trauma drama

 I weighed myself again last week and the numbers whispered back

You’re out of control. 

You’re unrecognizable. 

This is why he didn’t want you. 

Anxiety settles in like a cat on my chest. A little tail curls around the back of my neck, little claws pad into the fabric of my shirt. It circles round, its weight heavy, heavier, heaviest; I awake with a startled gasp for air.

It comes in waves for moments, minutes, hours. Out of no where, for no reason, or reasons I can’t understand.

There’s a fog, a hazy blurriness around the edges, the feeling that at any moment your throat might finally close in, the unstoppability of the tail curling tighter and tighter and tight—-

I blink a bit and try to watch from the outside. I squint into the fog as an observer, no longer the active participant.

From this vantage, I separate myself to watch the mental tantrum that trauma is throwing and feel the angry-toddler energy from afar. 

I recall that today’s mental clutter might be inspired by years-past conditioning. I recall that last week may have been especially challenging, considering I’ve had to narrate my dysfunctional story at two separate meetings, with two groups of people, for two separate reasons.

The first, an initial appointment for the annulment process. The next, an interview for my ex’s work.

Thinking about, preparing for, and participating in these story-telling pow-wows has taken me over. 

Do they think I’m crazy? Do they believe me? Will they be kind?

The breath comes shorter. 

It’s no longer a cat. It’s the slightest threat of his hand on my neck, he’s above me, the sex, the choking the gagging the hands on the back of my head, forcing it down my throat til it hurts I’m at the mercy of his larger-than-mine hands his hands over my face til my vision blurs its all just a joke. 

It’s drowning.

I show up at church, trying to explain what went wrong, very practically explaining dates and engagements and STDs and the reasons I shouldn’t have married this man in the first place.

I show up at coffee shops, trying to somehow explain that, sure, he might be good at his job, but no, I found him to be deceitful and manipulative and unreliable and rageful and really, no, no one else saw much of that behavior, it was reserved mostly for me, so maybe its unverifiable and it didn’t really happen.

Of course, everyone’s been kind, everyone has listened, no one has told me I was wrong. I still can’t turn off the nervous energy or the dreams or the circuit in my head running in loops warning me that everything is out of control.

I try to chase it away with sweat and yoga and reading and walking and writing and breathing and medicating.

It’s a little bit tiring.

I’m looking forward to the days these things don’t sneak up on me in such a visceral, physical way. 


In the meantime, I continue to observe.  

To be honest, it looks like quite the mess. There’s a party of diagnoses carrying on in my head and, I’m sure, a handful of fancy labels we could hand out like favors.

All I know for sure is that today I’m choking on anxiety and popping Reeses by the handful, trying to smother everything else.

Thankfully, the internet is a wide, wide world, and with gratitude towards to some handy YouTube videos and qualified mental health professionals I’m starting to hone in on why the heck I feel like I’m losing my shit.

There is a particular fancy label, C-PTSD, or Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, that has felt particularly helpful as of late. This particular cluster of ‘stress responses’ has not yet been verified by the DSM (diagnosis bible for psychology), but nevertheless has provided me a framework with which to format my experience a bit more clearly.

There’s a version of PTSD we recognize nowadays thanks in part to education and in part to war-themed movies/Grey’s Anatomy. Collectively we’re able to recognize flashbacks and violent outbursts and are happy to non-judgmentally support those who are struggling.

We also recognize that PTSD develops in times of threatened safety, where the brain sees danger and reacts chemically to prepare the body for defense. Vigilant ‘fight or flight’ mode activated.

After time, with repeated exposure, this vigilance has the capacity to convert to hyper-vigilance. The mind hears the same warning bells day in and out until it loses the ability to distinguish between real or perceived threat. Every bell is an alert to action, and certain bells engrain deeply enough to become triggering alerts to action out of proper context.

Cue Marine triggered to flash-back by ceiling fans posing as helicopters.

Worth noting- this ‘fight or flight’ response can be triggered by any threat to safety, and the same chemical reaction takes place in the face of war, car accidents, house fires, etc., etc.

Incidents are different, body responds the same.

Makes sense, right?

What was news to me was that the ‘fight or flight’ response can happen in cases of psychological danger (aka abuse) too.

It’s a little harder to pin down, as it’s a little harder to recognize psychological or emotional abuse. The process wears down the mind differently- there isn’t always one particular moment of danger. More typically, there are many, many moments over an extended period of time.

Also interesting- while the brain does not distinguish between different flavors of physical danger, it also does not differentiate between physical or psychological danger, especially when the situation is perceived to be inescapable. The body remains vigilant until the brain learns new modes of operating in a dangerous world.

With all that said, apparently there is also such a thing as an emotional flashback.

This is where the mind provides inappropriate responses to situations that have triggered the need for self-protection in the past.

Cue panic attack when your Bumble match doesn’t text you back. Sounds stupid, feels like real abandonment when you used to have a husband who didn’t text you back for hours, sometimes days.

Then after the anxiety-soaked meetings I had this week, I’m starting to identify more of those triggers in my own life. I’ve come to this conclusion: I don’t like submitting my story for critique in ways outside of my control. Writing here? Under my control. Feedback at a minimum, at least to my face. At church? In public? At work? No thank you. 

I don’t like opening myself up to a place where someone can tell me I’m crazy. Yes, I certainly am attempting to move beyond requiring validation, but, yes, I lived in a world for many years where my experience was not considered to be truth. It takes a long time to move past that.

A sprinkling of other strange triggers I’ve been not-so-pleasantly discovering on this journey with anxiety:

My weight. I see the scale and my brain recites a mantra. I’m unlovable. I’m undesirable. I’m too much, too big. Worth cheating on. Worth leaving, ignoring, treating unkindly. I earned it, it’s my fault. I’m not worth looking at, I’ll stay away.

Online Dating. LOL all you want, but many ignored messages later my fixated brain and speeding heart tell me I’m alone. I’m abandoned, uninterested, unwanted. Intimacy is the ultimate danger and people, especially men, are not trustworthy. 

Gym Paraphernalia. This feels silly, but I swear every time I hear a shaker bottle I’m back at home with him. I’m sure I’ll be alone for hours, isolated, starving for attention, neglected emotionally, not worth investing time in, not as worthy of care as a set of abs.

Vague Criticism. Unhealthy, yes, to respond to normal snippy family dynamics with shame. I made the coffee wrong? Panic. They’ll be leaving soon. They’ll be emotionally distant. They’ll be cold. Hide.

Other reliably anxiety-inducing triggers: Lying. Misogyny. Unreliability. Jeans that don’t fit. Movies where couples are fighting. Blah, blah, blah. An interesting rainbow of bizarre crap my brain has done.

I’m looking forward to untangling the rest of this mess, because this is freakin exhausting. 

In the meantime, I whisper to my anxious cat, pet it and hold it and tell it it’s safe, again and again, over and over; he pads away to rest.

a prayer for frostbite

What do we do when the Church feels cold?

When it starts to feel like no, after no, after no?

No sex outside marriage. No birth control. No same-sex relationships. No IVF. No surrogacy. 

Even in the smaller things- no meat on Fridays, no food before mass. No getting high, drinking too much, eating too much, shopping too much.

In some circles, the more ridiculous things- no bikinis, no shorts, no working mothers.

It can all start to feel a little heartless.

I won’t pretend to understand the struggle of those in the world sorting through heavier things, but recently I’ve been faced with my own small ‘no’ and I’m a bit at odds.

See, according to my Church, I’m supposed to avoid new romantic relationships until my annulment has been finalized. 

For those unaware, an annulment is basically the Church’s way of confirming that a marriage was, at the time of the vows, not sacramental- not a free, total, faithful, fruitful, holy union at it’s inception.

In ‘guilty until proven otherwise’ fashion, we are meant to assume the marriage was sacramental until Step One: The divorce is legally finalized and Step Two: An official Church tribunal reviews the case (comprised of documents, testimonies, questionnaires, and supporting accounts from outside observers).

In the in-between state of a marriage dissolved by law and not by faith, involved parties are advised to “remain faithful to the wedding vows” until an annulment is, or is not, granted. 

This process, tacked on top of my already never-ending divorce, promises to be another lengthy, involved, and emotional one. 

In reality, holding off on dating is probably for the best, as I’m not really interested in exploring vulnerability with men. And to be completely honest, I’m enjoying this space for myself.

Even still, it feels rather harsh to encourage me to “stay faithful to my vows” when the male half of this situation was not faithful to any vows on any level. Not in dating, not in marriage, and absolutely not now. 

So what am I staying faithful to? Lies? Deception? Cover ups? A sham of a marriage and a liar of a husband? And why am I the punished party? If anyone needs a little churching here, I think it might be him. 

So I’m annoyed. 

And I’m tired. 

I’d like to feel free to move and make decisions of my own volition, not as a slave to an abusive husband, the inefficiency of the Californian legal system or the intricacy of an annulment process. I’m tired of being manipulated and under control and out of control, financially and emotionally and spiritually and physically.

On top of that, I feel like I’m grieving again. I’m just starting to realize that- surprise!- I’m really, really, single. A mental spiral triggered by the settlement submitted last week for final legal processing.

I’m relieved, but a little more broken than I thought I’d be. 

I feel abandoned. 

I keep thinking, over and over,

but what if he’d loved me?


There’s a voice that follows, whispering is this it

Is it?

Am I going to be alone? Forever?

I suppose I was alone before. Loneliness in a marriage was certainly painful in its own special way, leaving me by myself at church, with family, in prayer, in thought.

One of those last summer nights found me alone in my home, again, calling him over and over at three am, wondering where he was, again. I tossed and turned, coming to terms with a truth I’d been avoiding: I’d rather be alone forever than live like this. 

So what if this really is forever?

I don’t want to hear that God has a plan or it’s all going to be okay. 

This might be the plan. 

Is it ok?


I try to look beyond the rules.

I put it all away, and I try to look to Jesus.

I try to sit in mass, sit in adoration, sit in prayer.

I try to get beyond the sterility of rule-following to the heart of it.

I sit, and sit, and sit, and stare into the face of God until as much as I wrestle, I can’t help but rest.

There’s something undeniable; it’s tangible, concrete peace. It’s grace.

There is a real encounter with a real God, and real love, so maybe- maybe- singleness is not synonymous with loneliness. 

Maybe these rules aren’t the iron-cold bars of a cage, but the warm walls of a home within which I encounter love in the most healthy, human way possible. 

Maybe here, in this home, there is a life of abundance waiting around the corner.

Or maybe that life is right here, waiting for me to live it.

a season of shavasana

I’ve been making time for yoga lately. Not with the skill or intensity of a Lulu-clad millennial- I’m mostly in my room with my dog- but it’s felt good all the same. 

I used to practice casually in my little North Carolina town, attending beginner classes with retirees and other inflexible townspeople. It was around that time my marriage was at a low point, and I was grateful for mornings alone to unwind. It was just for myself, without people-pleasing or clock-ins or competition. My body moved the way it wanted and needed, without pressure or judgment or the eyes of a husband who loathed me.

All was well – I could even touch my toes! – until my foot broke, I had to stop working, and me and my paisley mat moved to California.

Unfortunately, years of picked-last-in-gym syndrome kicked in and I avoided yoga like the plague, unhappy in my skin and ability and intimidated by the way everyone in Southern California somehow grew up doing yoga (how?). I couldn’t compare or keep up, so I let it go.

It’s October now, another season of letting go. The heat fades, the colors change, the air cools, life stills. 

What am I shedding this season with the leaves? What am I letting settle to the earth with the reds and yellows and oranges? What is the sun warming again with its sweet autumnal light?

I turn into myself, stretch out tight hips, and unwind again in the evening golden glow.

I am in a new season, too. In my room, lengthening and strengthening, I’m given permission to reclaim what’d been forgotten as I greet downward dogs and fish and frogs like old friends.

I am learning to sink further into my body. I am slowly celebrating small victories, making peace with small failures and, through it all, enjoying my muscles and breath and sweat and strength.

More than anything, I find I’m enjoying this new space for aloneness. I sweep out the rooms of my mind, say goodbye to unruly, unwanted visitors, and close the door. There is quiet, there are candles, and at the center of it all, I lay a mat out to take care of myself, for myself, with myself. An outward sign that yes, I take up space in this world, and yes, I will foster that space. 

At the end of it all, I’m in shavasana, the corpse pose. On the outside, I’m looking like the meeting place of life and death. On the inside, I am anchoring. Settling into myself, my skin, my life, my mind, and letting go. Making room for the season I am in and new seasons to come. Sinking deeply into a rhythm.

As much as fall brings death to life, maybe this season, this shavasana of nature, is simply about making space. New space, new room, to breathe. To sink, once again, into a rhythm.


In this new light and space, I am most happily embracing this fresh sense of stillness. A significant stride, considering the unrest of last October.

Last year I was living at home, paying for lawyers, starting a new job, learning about life in a new state. This year, much is the same, but, even still, much is changed. Yes, I’m at home, paying for lawyers, not divorced, but, today, my heart is rested. The constant weight of his presence is fading. He isn’t driving me forward, moving me urgently towards the need to heal, pushing me towards conquering, fighting, processing, growing. 

I continue on my own road, this October, still conquering, processing, growing- but no longer at his expense. It is, this time around, for me, and me alone. This season, this version of me, is a little less tethered to that man, the one who held my heart and mind from a distance.

Now I move through my day, clear headed, both purposeful and purposeless, in a rhythm set by me. He doesn’t hover over my shoulder, doesn’t remind me I am alone, doesn’t tell me I am unlovable, doesn’t say anything at all. He isn’t anywhere to be found. 

Of course, occasionally, when I’m least expecting it, he does come back. October is for ghosts, after all.

Most recently, he was in a song floating over the trees, a tune from the family across the street. Those words had always brought me back to him, back to dancing at bars and at weddings, leaning into each other closer and singing louder, feeling breathlessly this is our life, feeling seen and seeing and wrapped up in home. 

My heart hurt, for a moment, and I wonder if these moments plan on revisiting me for forever. I wonder if I’ll go longer than hours or days- maybe years- until a song or a laugh or a smell returns my heart to his. And then again, for a moment, all the sorrow and all the ache will be back like a strike of lightening, a piercing flash, before returning to nothing. Just another rain storm, just another fall. 

I wonder if someday, at the end of these earthly days, I’ll see him again in another flash of light. Another strike without the pain and the anger and sadness and brokenness. 

I wonder if a part of my heart, a part of my soul, will be his for always. And I wonder if, maybe, someday, those littlest parts will be together again, in the briefest exhale, ah, I know you, and there will be a moment of love, the way we meant it to be. Now, as through a mirror, then, as face to face.

Or, perhaps, more autumns will pass by, and it’ll all be nothing but a lightening strike, an unseen scorch of earth in an overgrown forest, buried and buried again under the falling leaves. 

recovering safety & sight

Last year, the day I moved home, my mom came to me with a handful of miniature nativities. All small enough to fit in her palm, one was meant for me as a gift from her recent trip to Italy. She was surprised by my choice, the little wooden family, carved as one piece and painted with muted colors. The most rustic, least detailed, least dazzling of the group. 

Where my mother was surprised, I felt it was obvious, almost logical, to choose this little walnut-sized family. Look at baby Jesus! He was sleeping, tucked into the arms of His mother, enveloped by Joseph, their mantles melted into one. How could I not tuck myself into that little nativity? That smallest Jesus was the safest Jesus.

Months later, I began therapy. My journey towards healing began by addressing those underlying currents that had propelled me out of my marriage and, instinctually, towards whatever appeared the safest. 

I found I felt unsafe emotionally, having known a love that withdrew and told me I was a mistake. Unable to trust that a heart promised to protect me would continue to be willing. I had learned I lived in a world where I could give my all, over and over again, and I would not be good enough. I could be rejected, forgotten and unwanted. 

I learned I felt unsafe spiritually, unable to express the truths of my faith without conflict. Unsafe to pray openly at home. Unsafe to talk about what shaped my heart and soul and what I believed at my core. Unsafe to put God first, because that meant my husband would only love me less. 

I realized that, at times, I even felt unsafe physically, having lived with a man who’s rage frightened and shocked. Unsafe in intimacy, unable to trust my body to a partner who pushed boundaries. Leaving me with one eye over my shoulder at all times, in all situations.

Hour after hour was poured into therapy, claiming a new space where I could breathe. It was safe to exist, to take up room, and to trust my environment again. 

Okay. Great.

So I’m safe within myself. Within my heart. My mind. My home.

Where does that leave me and God?

It leaves me angry.

It leaves me feeling like God is dangerous. Because I prayed novena after novena after novena, made sacrifice after sacrifice, and endless, endless, loops on my rosary. Because I journaled and prayed and reflected and talked and asked for prayers and guidance and felt like I was in a good place, I was doing the right things, I wasn’t even having sex! I was even using NFP! 

All that, and, guess what, I got hurt anyway. My heart got broken. He didn’t see me or hear me or want me or convert or grow or treat me better. Nothing. I didn’t get kids or stability or healing or holiness. I asked for help and thought God was reassuring me, thought I was having peace, but really it was just moments of relief. No signs, no reassurance, just interludes in the cycle of abuse. 

And now I look into the face of the God I trusted, the God who led me to believe there were great things in store for me.

What great things? 

This?

Why?

I can’t open my hands, I can’t let You in, I’m angry and I’m hurt and I don’t understand. I think I find You untrustworthy. Because I used to trust, and the one meant to love me for forever, the one meant to make Your love tangible, abandoned me. Abused me. Ignored me. Withdrew from me. It feels like You did that.


I pause in my anger, and I see Mary Magdalene in my heart. I’ve always had a soft spot for her, the woman who struggled with sexual sin. I took on some of her shame in my own relationships, sometimes carrying a burden heavier than I was meant to, not realizing that ‘no means no’ still applies when he says he loves you. Not realizing that not everything was my fault. Not realizing that seeing Mary Magdalene as an adulterer was an unfair projection onto a woman who should’ve been known for more.

I think I finally see her now.

God didn’t love her ‘in spite of’ her sin. He loved her before the sin. He loved her for more than the evils we blame on her, before the labels and the embarrassments and the character she took on in the narrative we created. 

When she was called adulterer and stripped in the street and stoned by her neighbors, God did not see what we all saw- a sinner, a prostitute. He saw a woman abused. He saw a woman desperate and abandoned by her people, trying to survive in a culture structured to leave women dependent on men. A community where women were left with very few options or resources of their own. He saw a woman who had been taken advantage of, her weaknesses exploited, her body marked, her soul abused, her heart broken. 

He saw a woman out of options. 

He presented her with a new one.

He saw her on the ground, kissing His feet, and, no He did not begin by asking her for everything. Even less- he asked for nothing. In return, He presented her with love.

I imagine she was overwhelmed and tired. I imagine she had a multitude of reservations, and a heart in need of healing. I imagine she was afraid. 

I imagine she didn’t have a heart ready to abandon to a Savior. I imagine she was guarded. I imagine that was okay. 

All she did, all she needed to do, was look up, and look into the eyes of the One Who loved her. A small movement, but a movement of courage. Not everything, but a place to start.

Jesus, I don’t have much for You right now. I’m guarded. I’m hurt. 

Even still, even here, I’ll try to let you see me. I’ll try to meet Your gaze.

It’s not everything, but it’s a place we can start.

St. Mary Magdalene, pray for us. 

there’s no catchy title for this (abuse)

I still haven’t found an easy way to explain why I left my marriage.

Especially in casual conversation, especially when I’m meeting new people. I still haven’t found my neat one-liner, my simple solution to drop into chit chat. The classic ‘we grew apart,’ ‘we just weren’t happy’ or ‘we wanted different things’ doesn’t quite rub me the right way. 

Of course, I imagine those are some of the lines he’s fed to old friends or family…Probably something along the lines of him pursuing a military career and me nagging him to stay home and start a family. I guess that falls under the ‘we wanted different things’ category. 

Which, in a way, I suppose is a little bit true. We did want different things. And yes, him telling me he didn’t want kids was my last straw. It gave me pause and the permission I needed to step back and analyze our relationship more objectively. I realized I did want different things.

Was the problem his job? Our lack of a family? My job?

Absolutely not.

This decision I made cannot be reduced to me acting as some neglected housewife begging for children and harping after a man chasing promotions. 

No.

I left because I wanted something new. 

I left because I was abused. 

I wanted that to end.


I’d like to say it again, just for clarity’s sake.

I. Was. Abused.

I’ve tried to avoid those words. I didn’t want to risk sounding melodramatic or like a complainer. I wanted to avoid criticism, and I believed that if I didn’t say it out loud no one could tell me it didn’t happen. No one could say “it wasn’t that bad,” or “it could’ve been worse.” 

This is something we all need to work on- validating someone’s experience without criticism, comparison or judgment. 

I need to show the same grace to myself.

So yes, I am aware it could have been worse. Yes, I’m aware someone else has been through something more painful. Been abused more overtly. More openly. More obviously.

No, that does not take away from the significance of my experience. It does not lessen the impact it’s had on my life, my health, my view of the world, my view of myself and my view of relationships.

I’d even go so far as to say that psychological and emotional abuse was more challenging to notice, escape from, and heal from than I ever would have imagined. 

I always grew up believing that if a man ever hit me I’d be gutsy enough to immediately walk away. I’d know that wasn’t how a woman was to be treated, and I’d move the heck on.

What I didn’t grow up knowing? 

That withdrawing affection is abusive. Neglect is abusive. Manipulation by providing and removing that affection again: abusive.

Creating an environment of fear is abusive. Fearing consequences, reactions, loss of love: abusive. Fearing violence- abusive. Fearing rage- abusive. 

Fearing pregnancy. Abusive. 

Refusing to use condoms but making me feel guilty for choosing fertility awareness? What I wanted to do for the health of my body and the health of my faith? Abusive. 

Using coercion and guilt to gain sexual favors is abusive. Stepping over boundaries is abusive. This should have been obvious -no means no!- but, to me, it didn’t seem like much. Until it got worse, and more frequent, and blatantly, unavoidably, obviously, abusive. 

Making me the gatekeeper of that behavior, like it was my responsibility to make sure my spouse respected me, is freaking abusive. Real respect, real love, does not look like that.

Furthermore, sex that hurts- due to carelessness and drunkenness or uninvited aggression- is abusive. 

Lying is abusive.

Cheating is abusive.

Calling someone names, making fun of their size, comparing them to other women- joke, after joke, after joke- abusive.

Also, there is such a thing as spiritual abuse. I didn’t know that! What I’ve since learned is that it is wrong to shame or manipulate your partner into feeling guilty for their faith. I shouldn’t need to hide my journal or close Scripture or put away my rosaries because I’m afraid of being seen praying. More than anything, I should not be made to feel as if I deserve bad treatment because “I love God too much.” 

What made this all the more confusing? Harder to pick up on? More challenging to recognize?

When he told me I was crazy. 

This is gaslighting: when you present reality to your abuser but they tell you you’re wrong, insane, or imagining things. Your experience becomes twisted and fuzzy and damn-near impossible to sort through. You can’t tell who’s right, who’s wrong, who deserves excusing and who just had a bad day. You start to believe the lies until they become part of a new twisted version of truth.

I’m done with that now.

I didn’t make this up. I didn’t imagine this. I am not crazy. 

I never was.

How’s that for a one-liner?