With my mother’s help, I escaped from prison.
For nine months, I lived with my father and his wife. Each morning brought soul-grinding cruelty worse than the day before. Mockery, games and words one should never call another living being let alone a child, began to escalate into physical abuse. Barely thirteen years old, I knew I could not live like this. I dreamed of suicide. But a stronger voice told me to run away.
Having no access to a phone or money other than what was given to me for hot lunch, I saved my change for three or four days. Nervous to hide the money in my locker, I was more nervous to keep it on my person. I prayed it would remain safe. From school, I was finally able to call Information for the phone number to the office where my mother worked. When she answered, I couldn’t stop crying.
The next day, Mom picked me up after school. She drove me to my father’s house; neither he nor his wife was at home. Mom guarded the porch. I rushed upstairs and threw a few things into two brown grocery bags. I left, never to return. It was the bravest thing my mother and I have ever done.
But more importantly, it taught me that to thrive–to save my soul, my health, my esteem and my future–it is necessary to leave behind what no longer works. I learned detachment.
I am great with ridding my life of material goods. At age forty, I’ve already lived in eighteen different homes. I get antsy when too much stuff from one house makes it into the next: even now, I can’t wait until someone buys my dining room set that seats ten because it is too big for the current space. I clear out several times a year. I throw out, donate or sell things with an amazing amount of ease. I even know all the places that recycle weird stuff like Styrofoam, old floppy disks, lava rock and hazardous materials. Of course, there are things I love–my artwork, photos, books, creepy little doll collection and pottery–but I know that if I had to, I could leave them behind.
After all, they are just things. Things require responsibility. They require attachment…and too much attachment can be dangerous: when faced with loss, how many of us welcome the growth loss brings? Don’t get me wrong; loss sucks. I have lost much in my life. And it hurts every time. But a stronger voice always tells me to realize that as I’m losing, if I can just keep hopeful and discover the lesson, what I am gaining is far greater. With a few exceptions (like leaving Italy), perhaps that is why it is so easy for me to walk away from places and things: from loss, from learning to detach even more, I have become stronger.
It is much harder, however, to walk away from people.
My true nature is one of empathy. I am very emotional and sensitive with an ability to see the proverbial “mountain behind the mountain.” Even as a person is hurting or cruelly judging me, there is a higher self that recognizes the reasons behind his or her behavior. It may say: She needs to be constantly reassured she is loved because her mother was cold; or, He is flustered because he took my joke as criticism and his father always criticizes him. This is not psychic. I simply understand we all have experienced pain. Any bad behavior, hateful thoughts and hurtful words come from that unresolved pain. Because I am so aware of this fact, I tend to give people not just a second chance but a tenth or a twentieth one. When I do finally realize that the pain of others far outweighs any positive benefit they bring to my life, only then am I able to let them go. This detachment, however, I don’t do with any sort of ease. It makes me actually nauseous: what if, in protecting myself, I hurt another?
Yet, I have done it. Many times. And always by a letter. Writing a letter seems like a coward’s way out but I know myself. It is the only way I can say goodbye or speak my truth; otherwise, I am overwhelmed by compassion and fearful of impending loss. I forget what I need to say and I give yet another chance, even as my soul screams Run! I’ve written many letters: to family, friends and in-laws. Sometimes, those letters were catalysts for change and actually made my relationships better; other times, relationships disappeared. When they did end with finality, my initial nervousness and pain were replaced by relief. Relief that showed me I did the right thing; that I left because my soul and esteem were in danger of becoming truly hurt.
Sometimes, however, I wonder if I take it too far. A part of me always has one foot out the door. There is a need to shake off everything I own before I become owned by it. Yet, I hate to admit, I have had to twice replace something I thought I’d never need again. There is, even as I desperately do not want to hurt another person, a need to shake off anyone who demands more than his or her share of my time and energy. Because I am not possessive, I abhor possessiveness. I resent any sense of feeling beholden to anyone but me and my little family. When I do get to the point of feeling this way, I am horrified to witness just how cold I can become. And on really bad days, I daydream. I count the change I’ve kept religiously since I was a thirteen year old girl in real danger. I pack what my husband and I need into two brown grocery bags. We run away.
I see now that this mindset has become a new kind of prison. A kind of demon, really: I’ve become rather attached to the notion of detaching myself from the world. I must find the happy balance between releasing the people and things I no longer need and keeping those I do, resisting always the urge to run away.
For the moment, I force–I allow–myself to stay put.