At 30 years old, I was an unwed mother. Before then, I was a matchlight. My son’s father, my partner, boyfriend, or whatever two people unraveling call themselves, proposed to me shortly before I gave birth. I declined, by waiting. I did not say no, exactly, but he noticed on most days I did not wear the diamond ring he gave me.
“You don’t even wear your ring,” he said.
I often responded by changing the subject or by walking away. Short sweet unsympathetic delay trailing behind me. In some ways, due to the circumstances of our relationship, we both performed dramatic gestures: a proposal, a decline, denial, some messy parenting in between. I had too many welts on my sleeve. Marriage seemed like surrendering a life to permanent injury. The diamond ring, a wedding, safe love, was an illusion. I was caught between imagining things might get better after marriage, and the instinct to resist what I knew. More enduring: verbal, psychological, emotional abuse and neglect, fine-lined fractures and wounds. National domestic violence statistics suggest that nearly 50% of women will encounter some form of psychological aggression by an intimate partner at some point in their lifetime. The visible and non-visible manifestations of trauma can linger well after violent or painful acts end. I knew saying yes to his marriage proposal would require more incessant bending on my part—indirectly managing his moods, behaviors, and temperament. That kind of long-term emotional and psychological labor of holding on to the idea of something, or someone, who was hurting me and might hurt my child, our child, felt exhausting, not worth it. Still, I stayed for a little while longer because no, to marriage, was not the way out.
He drank a lot of alcohol—had a mouthful of daily venom. Woke up most mornings with toxic words on his breath—the remnant smell of a smoky charred oak dark liquor beading through the pores of his skin. He was desperate to regulate his high and low moods, self-soothe. Some days he was vicious after too much drinking. Other days, he seemed miserable, sad, full of regret. As if drinking too much alcohol or short intervals of sober were equally effective in the pursuit of suffering. A climbing in and out of a barrel of small duties in the dark.
I suppose I had a penchant for wilted flowers. My childhood and young adulthood lacked clarity on boundaries, danger, permissions. I did not know how to untie myself from a terrible thing: this unhealthy relationship, and the thought of marrying both him and the addiction. What experiences do you have to have in a life to teach you how to say no when someone pins you against a circumstance using your own messy decisions? How does a person exercise an escape when isolation, violence, and shame feel like order and a bit of uneasy compromise?
I did not have the answers at that time. I still do not have neat and tidy names for buoyancy. The couples and family therapists had terms, time, invoices, and many failed suggestions. I did not fit into the typical co-dependent framework but understood what the therapists needed me to hear about a self, sticking to someone, something, or circumstances. We saw several professionals who tried to keep us holding on by the thread of the child between us, but one of the last therapists we saw thought we would not make it another six months.
“This is not going to work,” he told us.
He was right. Not about the timeframe, but about staying with someone for any reason other than as an act of self, love. Further, that love should be and feel safe. However, there are many reasons why a body might not, cannot, unloose battered mind and limbs from a promise. Trauma can be a glue. The line between I do not want to, and will, is a fine one. In some ways, I suppose, I was a mule. Carried his son, our son, somewhere else. Stayed in ruin, in a state or place, far too long when somewhere else was a strange room of extremes, economically and psychologically. Childcare, food, housing, on a modest artist income, squeezes, tilts, and binds a monthly budget. Can cause someone to stay in an unhealthy relationship. Hold on to too many years of nothing. I learned that from the elders, who knew how to stay in their own peril for long periods of time. The elders did not approve of some of my choices but did not leave me alone squeezed into shapes and forms that I did not yet fit into. The elders did not give me glitter or teach me how to say no. They passed down security, trauma, work ethic, discipline, and submission. They gave me what they knew.
I was a partner, or girlfriend, or part of something like two people unraveling. During the third trimester, I was on three months of bedrest. My mother was in town for the weekend visiting, helping me out. My phone rang. I heard my son’s father having sex in his car with another woman. His phone accidentally dialed my number. If you listen, the stillness will tell you the things you need to know. After 16 hours of labor, after he told me not to go to sleep that one night, I left.
I do not often ask for help, but sometimes I need it. I should ask more often, instead of relying on social withdrawal or escape, and unreasonable feats of bearing. My default is finding a room, corner, or distance to endure the weight of a thing. My elder fathers used a switch from the tree in the backyard when they spanked me. I know how to welt, bleed, bruise, for a man. I know how to cover up blue on brown skin. Dress wounds, worry, trouble, with long hours of alone. I learned young how to stop counting lashes—call them lessons, consequences, tough love. I knew how to hold a grown man’s anger in my limbs and tears. The relationship, or whatever you call two people who made a baby together, was familiar. As if I was groomed for discomfort and thunder. The elders, my father, grandfathers, said they hurt us because they loved us. I’m fairly certain that nothing good comes from blue black skin.
I work hard to cure, and sometimes just to exist. Each day is another opportunity to breathe and be. I read, write and stay in therapy. I try not to complain, too much. I found that moving forward required a volume of acknowledgement of a truth or incidents, a certain amount of distance and time, and forgiveness. In these efforts, I admit contradiction and inconsistent. I grapple with my choices. I was raised to share a bit of grown folks’ burdens—put them in my worries and wait for change. My mother told me to wait for my father to love me, and I did. Carved me out of jawbones and clenched teeth when anger wanted to have me. At the end of my yoga practice, they require us to loosen our jaws. Let the tongue fall from the roof of our mouth, a kind of wet rest. I tilt my chin towards the sun and lie there, in Shavasana (Corpse Pose), completely still.
I learned to breathe, in and out and slow. I am both outgoing and incoming, or whatever you call someone who can speak in front of hundreds of strangers and still suffer a dry tongue in a small room with almost or not quite friends. Maybe I do not know how to open the invisible window and scream so someone can hear me. I was dealing with an abusive ex-someone. I was tired, embarrassed, and stuck in a trial of my own doing. At the time, I did not have a name for the invisible laboring: keeping myself small for someone else to feel worthy. When his reach got too menacing and mighty, I got a restraining order. I stood in front of the judge and cited the statistics about how many women die after they leave abusive partners. Sometimes death is less blood, more quiet breaking. I told the judge I did not want to be another statistic. I wept in front of him at the thought of people, disproportionately women, disappearing in all of those numbers we cite, deny, or ignore. He sat there looking for a reason to believe me, or not. He looked at his watch, then at me, and said he wanted to get to lunch. Before he left, he granted me a protection order. My elder fathers prepared me for this. There were good days too. I had to tell myself—there were good days too.
For nearly five years, I was in and out of the court system—embattled in a debate on what was “best” for my first-born child. The courts call it “best interest.” Also known as too many cases on the docket to see a child as an innocent human being caught between a plaintiff and a defendant. I was never the plaintiff. The court system can be leveraged as a tool for coercion and control, another way to inflict abuse. The perverse use of social, economic, healthcare systems is well-documented. In fact, use of the justice system to further cause psychological injury, to press, control, stalk, is rampant. I suppose some people receive the benefit of the doubt in a system, and some people incur more wounds. Three lawyers, thousands of dollars, so many days and wages lost in court—when I finally found a way out. The remedy, it seemed, for the bleeding was a three-hour conversation about addiction, fear, grief, regret, terms, and boundaries. All I needed to do was sit there and allow him to pour his regrets onto me. When the opportunity to do that presented itself in mediation, I sat there and listened. The court of common pleas is a cove of desperate and wanting. I did not want a feud with the father of my son, but periods between safe and hostile were short-lived and unpredictable. I needed release and room to breathe. I also wanted reprieve for our son. When you have a child with someone you are no longer with, you are together and not together for a long time. We both loved our son. One of us, until it hurt.
I wanted to be the thick free air. I needed a way out of a terrible cycle but had few ways up the sides of a narrow well. I was pulled in so many different directions I spread like starlight. I felt alone sometimes like loose change in a jar in the back of the closet. I cried too many hours over drifting. Stood on the other side of too much noise and madness. I’m learning how to reassure myself after trauma. I am still working on saying no. I am back and forth about all of it. Tired and craving a good sleep. I can feel the sad heavy in my cheeks. One night I broke. Spent three days on the psych floor. I was exhausted from loosening, trying to get free. I wrote a letter to the doctors acknowledging the shards and why they should permit me to leave without medicating my fractures. I went back to therapy. It was reasonable to be human. Fall and hole when performing I’m fine, was a flood.
Dionne Custer Edwards is a writer and arts educator at The Wexner Center for the Arts. She created Pages, a writing program where she facilitates arts experiences for high school students, works with artists and teachers on arts integration, and co-edits an anthology of student writing and art. Her poems have appeared in Alternating Current, 3Elements Review, Flock, Gordon Square Review, Grist, Storm Cellar, and others. She has published prose in The Seventh Wave, Tahoma Literary Review, and Stoneboat. She has an M.A. from Antioch University in Creative Writing and Arts Education and a B.A. from Ohio State University in English. Find her online at lifeandwrite.com.