ve numbed myself and am just going through the motions, trying to get through to the end without thinking. I can’t let it sink in. Can’t let it process. But that comment… “so dramatic”… seems to break open the flood gates.

I get one glance into the final room. I see broken glass on the floor, smeared with the streaks of bloody finger prints, and I snap the curtain closed. I can’t step in that room. I can’t. Before I know it, I’m striding across the ball room floor and heading for the nearest bathroom, where I break down in sobs. Gasping, panting, pacing… The scream. The blood. The glass… It’s too overwhelming. And over and over, ringing in my head, is that offhand comment – “so dramatic”.

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It takes me almost thirty minutes to calm down enough to leave the bathroom, but my nerves are shot. I skip my next class and go back to my apartment instead, but I can’t stay inside. It’s too confining. I feel trapped. Like I’m suffocating. So I take my dog out for a walk in the fresh air and finally am able to settle down enough to quiet my mind when I find a nice cool patch of grass to lie in with my dog standing guard over my prone form.

The “Crazy in Love” display had been spot on. The “clues” in each room had worked like triggers, bringing memories of my own experience flooding back in waves. I could identify characteristics of my abuser in the boyfriend, characteristics of myself in the girl. Each room represented a stage in MY relationship with my now ex-husband. Each vlog represented MY emotional state at different stages in my abusive relationship. It was superbly executed. Excellently thorough. And it brought back the terror in such volume, it took me about a week to “fully” recover from the exposure.

More than anything though, I wanted to find the girl who’d been standing beside me and uttered those callous words. I wanted to tell her how REAL it was. How PAINFUL it was. How TERRIBLE it was to be afraid for my life. I absolutely ached with the desire to point out every single “clue” that had been in those rooms and make it clear to her that she could end up experiencing the same turmoil if she didn’t watch out. If she didn’t open her sheltered, ignorant mind to the evidence that was staring her right in the face.

While those rooms may have only been an exhibit, while those vlogs may have been completed by actors, it was very, very REAL.  And the statistics are absolutely tragic. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence during her lifetime, and 1 in 3 female homicide victims are murdered by their current or former partner every year. Knowing what to look for early on and how to get out before it becomes violent can save countless lives. So the next time you think what you are seeing or hearing is dramatic, take some time to think about how traumatic it would be to experience first hand… and pay attention to the “clues”.

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The sound of passing cars roared in her ears, drowned out all other sounds, leaving her with nothing but her thoughts. Thoughts that left her shaking in a jumble of confused and muddled emotions. Fear, guilt, depression, exhilaration, anger, concern, nervousness. Her body felt like a bundle of quaking branches in a heavy wind. She was running on nothing but adrenaline.

The woman sat there, open and exposed to anyone passing on the street, wearing a grungy, dirty, stinky pair of jeans and shirt. She waited on the bench, ignoring everyone that passed, shoulders hunched, eyes averted, attention only on the sleeping baby in the stroller in front of her. She appeared to be on the verge of tears, but the determined set of her jaw prevented such weakness.

She had taken the largest step of her life when she walked out that door. Her husband sat inside, unaware of the plans spinning in her head. She was just leaving on a quick errand. She’d be back in a few minutes… The minutes lengthened, and lengthened, and she knew by now he would be worried. She clasped and unclasped her hands, looking down at her feet, up at the traffic, and back to her son. By now he’d be wondering what was taking her so long. He’d know something was going on. Then the sharp squeal of worn brakes sounded in her ears, the hiss of air, as a bus came to stop by the bench. Palms sweaty, she gripped the handle of the stroller and rolled it onto the bus.

He’s probably calling the police, thinking she’d run into some kind of accident. He’s probably panicking, searching the house. Maybe, by now, he’d gone in the bedroom and seen the pile she’d left behind digging for the items she was going to take with her. Was he angry? Was he sad? Was he distraught? In tears? She felt horrible. Terrible. How could she follow through and do something so awful? There’s was still time. She could go back. Apologize. She could comfort him and let him know everything was going to be okay. She could avoid the worst of his reaction to her betrayal, if she quickly returned.

No. She’d already made her decision. It was too late to turn back now. If she ever set another foot inside that door again, she wouldn’t make it back out. She was on that bus, with her son, on her way to safety and freedom. She had to stay strong. If for no other reason than for her son. She couldn’t go back. She couldn’t stay with him any longer. She couldn’t wait for him to hurt their son.

The day I left my abuser will always remain a vivid memory. I remember the fervent panic. I remember feeling like everyone was watching me – feeling like everyone could somehow see through my bedraggled appearance and that they knew I’d just walked out on him. I remember expecting to see him coming after me at any moment, around any corner… years after that day, I was plagued with nightmares of his presence just around the next bend.

I remember, despite everything, feeling like I was the one in the wrong. I remember feeling like I was making the worst mistake of my life. I remember being flooded with concern for HIM and HIS well-being. I remember thinking his discovery of my departure would drive him to suicide, and feeling like his death would be on MY conscience. That thought almost sent me running back. I started contemplating excuses for my delayed return that he might find convincing, thinking I could just turn back and act like I’d never even made this foolish endeavor.

I was sleep deprived. I was hyped on adrenaline. I was probably even hallucinatory. I’d spent at least the last week walking on egg shells, having been broken beyond my ability to truly care about my marriage, but terrified of him reading my lack of commitment in my body language, my tone of voice, my solemnity… I continued to exchange “I love you”s, kisses, snuggles.. but my heart wasn’t in it. I loathed his touch. His hand on my cheek made my body rigid with the desire to flinch and turn away. Eye contact brought a lump to my throat as his gaze filled me with terror I hoped he could not see. Every breath, every step, every second was an effort of sheer will-power and determination to survive, to find and seize my opportunity for escape, because the only other feasible end I could see now was my own death.

And the only reason I did not take that end for myself was to save the life of my infant. See, what had finally broken me, the moment that shattered my gilded cage, was witnessing my husband hold our five month old crying son mere inches from his face and spouting such venomous, snarling fury that his eyes seemed red with rage and spittle flew from his mouth. That look had been directed at me on several occasions, and it had always resulted in a beating. I saw my son’s entire body go rigid with fear, temporarily frozen, eyes wide in shock, and then a scream of absolute abject terror, and I snapped. In a flash, the baby was safe in my arms, I was scolding my husband and soothing my child, and everything had changed.

After that ordeal, my husband tried to guilt me for pulling the baby away from him. He tried to guilt me for scolding him. He withdrew, acting very solemn and depressed, and he insisted that *I* had wronged *him*. I offered an insincere apology, soothing the waters and saying what I knew he wanted to hear in order to prevent an explosion, but I was done. He’d done the unforgivable. He’d proven himself uncontrollable. He’d threatened an innocent, harmless, babe and STILL insisted that HE was the one who’d been harmed by the encounter. All the carefully threaded webs of deceit, chains of manipulation, and chords of control started to unravel as the excuses he’d used in fights with me failed to take root when the victim onto whom he was attempting to throw blame was a BABY. There was NO excuse. NONE.

From that moment on, the one thing that kept me going was my desire to protect my child from harm. In a state of pure hyper-vigilance, there was little room for concrete thought. I was driven by instinct, and instinct saw me through the minefield until I was able to secure an opportunity to flee.

It is difficult now to imagine myself pursuing the life I then thought I was meant to lead. My life’s journey has led me down a vastly different road than anything I could have ever imagined as a child, a teen, a wife, a young mother… I am a different person now, and yet the same. These experiences helped shape me and have become ingrained in my memories, but the result could never have been predicted through evaluation of those very experiences.

There have been other critical moments, like the day I left my abuser, in which I’ve had an opportunity to look back. I believe we all have such moments in our lives. They are pivots in our individual journeys. They are fulcrums for change. Had I given in to my fears that day and turned back, my life story would be vastly different. Of course, not all life’s pivots are so extreme, but there are certainly those moments in which we must fully commit ourselves to our chosen direction and plot the charted course. Because we do not know where the road of change will lead, often we may choose the “safer” course simply because we know what to expect.

But life would be short-lived and barren indeed if we did not take our leaps. We all have our moments where we must look upon our current lot in life and come to a decision. 1. Continue on this path, or 2. Make a change. Change is terrifying. Change is “unknown”. Change is unpredictable… but when that which IS “predictable” and “known” can lead one only down a path lacking in love, joy, happiness, or fulfillment.. it becomes time to embrace the change.

Do not allow your life to be held hostage by manipulated fears and imagined concerns. Do not allow your life to become stagnant, simply because you can see no other feasible alternative. While this memory was once haunting, it is now an inspiration. I realize now that hope is found in our own courage and resolve – to embrace those changes which open the doors of opportunity and growth. When you find yourself facing one of those pivotal moments, when you must decide whether to leap forward into the unknown or continue in the relative safety of your current course – I urge you to take that leap! And don’t look back.

It’s hard to look upon a carefree child and not feel a sense of awe and inspiration. Every babe born into this world is a clean slate of trust, hope, and optimism. To look upon a baby’s smile, to hear a child laugh… it strikes a chord deep in the soul, and I don’t think there’s ever been a single person who did not wish they could somehow preserve such pure innocence. Perhaps the knowledge that it is only temporary is what makes it so beautiful, for that which is fleeting has value beyond measure.

As parents, while we certainly hope to prepare our offspring for the hardships of the world, I think we each hold tightly to a secret fantasy. A fantasy in which our children need no preparation, no protection, no preservation. A fantasy in which the pure joy of innocent laughter and untainted smiles lives on forever, never to be tainted or damaged by the toils and turmoil of struggle and suffering. In our subconscious efforts to make this fantasy a reality, we spin tales of wonder and excitement, and we revel in the sweet trust our children place in the hopeful stories of our youth.

Magical kingdoms of fairies. Hidden societies of gnomes, leprechauns, or “little people”. Mystical unicorns. Myths and fables which light up the imagination and bring a sparkle of joy to eyes so full of wonder and curiosity. Eventually though, the fairy tales always fall apart. Innocence is lost as children gain experience and come to face reality. Their brains develop with astounding intelligence, and with critical thinking skills honed for discovery, they begin to find the faults in the stories. Probably one of the most memorable and cherished stories to which nearly every child clings is that of Santa Claus, jolly ole Saint Nick, the loving, caring and affable man in the big red suit.

Our children start noticing inconsistencies and asking questions. Parents, often, cannot stand the thought of losing the joy and wonder that blessed previous Christmas celebrations, as their child lit up with excitement to discover the presents delivered magically under their tree on Christmas morning. Instead of encouraging this critical development and taking the opportunity to teach their children how to employ those thinking skills, parents lie and continue to fabricate the fairy tale, now spinning a web of deceit and even mistrust.

How does Santa get into the homes of children with no chimney? How does Santa reach all the children in the world in one night? How does Santa know who’s been naughty or nice? How does Santa know what toy every little girl and boy wants? How does Santa get into and out of the house unseen? How does Santa make all the toys? Why do all the Santa’s we see at parties or malls or supermarkets look different? Why does Santa’s handwriting on my present look like my mothers? Why were the presents from Santa hidden in my parent’s bedroom closet a week before Christmas? Why did I see my father putting presents under the tree, and not Santa? Has anyone ever seen the “real” Santa?

The questions build and build without end, as the puzzle becomes harder and harder for those amazingly intelligent children to piece together. Some children realize the problem quickly and give up the hope, give up the magic. Others have a much harder time letting go. They put their imaginations to use, thinking up more and more convoluted scenarios that explain away all the inconsistencies and allow them to cling to their belief. Some even go so far as to declare that while it may be impossible to understand, while there may be glaringly obvious evidences to the contrary, as long as they believed … Santa would still be real. There would still be hope. There would still be magic. There would still be that impossibly loving and mystical man who brought presents to all the good little girls and boys every year. As long as they believed…

It is my thought that all of us; man, woman, and child; cling to our beliefs in the unknown, the immeasurable, the fantastical, because we are in denial. We do not want to face the hardships of reality, because we do not feel ourselves capable of bearing the pain. Reality is often cruel and unkind. Reality contains stories of horror, sorrow, and incomprehensible suffering. Reality contains illness and disease, handicaps and imperfections, accidents and miscalculations, murders and war, loss and death. We cling to the magic, to the hope, to the belief, because the pain of life is so often unbearable.

But we do ourselves a disservice in thinking so. For while reality is often a struggle, it also brings with it great joys, and those joys often cannot be fully realized without letting go of the delusions of the heart. We waste effort and energy in clinging to fantasies that provide a sort of protective barrier from the physical and mental turmoils of life, because it is only when we embrace reality that we can begin to solve the very problems that plague our existence. When we allow ourselves to accept the logical conclusions, to trust our own minds, to follow the evidences provided by our senses, experiences, intuition, and critical intelligence, we prepare ourselves not only to face reality, but to CHANGE it.

When we waste time and energy believing in a higher power that will somehow solve all our problems for us, we fail to take that power into our own hands. Those brains so capable of spinning fantasies and fairy tales are capable of immense creativity and innovation, and it is because of that amazing capacity for critical thought, for problem solving, and for imagination that we as a species have been able to go from localized hunting and gathering communities struggling for each meal to living and breathing societies connected around the globe and improving the QUALITY of life for countless individuals.

When we see and accept the problems we face instead of hiding from them, we can begin creating solutions. While innocence may not last forever, ingenuity is a gift for the future. While the pure gaze from the untainted eyes of a newborn babe may be fleeting, his potential is ever lasting and even exponentially increasing into the infinite expanses of possibility. In a very short time, our species has evolved the ability to conquer lands, oceans, and stars. Our creativity knows no bounds, and we can be always believing in a brighter and more glorious tomorrow.

Having a child who suffers from an anxiety disorder makes for some interesting challenges. Potty training, for example, was an erroneously slow and tedious process. Even now, at six years old, it is a struggle to get my son to enter the bathroom alone. Every day seems to bring with it a new fear, a new worry, a new terror. Often, he does not even understand what it is that has caused him to feel so fearful and he cannot articulate his worries or concerns.

When fear strikes, he wants to run. He lashes out at those who try to speak with him – especially strangers. Like working with a startled animal, it takes patience and respect to maintain his trust and safety. He needs enough space to overcome the smothering sensation of too much attention, but he also needs someone right there, ready to take his hand and keep him from running headlong into a street.

As he grows and learns and develops, his fears become more complex. A religious individual would resort to prayer, blessings, trust in God, etc. The parent would share comforting stories of a heavenly father who sees all and intervenes on our behalf, of life after death, of heavenly rewards, of a Holy Spirit who lives in our hearts and soothes our ills… For many, faith is the answer to everything. Faith allows people to put aside their fears and believe in a being who watches over all things and has designed the world around us so that everything will work out for our good.

Of all the aspects of religion, I miss this the most. It is an easy answer to all life’s problems. A wrong answer… but easy. I miss it, not because I wish to comfort myself, but because I wish to comfort my child. I want to be able to assuage his fears and reassure him that everything will be alright. However, many of his fears have a legitimate foundation, and while I abhor seeing him in pain and anguish, I would feel absolutely horrid if I lied to him and told him he had nothing to fear.

Fear of death is a simple recurring topic between us. In particular, my son is afraid of MY death. The first time this fear was voiced, I was still a believer, and I told my son the go-to comforting answer that yes, mommy will die someday, but her spirit will live on and you will see her again in heaven. The story seemed to console him and the topic did not come up again until nearly a year later. He remembered what I’d told him about God, and when I didn’t again share this story or elaborate on it, he asked me if I’d lied to him.

“No,” I said. “Many people in the world believe there is a God and a heaven and that we will be with Him when we die, but we don’t know if it is true. Nobody really KNOWS what happens after we die, and nobody who believes in God really agrees on what He is like or what heaven is like.”

I did not go into much detail beyond that – he is, after all, only six (five at the time of this conversation) – and turned the conversation back to his main concern, death. I realized that it was impossible for me to provide an answer that would be both fully honest and fully comforting. I also realized that while I could not take away my son’s fear of death, there are aspects of death I could make less frightening for him. I explained that people usually don’t die until they are very, very old and at that point they are in a lot of pain and have lived a very fulfilling life. I explained that “my” death was likely a long way off, so far in the future that at this point he wouldn’t be able to comprehend it and it would feel like forever. I explained that if I were to somehow die while he was still young that there would always be somebody there to help take care of him – his grandparents, his aunts, etc.

An interesting change resulted from this conversation. As he asked questions and I provided honest answers, we delved into many details that never would have been discussed had I resorted to a story about God and heaven. His fear did not disappear. In fact, he had quite a heartfelt cry over the thought that his mother might someday be gone and that there was no guarantee when that “someday” might be. But as we discussed the aspects of death and it’s inherent uncertainty, there was a very clear difference in my son’s emotions. Rather than a typical panicked response, he seemed more calm. Sad… but calm.

I don’t want to raise a child who is blind to the realities of mortality and suffering. It pains me to see him hurting, afraid, sad, troubled… but I’ve come to realize that the vivid turmoil in my child’s heart is a GOOD sign. He will grow up aware. He will grow up passionate. He will grow up caring. He will grow up involved. He will grow up with a desire to make a difference. He will grow up knowing that any improvement that is to be had must come from US, because there are no blessings pouring down from an invisible deity. He will grow up knowing that ACTION begets change, not prayer.

Just as I can assure my son that there are no monsters hiding under his bed or in his closet, I can dispense with the fantasy of God. While I miss the ease with which I could provide comfort with stories of angels and guardian spirits, discussing reality on a six-year-old level of understanding has strengthened our relationship and provided wonderful opportunities to develop actual coping skills and mechanisms for easing anxiety. It certainly isn’t perfect, but it’s what we have, and we’re making the best of it. And I’d rather have that than a thousand fairy tales.