Taking The Past With You
Beyond the Book: trauma and weddings
Sometimes, after my partner’s radio show is done for the day and the kiddo has been taken to school, Gabriel and I will climb back in bed and snuggle up together and chat for a little while. With his wildly early work schedule (he is often up at 3am for work and that means he often has to be in bed by 7pm) it is often our best chance to get a little time together to connect.
We love talking with each other. It was a huge part of our friendship for the years that we were friends before we became romantically involved and it has continued to be a huge part of our life partnership.
The last few days I have been more cloistered up in my office than usual. It has been a rough few weeks/months and I do think I’ve needed a little more alone time while I try to process it. But I have also been isolating myself to try to figure out a rising anxiety I’ve been feeling lately. Last night, as I went to bed I realized what the source of my anxiety was. This morning, as we laid next to each other, I knew that I needed to talk about it.
“Babe,” I said, a little hesitantly, “I think I’m nervous about getting married.”
He let out an audible sigh that was surprisingly relieved, “I thought you might be.”
I’m sure that it is obvious to anybody who knows me, or even reads this newsletter, that I am over-the-moon in love with my partner. The relationship we have has been one of the most affirming, centering, strengthening, loving, and fun experiences of my entire life. I never imagined that being in love could be so beautiful, that it could be so healthy, that it could be so easy. The world has been hard. These last few years have been very hard. But this relationship? It has been the joy, comfort, safety and ease that we both have needed to get past these last years, and I am confident that it will get us through many more to come. There is no doubt in my mind that I want to spend the rest of my life with this beautiful person.
So when, as we dove more deeply into wedding planning this past week, did I start to feel so anxious?
**Before I dive in here - let me put in a content warning - I’m going to talk about abuse. If this is triggering for you, you may want to stop reading here. ***
I started to understand it a bit more last night, as I noticed how I was suddenly having to push thoughts of my first wedding out of my head. I was first married at twenty. I was five months pregnant and marrying the first man that I had ever slept with. I was not in love - I wasn’t even in “like.” I was getting married because I was pregnant, and because I felt deeply, fundamentally broken as a survivor of childhood abuse. I felt like love was not something that existed at all - and especially not for someone as fucked up for me. So I got engaged to the man who asked; the man who got me pregnant.
A few weeks before the wedding, my fiancé was yelling once again. I tried to stay out of his way, but I came running into the kitchen when I heard a crash. He was yelling about how poor my dishwashing skills were as he held up plate after plate, and slammed them into the garbage can. Our dishes crashed into each other and broke. I looked at them, knowing that we couldn’t afford to replace them, and hoped that more would come as wedding presents.
The day before the wedding we got into an argument because I didn’t want to wear the shade of lipstick that he had bought me for the wedding. It was a bold red - he called it “whore red” - and I didn’t like red lipstick at the time. The disagreement quickly turned to shouts, and I ran out crying to my car, leaving for my mom’s. As I pulled into the intersection, I didn’t see the other car until it was too late. The car crashed into the passenger side and I remember sitting there, dazed, tears still in my eyes, clutching my head that had just slammed into the side window, wondering if the baby was okay. After the police showed up, and the paramedics checked me out and determined that I was okay, I walked back to our apartment. I remember telling myself that it was too late to cancel the wedding. Family had already started arriving from out of state. People were already disappointed in me for getting pregnant so young. They would be furious if I canceled the wedding the night before.
So I got married. I walked down the aisle in my mom’s backyard that was decorated with flowers that a wedding-planning neighbor had leftover from a wedding she had done a few days prior. I walked through dog poop on my way up to the altar. I stood there - shit smeared on the train of my dress, wearing red lipstick - and made one of the biggest mistakes of my life.
The marriage was terrifying, brutal, and blessedly - short. What would have just been an abusive marriage was also compounded by mental health crises that had me sending my young son away for his safety at night, while locking myself in the bedroom to be near my husband as he ranted and raved, while also staying out of his physical reach.
One day, when my cousins were in town, I had taken the baby with me on a walk with them. I didn’t tell my husband beforehand. When we came back from our walk, breathless and laughing, I was confronted by my husband. I was a bad mother - a danger even. Our son had a wet diaper. How could I be so neglectful? I didn’t deserve him. I begged and pleaded with him to hand me my baby back. With the rest of the family staring at him - my mom, grandma and cousins all urging him to hand the child over, he practically flung the baby at me and stormed out.
As I wrapped myself around my baby, relieved beyond measure to have him back in my arms, my mom walked up to me.
“Honey,” she said quietly, “I think you’ve tried hard enough.”
And that was it. That day I got an apartment for my son and I. A few months later I got a restraining order. I began to piece my life together.
In the years since, my primary focus was my son. I wanted to make sure that I would never again place myself in a situation where my son would be hurt. I needed to make sure that I could care for him. I needed to make sure that nobody unhealthy entered our lives. I needed to build a future for us. I went to therapy to deal with my guilt about how my son was exposed to such a toxic living environment in his first few years of life. I went to therapy again to deal with my guilt over feeling like a neglectful mother as I tried to balance parenting, work, and school. I finished my degree with my young son along for the ride. He graduated from kindergarten the day before my graduation ceremony.
Over the years - now two decades - I have built a beautiful life for my little family. I have a job that I love and that fulfills me. My children have grown into two beautiful, strong, and happy young men. I have a loving and supportive community. I have a beautiful little house. I have found my place in the world.
And, a little over three years ago, I fell in love with the most amazing man. My life today is better than I ever could have imagined for myself.
As I parsed all of this out with Gabriel this morning, I realized that all of the work that I did to get to where I am today was focused on my own personal control and choices. What paths would I go down? Who would I let into my life? How would I learn healthier behaviors? As someone who felt very broken from a lifetime of different cycles of abuse, safety and self control was - and still is - so important to me. And my work over the years has definitely paid off. I have a beautiful, independent life. I’ve been able to be a good and dedicated mother to my children. I have not let any romantic relationship compromise my professional or personal goals. And building this great life for myself gave me the strength and confidence I needed to be able to open up to the relationship that I have now.
But what I never did, was grieve.
I realized that what was triggering my anxiety was Gabriel’s excitement for the wedding. He is so excited for it. It’s his first wedding. This is the big next chapter in our love story. Our wedding represents hopes for our future, our lifetime together.
And as I’ve watched his excitement I slowly came to realize what that first wedding had meant for me. It had been the end. The end of innocence, joy, independence, safety. The wedding, and the marriage that it brought, was the end of my youth. There was a before, and an after. And after was someone who never again got to dream about what could be, and instead was focused on surviving what was.
I was twenty, younger than my son - the baby I carried in my belly as I walked down the aisle - is now. At twenty my carefree days were done. And I can’t get them back. Don’t get me wrong - I don’t want them back. I am 41, and my life is so beautiful, and honestly, even from the outside your twenties look like a sort of chaos I don’t have the stamina for anymore. But it doesn’t mean that I didn’t deserve a full, adventurous life at twenty. I deserved so much more than I what I got. I deserved party years, travel, lazy mornings, failed jobs that didn’t matter, romances that burned away without leaving me scarred for life.
And I didn’t get any of that. And I will never be twenty again. But I am realizing that I do at least need to face the girl that I was and cry for her, and tell her that she should have been loved and protected and that she should have had a life defined by joy instead of survival. If I can’t hold her and let her cry that it wasn’t right and wasn’t fair, then it is going to continue to be hard for me to recognize deep in my heart that the journey my partner and I am embarking on is one that is different than ones that I have ever been on before, and that every step down the aisle that I make will be my choice.
Gabriel and I talked all morning. I shared some of the more painful memories from those early years, and realized that I hadn’t talked a lot about them before. I am realizing that I have only referenced those years when they were needed to help guide me to better choices for my children. And now that my sons are 20 and 14, I hadn’t needed to revisit that time nearly as much. But I had never stopped to consider what spending a little time there might do for me. I am, to anyone who sees how I move through the world today, a woman who appears to be remarkably healed. But my healing has always been measured in output - can I pay my bills, can I have healthier relationships, can I accomplish my goals? I haven’t taken time to realize that a huge part of healing is honoring who I was, grieving for what I have survived, and being grateful for all of the ways in which young me fought so hard for myself and for my family while allowing myself to feel heartbroken that I had to.
This wasn’t all solved this morning, and I don’t think this is really something to solve. But in being able to put words to this I am able to see how much I have been trying to leave my past behind, and how that can stop me from being able to clearly see the difference between it, and my beautiful future.
When I walk down the aisle this summer, I’m planning on bringing all of me. It isn’t a do-over. I won’t be re-living dreams that were dashed at twenty. I will be bringing twenty year old me along to see what all of that hard work led to. I will be bringing her along to see that this time I get to choose. And as I say “I do,” to a man who brings me joy and brings me closer to myself than I have ever been, I’m choosing me.
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