I was afraid. Of rejection, of being alone, of looking easy to say no to, part of an odd crew that doesn’t fit and crumbles easily. Of being the wounded fish in a tank of sharks. Of struggling with money and jobs and affording basic necessities and having nobody there. I was afraid of original sin, lack of success, my own frailty, little mistakes and big ones, of not getting things perfect enough to not be treated bad. Of writing the email and seeing the typo that outwardly proves I’m a moron and my ideas are crap, only noticed after hitting the send button.
So much happens after the send button that I cannot control. And for a time I stopped hitting send on anything too important. Or just sent it all, no filter. For a time it was hard to leave the familiar sphere beyond my front door, the world not feeling safe. So I left behind everything I knew. Because the world isn’t safe. And I can be a paradox if I want. I don’t need a pardon.
Though I always felt like I wanted to but could never get pardoned. That’s what shame feels like. Or at least mine. It says that my lack of safety – past, current, and future – is my fault. I seek reasons why I brought it on myself. Obsess over it.
If it’s my fault I can control it, steer it right. Except I can’t, and there’s this gap.
And from the job applications that I sent into the void, and the occasional interviews where we both had to pretend enthusiasm, to office people smiling and saying “you need to clean this data and print this out” in a way that shows they only need to be above you, to the guy with the baseball bat catcalling “hey red!” from behind me on the subway stairs, to the homeless girl I’ve been giving a couple bucks to every time I see her in that alcove over the last few months now having a big belly and holding a sign saying “pregnant and alone,” I am reminded that the world is not safe.
And whether you say we’re each to blame and could avoid it through diet and exercise and fastidiousness, or bad luck just senselessly happens, or it’s a purification for holiness, or a fucked up machine we need to rage against and liberate ourselves from, the fact remains. No matter what you do, it remains. It is bigger than you and beyond you.
Because the world is not safe. And even if Lady Gaga goes on stage at the Oscars and sings her heart out, a survivor who has herself surrounded by other survivors with motivational sayings sharpie’d onto their arms, speaking to that truth after the Vice President says that we need consent, we are still not safe.
Consent is not common in our society. Loyalty goes one way and shit rolls downhill. It is still a hierarchy. A patriarchy. A system that runs on violence, threat of hunger, sleeping on the street. Abuse and neglect are not the same thing, but much closer than being different. Like an old professor once pointed out to me, there’s nothing in our Constitutional rights that spell out the right to not starve to death. Did they forget about that one? Leave it out because it didn’t matter?
And most of us cannot educate or earn or socialize ourselves fully out of danger. We know this once we try. So the ones who can amass wealth as protection. Protection that gets to the level of madness. And helping others is then done sparingly for tax purposes, not real purposes. Defining the problem and the solution and the resources needed, a famous name attached. So much is left out. So many are left alone.
What could be more proof to me that we are not safe than the movie Spotlight winning the award? Some said it was about journalists exposing corruption, but to me it was proof that the problems are systemic and the challenges to exposing them are so great that it just doesn’t happen more often than not. Or else it wouldn’t be a movie or a show, a transcendence of the mundane, right?
So these things are a step in the right direction for one reason – acknowledging it. Because so often it’s unacknowledged. We are gaslit into accepting a reality where our experience is hidden, unspeakable, and our paranoia about walking late at night is chalked up as simply due to the neighborhood or the hour or our outfits, not that we are seen as prey by too many members of our own species.
Too often we’re told “parents always want the best for their children,” and “family will love you unconditionally” in an unexamined way. Something we would never say about bosses or spouses or neighbors or pastors or political leaders anymore, but we used to. And it wasn’t some universal truth about any of those other relationships either.
It’s not just the Quiverfull background I came from that has fertility cult mythology.
We act like there isn’t predation within our circles, only externally – the snatcher who waits. It doesn’t look like elder abuse, or the favorite aunt who steals her nieces’ inheritance, or the local real estate company who only sells houses for military members moving overseas, knowing they don’t have to do any real work and they’ll have a drop in price as the assignment date nears and they’ll get their cut anyway. It doesn’t look like the lover who gives you a ring and promises of forever and then shows they really wanted a sidekick. Or the pet owners who feed and groom and still kick the dog when nobody is looking. The roommate who pads the bills to get a little extra cash. The friend who pulls you back into a shared bad habit when you say you need out. The needles on the ground at the park.
So I wrote a small poem about trust. I needed it.
Three little leaves
On the strawberry plant
And I’m quite sure
It isn’t poison ivy
But sometimes I’m not sure. Because I have trust issues, big time. It is hard for me to love and not expect betrayal, abandonment. I’ve had it happen so many times. In places where I didn’t look for it and theoretically shouldn’t have ever had it. So I came to expect it everywhere. And yet I open myself anyway. Because what other option is there?
I know I am an easy person to abandon. It is not hard to tell me “you disgust me, get out of my sight.” And I know this because my dad said it, many times, before my age had reached double digits, and after that he occasionally offered me legal emancipation, or a ride to drop me off on a street somewhere, beginning at 12 years old. And I knew I had to stop loving him, because I wrote it in my diary. Because it was hard. Because I never did.
And when I left at age 17, he said to everyone that would listen that he kicked me out, that I didn’t leave my family because he was a defective parent, but because I was a defective daughter. That I was the abusive one.
So I had daddy issues. It wasn’t him that had daughter issues. But the truth is just as hard, and it’s that he hit me and then when I left, nobody stopped me from going. And I’m glad nobody stopped me, as that often happens and it would have been worse, but nobody asking me to stay, it not even occurring to them, that’s it’s own kind of pain. Runaway children and throwaway children are pretty much the same thing – they knew they already were cast off, before they left.
And in my heart, a decade and a half later, part of me is still throwaway, still easily left. I actually feel really awkward being included, to tell the truth. Like its an Easter game of paquing the eggs and I’m always waiting for mine to get cracked. I try to bring dishes and compliments, because wanting those things makes sense to me. Wanting me, not so much.
Maybe because it sometimes has been love bombing, manipulation. I have been both overly avoidant and overly susceptible. But the truth is that if you grow up in the desert you get used to being surrounded by cactus. It seems normal to you, even (maybe especially) if you want palm trees that you’ve only seen in postcards.
To be abandoned since I couldn’t be used for what somebody else wanted me for is the side of the world I know best.
So any sort of pulling away of friends, disdainful look from a colleague, a “nah, we’ll go with someone else,” well it hurts me deep, opens the wounds, the pain bodies.
And my reaction is outsize, disorganized, but usually hidden, avoidant. I blame myself, because I get attached, find myself at home in places too early and other times it takes me years to share my heart.
It’s like taking a mirror and putting it up against another mirror and looking at that tunnel it creates. The tunnel starts in the now and goes right back through the years, all the frames exactly like it, to my dad saying “you disgust me, get out of my sight,” and how raw formative me felt about it. It’s devastating to go there, like poking a particularly painful piece of shrapnel deeper in.
And one wrong word, one little hint of betrayal or invasion, has me either pulling way way back, or overlooking it, forgiving too much, giving out unrequested and unrequited chances to people who probably just see it as a sign that treating me as an object or a trained monkey is ok, something I’ll tolerate.
And then when I don’t tolerate it, decide to confront, I cry. I angry cry. I jump up and down and throw a tantrum like a kid, because I need to be heard, need to matter. Worked so hard that I would and could.
And they are confused, because they didn’t know I cared that much, or don’t hear me, or understand the new rule, thought they’d get more acquiescence, or, more likely, just don’t want to deal with my strong opinions and whatever they bring. Figure they can say no, snap their fingers, and I will be different or leave.
I’m been told that people don’t like my mouth, that I should keep my words to myself in order to be noncontroversial, not vulnerable, not up for debate. But I know something they seemingly don’t. And that’s that no matter what I do, I’m vulnerable, and that the kind of life I want to lead, which isn’t a helper role to some man, is inherently controversial. And the role I occupy will probably always be up for debate among people who didn’t make the same choices I did, didn’t have the same lived experience, and don’t get it. And the truth is many never have to. It was like Lady Gaga said in the song. Telling you how to handle it when they don’t know, when it hasn’t happened to them.
So I just decided to accept it. That I was controversial. That I wasn’t exactly easy to understand. That not everybody wants me around. And that some people are fake. Others predatory. And some just selfish, to where they’re great when you fit with their program and really not great at all when you don’t. And I wondered what I could do with it, this harsh reality that I could not change.
So first I felt my feelings, something I’m trying to regularly do, as it is the best cure for preventing things from piling up in the pockets created by PTSD, prolonging it. I allowed all my emotions, even anger and hate. And then I forgave, when the time seemed right.
Not the sort of cheesy church forgiveness you do where you act like it’s all ok now, or that people hurting you or others are alright to go on doing that, or that you’re holy now, but empathetic forgiveness – where you quit distancing and otherizing, try to feel the unmet need and fear that led to those behaviors in the ones that did you wrong, and to understand it is human struggle too.
The word “evil” is thrown around a lot, but seems rather useless and awkward when it comes to describing things in detail. The dark side of each of us is easy to hate, to push away, to literally demonize. The parts you recognize as familiar – something you thought or almost did – even more so. And it’s easy to get in the habit of fighting fire with fire, repeating what you know, figuring if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. So looking this side of yourself in the eye is terrifying, very threatening, goes against those core internal phobias. And even if you go there, it’s hard to say what you’ve seen, after you’ve done it. We don’t really have the words.
But I had this new thought, sort of a frame for it all, that came together upon learning the meaning of my last name. Doney is uncommon, Scots-Irish, and in old English it literally means “from the dark island.” And my first name is Heather, a flowering shrub. And the idea was uplifting – that I can live with and up to my name, be the flowering shrub from the dark island.
Maybe I’m lucky – having had to have so much close contact, so much dirt around me that pretended to be good and right, but it didn’t have to contaminate me so much as inform me, along with everything else I saw and felt and read about. Maybe it is about the stories we tell, the angle I choose. Like the time my Grandad had a heart attack, and when I talked to him in the hospital he said that he knew how Grammy felt now, as she’d had several.
He had learned that lesson – that hardship can bring you closer to good through understanding. And information isn’t contamination, even when it hurts. And it isn’t a lie to say that my fellow humans are complicated, often incomprehensible, and at the same time as simple as any other animal around us, with survival and companionship needs. Nobody wants to be alone, or mistreated.
And I realized the most powerful stories I’ve encountered in my life are orphan stories and travel stories and stories of loss and redemption. Because at our heart, we are tribal creatures, seeking belonging, emotional resonance, wanting to love and see that love reflected in another’s eyes.
It is no wonder that heaven is described as paved in gold, where everyone has a mansion near a father who has deemed them worthy and welcomed them. Resources, shelter, permanent group inclusion – what more could we need?
And reality is many don’t have anything close to that right now and many feel they can’t even talk about it, for fear that their weakness, their vulnerability, their lack of, will lead to what little they have being snatched away, go from having some small bit to having nothing.
And I can talk about it, give voice to the feeling. That is a thing I can do.
The reason the story of the Good Samaritan is so meaningful is implicit – what we think of the rest of the travelers on the road, and what we especially think of the Samaritans, their typical behavior.
I thought about this, the nothing and having no one that those of us with abandonment issues fear. How primal it is. And I thought about my fear, how I mostly overcame it, but had it return again real bad as an adult.
Divorcing my husband, the death of my grandfather, and disowning my father in a short span, I lost my partner and my elders, connected friends, my sense of mental and financial security, and my group identity, which had only just started being built to a level I was proud of. It was all stripped away. And what I was left with underneath it all looked so ugly. So sub-par I couldn’t bear it. My own face’s reflection was grotesque and pitiful to see, my body even more so. And then I did something that didn’t solve everything, but was a good start.
I wrote myself an apology letter. I said sorry for not being a good friend to myself. I told myself that I’d be nicer to me, as I was the best thing I had. I said I’d parent my inner child, learn how to treat her as worthy rather than telling her to shut up, get out of my sight, that old harmful learned pattern.
And so I have. And a funny thing happened in all that. It sure didn’t stop all the world problems I saw. It didn’t fix all my heartbreaks. It didn’t provide a protective barrier against creepy people, acting like I am a product vying for feedback or direction, a resource to be consumed by them. It didn’t stop people who think their only way to have power is to backstab and snatch from the women around them, come up with thin reasons as to why it is ok and deserved. It didn’t stop paternalistic men from expecting sidekick behavior from me, a persona I now jokingly call Holly the typist, after an old lawyer forgot all but the first letter of my name and asked if I took dictation.
It didn’t stop people who thought it was their job to put me in my place or tell me that I’m wrong, or snipe at me, or scapegoat me, that I know of. What it did stop was the instinct for me to go along with it or fight it like my life depended on it. Because the truth is that a brush off is usually the best response to most of that nonsense.
The best revenge against controlling people who say the removal of their support would break you and shame you is living well on your own, in interdependence with surrounding community. And I have done that. And the best way to know how other people should treat you is to get into a solid pattern of self care. To learn what it feels like. To feed yourself oatmeal instead of skipping it or eating chips for breakfast. (Full disclosure: this morning I had yogurt and chips for breakfast, but I do have a healthy lunch planned).
And I did a thing recently that I’ve never done on purpose, and I found it helped. I pulled that mental mirror away from the other mirror, disrupted that tunnel that connected current rejection with past. Because they are different. They don’t reflect a shared reality. That connection, that obvious path, it isn’t really there.
If people reject me or mistreat me today it isn’t like what my father did. They’re just people out in the world, doing whatever. Their view of the tribe is such that they feel they owe no loyalty to me. I belong to some other different tribe. And it’s not their problem if I don’t have one at all. And even though I’d say that many people (myself included) do see the world as one big universal tribe, and it breaks our hearts that not everyone shares this vision, fact is that no matter the conception of this network, my dad was supposed to be part of mine.
He was my parent, he brought me into this world and owed me fathering. And his failure to properly do so means I have that loss and I have to do the work myself, as an adult. It does not mean that I am or ever was deserving of non-acceptance or mistreatment. And knowing that, truly digging deep and feeling that for real, has made me less afraid of this unsafe reality we live in.
If I am rejected, I still have me. There are still millions more people in this world, some of whom might be really fun or really loyal or really great to love or learn from. There is work for me to do, experiences for me to have, whether other people get it or not. And some do get it, because I have had some of the nicest letters and notes and phone calls and coffee meetings saying so. I should not forget it. I should not forget me any more than I forget them, and I could never forget them.
I can say “you are beautiful, stay, let us learn and grow together.” I can say it to myself, and I can say it to others. And if I cannot say it to another, find it gently catches in my throat when I try to, I should let them go and put my energies elsewhere. Because the only person I have as a project in this whole world is me. Other people are not my projects. And if they seem to need work, that is their personal journey. I am not a fixer. And perfectionism, mothering others because I need mothering, or judging them because I judge my own struggles, will not bring peace.
I can learn to build trust by accepting both my vulnerability and my dark side, by forgiving people who do not have the insight to see themselves as bigger and more important than mere bystanders or enforcers of the status quo, and by being selective in who I let in to the core of myself, keeping some pieces that are only for me, not anybody else.
Fear of abandonment is lessened when you know that you will not abandon yourself and that there are enough people in the world to where you never have to be all alone, even after a core betrayal or a series of losses.
I am glad that this hardship showed the mirror tunnel to me, illuminated the point it led back to, so I could break it, end the faux pattern, reestablish my identity, the meaning of my name. Say I am worthy of real attachment in the here and now, that the reflection I once took as truth was a lie.
That I am here to grow flowers from roots in the dark island.