I had a panic attack yesterday.
It was the kind of panic attack that you can feel coming all day. If you’re not familiar, for me at least, they start with this dreaded feeling like something is wrong, but you can’t put your finger on it. I had woken up abruptly that morning with the thought, “You’re a terrible person.” Odd, I know, but I’ve come to expect odd things from my brain at times. As the day wore on, I felt moments of my heart pounding or fluttering. It’s kind of like how you feel when something exciting is going to happen, only there is nothing. Like the precursing tremor of a volcano about to explode.
I’m in graduate school and finishing up my second to last semester. Between school and work and life and being a mom, I have a lot on my plate. It doesn’t *look* like more than I can manage. I’ve managed much harder things in life. However, I’ve recently felt the pressure bearing down on me of my life and all that has come before now. At times I feel myself hurtling toward a finish line into a new life that I both want, and fear. I’ve never done well with uncertainty, in a life that has always been uncertain.
At any rate, as I sat there in class (on time for a change), I could feel it. Everything felt louder. It felt as though everyone was looking at me, even though no one was. My chest was pounding. Hot tears were welling up in my eyes, and as I felt myself begin to need to take multiple deep breathes I knew it was too late. My instructor noticed.
As I stood in the breezeway of the building outside of the classroom with my professor, I fell apart. I hate falling apart. I sobbed to her that I was just dealing with anxiety and I would be fine and I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I just need a minute I have my comprehensive exams to write and two papers and a group project and I’m having trouble at work and looking to apply for new jobs with my new degree and planning my 40th birthday trip out of the country for the first time and I’m sorry I can usually handle this, I should be able to handle this…
But there was so much more behind all of it.
So much I don’t say.
So much I can’t say or try to not remember.
But I can’t fix a problem I fail to acknowledge is there.
So here I am. Aprhodite in real life.
I think something I struggle with most in life is acknowledging the trauma I’ve endured. I know that I haven’t had it as bad as some, and I am fully aware of my good fortune. But the voice that whispered to me, “You’re a terrible person,” is one from my past. It has been everything until now.
I grew up the oldest child of three in the home of a raging alcoholic, and an enabling co-dependent mother. When I was three my mother bought me the book “The Very Worried Sparrow” if that gives you any indication of how far back my anxiety goes. I was a worried child. I was terrified of messing up or doing something wrong. My parents fed off each other’s rage and when their sights turned to me, it usually resulted in being berated or beaten. I was a good student. I was talented; funny. I’ve always stood out. My mother both loved this in public but chastised me in private over this. My father was cold and distant unless he was drunk and raging. So, while the attention I received from the outside world was positive, the attention I received from them was that I was a “show-off”, a “smart ass”, an “ingrate”, and my favorite and one of my most deeply held beliefs: I was “too difficult to love”.
I guess in a lot of ways, I was difficult for them to love. I never quite integrated into their chaos. I always acknowledged the 800lb gorilla in the room. I did have a smart mouth, but I primarily used it to point out what I felt were things that were inherently wrong in our home. My father was a bully, and one of his primary targets was my mother. So when I was older, and she would crumble into a pile of tears, I would take over the argument. I’ve had my share of beatings, but I felt like I could handle it better than she could. Besides, she doled out her own beatings. Slaps to the face. Hair pulling and dragging me by my hair. Hitting me in the back of my head until I had headaches that would last for hours after. But the beatings never quite hurt as much as the beratement. My parents have a black belt in that, which I hate to say I’ve become as equally good.
My father and I would get into hellacious arguments that usually ended with him telling me to pack my things because he was sending me to the “county home”. He would stand over me as I sobbed and packed what I could into a suitcase, all the while telling me I would see what its like to have a really bad life, and maybe then I would appreciate the life I had with them. He never sent me away. When I got a little older, I would leave the house anyway with my bag. Often standing at the foot of the driveway, sometimes in the pouring rain waiting for a friend to come pick me up. The next day my mother would reach out to say that “Daddy’s sorry” and “would you please come home.” And I did every time, even though Daddy never said sorry to me. Many times I had called the police to come and intervene in one of his fits. Each time I watched my mother downplay it until the police would leave. Each time it was impressed upon me what would happen if my sister and brother and I were taken out of their custody and how much trouble that would cause me and them. I never apologized either.
When I turned 18, I had my first taste of freedom. I lived at school during the week and only came home to the chaos on the weekends. During this time I met my ex-husband. At 26 he was much too old for me, but I saw him as sophisticated and more worldly, What I didn’t see was how controlling he would become. He called me constantly. Memorized my schedule almost immediately and would monitor when I was in my dorm room and if I wasn’t wanted to know where I had been. I saw this as he just really liked me a lot. I see now they were red flags of what was to come.
Then one evening, I had arrived at my parent’s house and no one was home. I logged onto their computer and was playing around online (the internet was kind of new back then and still pretty exciting) when my father arrived home. I’ll never forget the look in his eyes when he locked eyes with me on the stair landing. “Why haven’t you been answering the phone!” I had only arrived myself maybe 10 minutes prior and the phone had not rung. He was drunk, and he was livid. A fit of rage ensued. He spewed every hateful hurtful thing he could imagine at me, and then he drew back his hand like he was going to hit me. I stood there stone-faced and said, “If you do it, I will call the police. I am 18, and you can’t hit me anymore. And you know I will press charges.” He didn’t hit me, but he told me to leave and never return. And I never did. Gladly.
My then boyfriend, future ex-husband, saw this as an opportunity to move in with him. We had only been together for 4 months at the time, and I honestly didn’t want to move in with him. So I made him ask my mother, thinking surely she would say no. However, she saw him as a man of financial means who could take me off their hands and take care of me. So she encouraged me to move in with him. So I did.
I wasn’t happy with him, but then I hadn’t been happy before so I didn’t really see it as something I could change or needed to change. He was controlling. Monitored where I went and who I talked to. He controlled all the finances and for the most part I wanted for nothing…but freedom. We had horrible arguments. Arguments that would get way out of hand. The night before he proposed to me he had come home drunk and raging and punched a hole in our hallway wall. Anyone in their right mind would have left, but being raised in chaos gives you a high tolerance for crazy. When he asked me to marry him, I said yes, because that’s what I was supposed to do, right? So much of my life was me waiting for direction as to what to do next. Guilt me. Order me. Demand it. I may fight it, but I would do it. I always did as I was told.
The only thing I couldn’t do for him was stay 18.
I grew up. We had a child and I grew up. I realized one day that I did not, in fact, love him. I realized that I had never loved him. I had crumbled under the pressure to be who he wanted me to be. Attractive. Subservient. Quiet. Often in groups, I would “hold court” as my sister sometimes referred to it. I could get a table laughing with my stories or wit, and my husband hated me for it. After a while, I got tired of being harangued over the fact I outshone him intellectually and socially. I got tired of him referring to everything I liked as my “little friends” and my “little hobbies”. I got tired of being subjugated. I got tired of being shoved and pushed when he was angry. I got tired of his tantrums. I felt my soul dying with him. Still, I did everything I could to try to negotiate with him a life I could tolerate. Eventually, life became intolerable. I broke. I broke into a thousand tiny pieces. I wanted out. I wanted a divorce. I didn’t love him. I had never loved him. The guilt I felt over this was unfathomable. It was honestly almost too much to bear. I had failed. I couldn’t be what he wanted, and I wanted out.
I recall shortly before the final break between us weeping in my therapist’s office. I was wailing to him in between gulps of breath, “I’ve wasted his life. He loves me so much, and I don’t love him. I’ve wasted his life.” My therapist looked at me like he was looking into my soul and asked me, “Why does your life not matter?”
And I blinked back at him through tears thinking, “Wh-what?” I had never thought of my life before.
The divorce was contentious and that is putting it mildly. I could literally fill pages with all the horrible things he did during our divorce to make it a nightmare, but I won’t. I honestly can’t. It’s hard for me to go there, and going this far into my history is hard enough. As he saw himself losing control he tightened his reins and went to any length imaginable to either get me back into line or deter me from leaving. But I was leaving. So he threw all his energy into gaining custody of our then 5-year-old son. He lied. He manipulated. He raged. He terrorized. He paid.
And I returned back home again with empty arms, leaving behind the only unconditional love I have ever known. Losing custody of our son at that time felt like a death of sorts. I’ve always tried to put it into perspective for myself that it was NOT a death, and that there was still pages for my son and me to write. However, it was the death of my dream of having a family. It was the death of every hope I had for the future experiences of raising my boy. The first two years after my divorce was the darkest in my life. About 6 months after the divorce was final, and visitation had been taking place my ex decided to take me back to court to revoke my visitation. I didn’t do anything to cause it. He was still just too angry over all of it, he didn’t want to deal with me. He wanted me to disappear. I didn’t physically see my son again for 10 months. During that time I searched and searched for a way to get representation to go back to court. The divorce had financially ruined me. I had been left with all the debt from the marriage and a lot of financial obligations to my ex that took most of my minimal income.
I eventually realized there are no white knights. No one was going to swoop in and fix this or rescue me or make my ex-husband do the right thing. So with the help of friends who had some legal expertise or connections to those who did, I figured out how to represent myself. I also had to wait for the original judge in my case to retire before I could get a fair trial. So I waited, and I researched. Even handling a case pro-se requires funds. I took a second job, briefly, as a waitress. I hated it. It was a lot of extra work for minimal tips. I needed access to cash, and quickly. So, even though it may not have been for the right reasons, that’s when I decided to go back to school. I could use some of the funds not paying for classes to fight to get my visitation back. So that’s what I did.
After several attempts, I finally got a new hearing and eventually had my vindication in court. That is also a long story for another time, but I had finally won and I did it myself. I knew he would never come back to live with me, but I could see him and that’s all that mattered.
That was 7 years ago, now. I still live under the control of my ex-husband, though he is much more subdued. His anger has calmed. We have our “new normal”. But now, I stand at the precipice of a new beginning. I’m turning 40 soon. I’m finishing grad school soon after that. My freedom is so close I can almost taste it. I often feel like a prisoner who is *almost* up for parole. I’m setting the stages now for my new life, even though I won’t be truly free until I’m 43.
But I’m moving forward with a life that I’m not sure what it holds for me. There is every possibility unfolding before me. It’s exciting and terrifying, and I want to embrace it fully. So I have to find a way to let go of everything that has held me here in this place. My guilt over not being able to change what happened with my son. My guilt over stupid decisions made as a child who didn’t know any better and had no business getting married. My deeply held belief that I’m not good enough to be loved by anyone.
I know it’s not true. At least I think it’s not. Maybe.
So here I am. Aphrodite in real life. Perfectly imperfect. Beautifully broken in every way. Everything until now has led me to this place.
And now a new journey begins.