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Portrait of an HSP

I don’t have more mirror neurons than most of you. Mine are just more active. As screen monitors race for higher and higher definitions of the perfect picture, my brain already has them beat with an amplified, laser-sharp user experience. I perceive and feel subtleties, shifts, and nuances in the environment and in people within seconds of entering a room. Lights. Sounds. Smells. Tastes. Touch. Life is very, very vivid to me. I’m not an empath. That’s different. That’s a pseudo-scientific phrase. Rather, I am part of the 15-20% of the population that is a Highly Sensitive Person— something that can be scientifically measured in brain imaging. And I didn’t know this about myself for a long time. I simply felt like an alien in this life. 

Here’s the thing: I live in a world that is designed for the 80-85% of Others who have typical sensory processing. Additionally, there is a neurological difference in how my brain responds to dopamine (I’m not a fan of being recreationally terrified (e.g. carnival haunted houses), poked, tickled or publicly praised) and how my sensory processing has been impacted by recent, traumatic life events. The acuteness of my HSP trait has increased in recent years…

My gift is that this makes me a kick-a** therapist who is able to identify and name someone’s psychological and emotional difficulties that may not be overtly expressed. I feel their pain with them and for them. I am able to give them a way to articulate their own experiences and assist them in integrating this as part of who they are in a coherent way. The HSP gift also gives me an extremely valuable, social multi-tool to keep in my back pocket when I need to assess a party scene, practice attunement, and be aware of motives and movements that may be imperceptible to others. Some people believe that HSPs are also able to tap into creativity more powerfully than others, which makes sense if we are constantly “above and beyond” (for better or worse) in experiential depth of processing.  

This gift has a shadow side… the side that the world focuses on as a deficiency. The world can be very overwhelming for me. Mothering, in particular, is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do just because of the constant sensory stimuli. My startle response looks like a cartoon cat jumping in the air—I’m not being facetious. It’s extreme. A child can knock a stainless steel bowl onto the floor and if it’s been a long day… the sound will send my heart rate through the roof and I will end in tears. Someone shuts the door with normal exertion, and I might wince. The sound of a chip bag being rustled with too long will feel like nails on a chalkboard. A child wants to sit on my lap and stroke my cheek and it might take all my willpower to not overtly cringe at the frustration of being touched at that moment. I’m constantly asking for voices to be lowered, constantly trying to regulate my autonomic nervous system, and constantly retreating to my interior world because it’s so very loud out there. My hearing is fine; but sometimes in loud or busy places, I don’t register what people are saying to me because I’ve ran so far off-grid into my own mental wilderness. This is not generalized anxiety. This is sensory overload. 

Some days are harder than others. And there are things I can do to improve my own situation, such as exercise (which makes a noticeable difference in my energy and coping skills), keeping my nutrient levels stable, and making sure I have designated moments of solitude/silence to recharge. But ultimately the task is mine to accept that trying to understand the differences in people with Sensory Processing Sensitivity is not going to be easy for those who don’t have it.  And the task is also mine to remember that just because the inevitable logistics of mothering are inordinately taxing on me, does not mean I don’t love my children fiercely. 

If any of this is useful–if maybe this is something new that helps you name why you are… particularly you— I’m glad. But ultimately, I’m writing this out for me: to validate my own experience. No one else can do that for me. I can’t find a comfortable home in this world, because well… it’s loud. Busy. And probably smells obnoxious. I’m writing this out to come home to myself. To unpack the boxes of my own memories and knowledge of who I am and how far I’ve traveled to get here. To string up lights with a truth that isn’t relative, but that is refracted on a plane that is uniquely mine. And to paint the walls of my soul with the kind of peace that nothing in this world can take away from me.

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In Memoriam…


The story of this death began when I was 17 years old. I was smart and driven, but without any other notable talents that would’ve distinguished me from any other smart, driven teenager searching for college scholarships at that time. I had started working at a young enough age, delivering newspapers on my bike (or out of Dad’s van for those early Sunday mornings) before moving up to selling shaved ice at local festivals and then beginning my “real” jobs in retail. But there was only enough money to pay for my car, insurance, gas, and trivialities. Not college. My family ethic and understanding at the time was that if I wanted to be educated beyond high school, I had to make that happen for myself. And I wanted to go to college more than anything. I wanted to teach… but in some unconventional way.

As a senior in high school, we were required to formulate a year-long project that was supposed to be a sort of capstone to our studies. Despite being an outstanding student and winning some academic awards, my senior project was on the failure of public education itself. Mildly precocious, I must say. Still, I did some community service tutoring an underprivileged kid or two and then presented my thesis which damned the school system in front of a panel of 3-4 teachers and the school principal. I received the highest grades possible and promises of a job down the road if I kept up my passion. Uncanny. But academia itself was still my goal.

My scholarship efforts weren’t yielding a lot so I started flirting with the Air Force. I walked into the recruiter’s office— less than a mile from where I now live— and introduced myself: “I want to go to college and I want to travel.” No problem. I took the ASVAB and scored high enough that the recruiter squashed my “errant” interest in photography and steered me towards linguistics. My subsequent scores on the DLAB settled it: I was going to be a linguist. Exhilarating! I stayed awake at night dreaming of learning Russian or Farsi and parachuting into dangerous territories to translate important, intercepted communications. Which countries could I sneak into? What kind of weapons would I get? How awesome am I anyway?!?! I mean… what else could a girl (ahem… like me) want? This career step would all serve me very well with my ultimate life goal. And what was this goal? To find a man, get married and have a happy, suburban life? Hardly. It was to get multiple degrees and then travel somewhere foreign and exotic where I’d teach the local bush children how to read. So I signed into the Delayed Entry Program, began processing at MEPS, and encountered a medical speedbump when I mentioned something about hypoglycemia. They wanted documentation. I left intending to resolve this.

Very shortly after this, one of my guy friends I had been hanging around with kissed me. Shock. Thrill. New feelings. And it was at this point that my life pivoted with such force as to cause my dream to nearly vanish in the fog. I never went back to MEPS. I got wrapped up in someone else instead.

Fast forward a couple years and I’m now 19 years old, in Port Hueneme, California staring at two pink lines with my brand new husband by my side: “Wow, I guess I’m a mom now.” God was inviting me to vanquish my pride. I needed it.

Becoming pregnant was exhilarating in an entirely unexpected way. I never planned on being a mother. (Indeed, it wasn’t too long ago that I never even planned on getting married!) But life is a mysterious thing and there I was. And happy to be there. Most of all, I felt genuinely excited to raise this little human (“Please God, let this be a boy.” It was.) Before he was even born, I welcomed new, domestic dreams to replace the Hollywood Spy Fantasy I had put to rest. My young husband deployed to Guam shortly after our wedding and I grew swollen with cold, fried chicken, salt and vinegar chips, and this child. I planned for the days to come. I knew I wanted to homeschool. I began envisioning what that would be like…

In those early years before kids, I did some things to fill this teaching itch. I volunteered at the Oxnard Public Library as an Adult Literacy Tutor, where I taught ESL adults how to read. It was very meaningful. Then I became a budget counselor with the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society and taught little workshops to servicemembers on how to create a budget and Plan for Baby. I remember bringing a teddy bear and cloth diapers to one class and showing the group how easy it was to do cloth diapering and excitedly creating graphs that showed how much money they could save. (Most yawned and just waited impatiently for me to finish so they could get their free swag bag of gear.) Then I taught first grade catechesis at the tiny chapel on base (St. Joseph the Worker, ora pro nobis!). After my son was born and doing some volunteer work, I decided to work on finishing my bachelor’s degree. Then Baby #2 was announced (“Please God, let it be a boy.” It was.) Towards the end of this pregnancy, I traveled down to Malibu for several days at a time to do some training on Infant Massage. Got certified. Taught that to a couple small mother’s groups. I began my early learning exposure with my first son at this time, walking around the corner to the tiny library and making sure we were at the bilingual story hours. He used to know a smattering of Spanish. I was intentional about teaching it to him… once upon a time.

We moved back to our home state while Baby #3 was growing inside me (“Well God, I got my way twice so I will accept very happily now, a boy or a girl.” Another boy. Cool!) I began homeschooling in earnest up on Whidbey Island and my husband allowed me free reign on deciding how to go about doing this. I researched and researched. I devoured curricula guides and gorged myself on books about the philosophy of education. Utterly fascinating! I was influenced by all the greats: Charlotte Mason, Dorothy Sayers, John Holt, Ruth Beechik, Maria Montessori, and on and on… I began to formulate ideas on what kind of teaching I wanted to do. I felt so alive and right when I was in this mode of thinking. I knew I was gifted with the mind and opportunity to do this well. And it provided such purpose to my life as a mama.

After I got my BA, my own children were still quite young, so I took on a temporary side job with a particular homeschooling company teaching 11th grade World History, which could be done from my home; papers were sent to me and I graded them. I had phone calls with students on a regular basis. It was fun. During this time, my father began homeschooling my youngest brother in his middle school years. And Dad consulted with me on how how to go about doing this well. This was Ellie’s jam. So, I designed a 7th grade curriculum for him with delight.

But my own children?

That was where I was very eager to begin in earnest.

After my first daughter was born and we moved a bit south, I began to focus in and formalize my free-spirited kindergarten efforts. I joined and eventually led the homeschool group at my parish. I designed a unique curriculum for each of my children every year, carefully noting their needs and styles of learning. I attended conferences and workshops on education. I read books and more books and more books. I scoured internet forums. I grew bleary-eyed reading about pedagogy and reviewing literature. And I was abundantly happy to do this. I was fully alive and fully me during this period. I could teach my children the gentle glory of nature walks and journaling, introduce composers and teach careful copywork, while simultaneously weaving in logic and grammar. I designed entire lesson plans around community events or liturgical feasts and once created an entire tour of the world, using the alphabet and picture books. For a while, I helped the boys produce and publish their own family newsletter. We played games where logical fallacies were identified. I had people send postcards from every state in the nation to my boys. Piano lessons were on schedule for a while. It was brilliant. We allowed the quotidian rhythm to rock us gently. E.g: daily Mass (where a couple of my boys were probably altar serving), coffee, oatmeal, nurse the baby, Morning Basket (mythology, Latin, music, art, or poetry), Math, Writing, Reading, Lunch. Quiet Time…

And my children had the best books. I mean that. I had learned to develop a sharp eye for quality literature (“living books”) and was able to devote lots of time to thrifting around and filling our shelves with beautiful, wholesome books, which as some of you may know, was the whole catalyst for me to start my children’s book blog “BiblioZealous”—which morphed into what you see here today. It was all very good. It was all very right.

Make no mistake, I’m not romanticizing these days. My children rebelled and resisted as any do. I was tired a lot. Second-guessed some of my decisions. Agonized over not doing enough. Dinner was sometimes rushed, behavior issues were a struggle, and the housework suffered. I wasn’t a Pinterest mom. But I was one woman showing up, every day to something noble, meaningful, and true. While my marriage may have been difficult, my identity was very rooted and secure in the virtue of this endeavor.

Many parents choose homeschooling because they want to protect their children from the immorality found in public school. Some do it because they feel obligated to do so for faith reasons. Some want to do it to enjoy an unstructured lifestyle where you can vacation in October and not have it be a problem. None of these were my primary goal exactly, even though all factored in. I wanted to homeschool because I wanted to bring the world to my children and I wanted nothing but the best for them. I wanted to set fires in their minds and hearts wherein they would love learning as much as I did and and I figured that I was the best person to provide this for them. It was as simple as that. Despite the foibles and flaws in my domestic environment and in my own self, I was good at homeschooling. And it was good for my kids.

I struggled a lot during these years… psychologically and spiritually. There were some really dark days with some really clear causes, but that’s not the story here. The story here is about what gave me structure, purpose and meaning through it all: raising and educating my children.

* * *

As my marriage began its most rapid nosedive in 2016, the strain became too much for stable homeschooling. We enrolled the kids in brick and mortar schools (the details of this are another tragedy for another time, but suffice it say that it involves emergency court hearings, splitting of babies, and many tears spilt at initial parent-teacher conferences from pain and jealousy that someone else was teaching my children how to read) and I started working as a restaurant hostess while my baby was forced through weaning at an earlier age than he was ready.

Homeschooling was definitively over; And I was helpless in watching this iteration of my identity breathe its last while other professionals took over in the academic formation of my children.

* * *

There has not been time to fully feel this weight of this; there were dragons yet to slay. For the next 4-5 years it seems. Battles. Crises. Trauma. Court. Devastation after Devestation. And a warrior can not properly reckon with her grief until she is finished fighting for survival, shelter, and security. So the grief waited. Seeping through the walls of her soul. Manifesting as disorganization. Irritability. Numbness. Depression. Confusion. Anxiety. Name-what-you-will…. Grief absolutely must complete its cycle and will show up in covert ways until it’s allowed the time and space to be overt.

Today, I am in a grieving season. My dragons seem to be mostly dead… though the ground still trembles here and there and sometimes I see wisps of smoke emitting from unknown caverns. Like a dormant volcano perhaps…

But in the meantime, it is time to do the work. For me, this means doing a proper memorialization of what was lost.

Mothering has not come natural to me the way it seems to for some others. I am mildly awkward around kids who aren’t my own. I don’t feel a natural desire to snuggle up with other people’s babies. And I’m not a particularly fun and bubbly person that children gravitate towards. Still… I know how to educate. And I have loved my children as fiercely as any parent has. Despite my long list of shortcomings, I have given up so much for my kids to be where they are and have what they have. I don’t take a lot of shortcuts and indeed, my life is quite a bit more difficult than it has to be because of my refusal to capitulate on some aspects of my children’s formation.

So being a divorced, working mom whose kids go to ‘real school’ has not been easy. Just the opposite. There is of course, the hampster wheel of all the driving around (so much driving around) and forced attendance, homework (*shudder*) and balancing their needs with my work, our family’s needs and my own needs—all by myself (albeit with a very loving and present support system here, Deo gratias). But it’s been difficult in existential ways too. In this chapter of my story, reclaiming my joy and purpose as a parent has been very challenging. Homeschooling was the heartbeat of my mothering. It was integral to how I even conceptualized being a mom! And there has not been an intuitive way for me to recalibrate in this life I now live, without a husband and separated from half my kids. These youngest four children of mine are fortunate to attend a private school. I recognize this and am grateful for it. (My oldest three have been mucking through the bowels of the public school system hours away from me and I struggle to find ways to stay connected to their learning. Again… this is another agony for another time.) Still. STILL… this experience is something like watching people feed your kids crackers and cheese whiz when you have an entire cornucopia of nourishing foods which could be offered to them instead. Adding insult to the dusty, injured cornucopia: I am expected to cheerlead my children through the (comparatively) impoverished education they do get. Because that’s what good moms do. So it seems.

My books. Requiescat in pace. I gave away most of our school books and have only kept those treasures of literature that are too agonizing for me to surrender. Some of them will absolutely never be read to or by my children. This is a fact. And the books haunt me from the shelf. But I can’t let them go. I allow myself to be haunted because the alternative feels even more painful. Maybe this is okay. There’s not one right way to go through this. And I sense that I’m trying to strike a balance here, which feels healthy…

I swallow my internal frustrations with our school lifestyle a lot, with the rushed mornings and inane busywork they bring home a lot, but I do try to muster up some encouragement and interest when they demonstrate some glimmer of eagerness about sharing a science fact or art lesson. They’ve each been blessed with good teachers. (I suppose if one is eating saltines and Cheese Whiz, at least it is being served with dedication and love.) And I am utterly thrilled when I catch them staying up late to read for fun… not all is lost.

But it is important for me to name what was lost. It’s only by doing this and properly honoring The Good That Was— that will allow healing to ultimately happen. There will be new connections made. I will broaden my experience of what it means to be Mother and I will eventually settle into this life. I will laugh more, get lost in my own head less, delight in my children more frequently, and allow the grace of God to infuse my vocation with new meaning.

Grief, when all is said and done, is a testimony of love. And above all else, I will continue to love my children in the space where I am entrusted to do so.

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On Annulments

It’s been a few weeks now since the Church has found my marriage to be invalid. My initial reaction was jumbled confluence of emotions. Some friends immediately said things like “Congratulations!” complete with confetti, balloons, and heart emojis. But that didn’t feel accurate. Other people have shared nothing but a silence that maybe betrays the personal feelings they have on the Church’s decision. Somehow… also inaccurate. And I’m sure there are many, who simply don’t know what to say or make of it all. Still. (And this, I understand.) The best responses were those that were tentative and unsure, curious ones like “How are you?” and such. This was right. But it’s taken me a while to know “how I am.”  I found myself scratching out some thoughts a couple days after the decision and shared what’s below on social media. Despite being a logical, rational woman in how I think (most of the time), I often  feel—and subsequently write— in fragments of light and shadow, from a mudbank of memories, colors, and awkward analogies. So this was my authentic response as I began to internalize what it all meant:

𝘞𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘋𝘰𝘦𝘴 𝘢𝘯 𝘈𝘯𝘶𝘭𝘭𝘮𝘦𝘯𝘵 𝘍𝘦𝘦𝘭 𝘓𝘪𝘬𝘦?⁣⁣
⁣⁣
It feels like intersection between sorrow, relief, and disorientation.⁣⁣
The pumpkin at the end of the ball.⁣⁣
Aloe vera on sunburned skin.⁣⁣
And maybe some confusion about the sun’s existence itself.⁣
And who’s skin this is anyway. ⁣⁣
An annulment feels like Oxegyn.⁣⁣
Water in the desert.⁣⁣
Grief over the work, the blood, and the love that was given away.⁣⁣
And grief over what never was.⁣⁣
Grief over what should have been.⁣
⁣⁣It’s a refund offered on a name.⁣
An annulment feels like a confrontation with the words Attachment, Belonging, Identity.⁣
⁣⁣It feels like a lesson in pride. ⁣
And in humility. ⁣⁣
Detachment.⁣⁣
Displacement.⁣
But also Shelter.⁣
A coming home to myself.⁣
It is both Agony for my children. ⁣⁣
And Hope for my children.⁣⁣
⁣⁣A hot shower.⁣⁣
Bleach that burns.⁣⁣
A prayer petitioning mercy.⁣⁣
A prayer of gratitude.⁣

All said, I expected to feel mixed emotions, but with an emphasis on psychological freedom. Instead, I felt an emphasis on grief. But it’s a disenfranchised grief isn’t it? Grieving something that never existed… perhaps similar to the disenfranchisement an infertile woman feels when she mourns the baby that she has been unable to conceive.

Today, the feelings are still mixed, but ordered rightly. And stronger. I think the tribunal made the right decision— the congruent decision based on my experience as a 19 year old consenting to marriage in the circumstances I did.

But the freedom and peace I feel has a much more surprising origin than I expected. I thought I’d simply be relieved to not be spiritually tied to this man as my husband, for the rest of my life. This is not primarily what I felt. What I experience is a freedom and peace in being affirmed as a sojourner here. This world is not my home. Temperament, number of children, marital tragedies, and awkward analogies notwithstanding— I simply don’t belong here. And this is more than okay; it is right. Demographically, I don’t match up to the norm. And even within the beauty and solace of my Faith Community (that blessed hospital for sinners!), I feel a bit like a black sheep. Thankfully, my Shepherd loves me as much as His lily-white others with cleaner stories and more predictable flaws. He pursues me unceasingly. And I know that I am His. Through the very disorienting process of going through an annulment, I am reminded of the freedom available to me by burrowing deep into the humility of His most Sacred Heart (“…within Thy wounds, hide me.”) And I am grateful.
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Getting Real about “Doing the Work.”

Seems like we’ve been hearing a lot lately about “doing the work.” This is meant to invoke personal growth and positive change and maybe even healing from whatever traumas you’ve escaped or dragon bellies from which you’ve managed to emerge. “Do the work.”

But what does it mean?  Sometimes a good starting place for definitions is to look at what something doesn’t mean. Here are some cheap imitations of what “doing the work” might look like:

  • It might look like hardening up, collecting memes and quotes about being a bad a** and demanding respect.
  • It might be sharing articles with titles like “Ten Red Flags You’re in a Toxic Relationship” and thinking yourself informed.
  • It might be using psychobabble in a just effective enough way to sound reasonable. (This will probably include the popular (mis)use of words like narcissist, OCD, PTSD, bipolar and “toxic” for everything a person just might not happen to like.) 
  • It might be surrounding yourself with cheerleaders who tell you how amazing and brave you are and cutting people out of your life who challenge your narrative, then calling it “boundaries”.

Those are all forgeries of what “doing the work” actually is. 

Doing the work isn’t just knowing the red flags of a relationship. Anybody can Google up some information about mental health. But knowledge isn’t change. Doing the work is about testing your thinking and modifying your behavior to protect and respect yourself and others, in order to live authentically in this 

world.

Doing the work isn’t just passively waiting for the healing season to begin and end. Honestly, time does NOT heal all things. Some wounds need prescription strength antibiotics! 

Doing the work means getting professional help—the right kind. Not from someone who is happy to earn a paycheck just by co-signing on the nonsense you’re tempted to spew. Not your friend who took a life coaching class online “that one time.” Get serious. When I was searching for my own therapist, I interviewed a few before finding the right fit. I didn’t want someone who would pat me on the back and tell me how wonderful and insightful I was. I wanted the truth. It’s critical to have experienced and wise help in noticing our own blindspots.

Doing the work means getting your hands on excellent literature, specific to the issue you need to overcome— whether it’s codependency, addiction, abuse, manipulation, or an eating disorder— and reading about it from reputable experts, not journalists or pundits. 

Doing the work means voluntarily exposing yourself to situations that are scary or hard or uncomfortable (provided they’re safe of course) because that is where the growth is. It’s reducing the intensity and frequency of trauma triggers so that they no longer master you but you master them.

Doing the work means not being afraid to challenge ourselves with honesty. It means having a relentless pursuit towards self knowledge and the integrity enough to confront our own flaws. So that when we turn a sharp corner and find ourselves in the dark, seedy parts of our hearts, we don’t run away. We don’t make excuses. No projecting, blaming, dismissing or denying the unsavory things that we find lurking there. We pause. Ask questions. Study the situation. And then pull out the damn sword to begin the conquering. 

Doing the work means having an appropriate estimation of oneself. Being able to confidently name your strengths and weaknesses alike. Having genuine compassion for yourself and all that you’ve experienced, while nudging yourself onward consistently. It’s about taking responsibility for your life and owning your story. Making practical amends where possible and repairing relationships that may need it. 

In short, doing the work requires humility, courage and perseverance. You won’t come out the other end feeling pain-free and drying up all the tears. Rather you’ll come out the other end with an appropriate balance of the head and the heart. You’ll still have issues, cry out in pain and otherwise live the drama of the human story; this is a lifelong process. But attaining ‘happines’ isn’t the moral of the story here anyway (though happiness may be a byproduct of the work). No. “Happiness” by itself is far too transitory to ever make for an excellent aim. The moral of the story is meaning and growth and adaptability. 

Some people may wonder if they are doing enough to battle their demons and correct their dysfunctions. Maybe you aren’t. Maybe you can do better. But know that at least. And own it. Ultimately, you will know you’re on the right track if you can live inside of this quote by M. Scott Peck:  “Mental health is an ongoing commitment to reality at all costs.”

 

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2020 in Books

So I was finishing grad school. And taking national exams. Hiring and firing lawyers. Representing myself in court (again). White knuckling a 26′ moving truck down the highway by myself in a household move. Starting a brand new career. And being suffocated by the national disaster that is Remote Learning with my children. That’s all. But I still managed to read quite a good number of books this year! Maybe that was my salvation… books are loyal friends and steady solace for wounded hearts. They also have been and will continue to be the source of much of my clinical learning in this newfound vocation; the expensive education and piece of paper at the end were just the beginning. Literature has provided the most meaningful mentorship in my development as a competent therapist.

I have learned an extraordinary amount from my own life. From my clients’ lives. And from books. Similar to last year, I am only highlighting twelve of the most important or meaningful ones for me personally this year.  (Also… I don’t know which faithful few have actually been clicking through my links over the years but every couple months or so I get like a $13 gift card from Amazon. Joy! Thank you!!)

Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs by Johan Hari. I’m only putting this one above his other excellent one: Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression because I read it first. But both are journalistic sociology of sorts. And both are absolutely eye opening to understanding concepts that get lost under the weight of politics, business and propaganda.

 Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell. I was in the middle of reading this when the George Floyd situation happened. What strange, uncanny, and helpful timing! An extraordinary book that—in Gladwell fashion— is interdisciplinary in its content… I can’t recommend it enough. The audio version is excellent, by the way.

 Chesapeake Requiem: A Year with the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island by Earl Swift. Here’s the thing. Humans need to learn about random things. It’s important. It helps humble our intellect to be confronted with off-the-beaten-path interests, stories, theories or sub-cultures. If you aren’t curious about the the world… I just… can only meet you so far in friendship. This book was just geek-candy. Really interesting perspective here on a disappearing people. My son gave me this for my birthday. 🙂

 The Will to Meaning: Foundations and Applications of Logotherapy by Viktor Frankl. This is something of a follow-up to his more famous (must read) title Man’s Search for Meaning but designed to have more clinical implications. While I can’t advertise myself as “an Existentialist Therapist” without making people think of dim, hazy rooms and aliens— I am constantly working angles of logotherapy in session to help others find some sense of meaning in their struggles.

 The Betrayal Bond: Breaking Free of Exploitive Relationships by Patrick Carnes, PhD.  This book was superb. I wanted to know more about how trauma bonding and interpersonal exploitation happen, and was blown away by how Dr. Carnes explained this phenomenon which seems to be fairly misunderstood in our world. I’ve since recommended this book to many of my own clients who’ve found it powerful as well.

 Intellectuals and Race by Thomas Sowell. When race relations became front and center in our country, I felt like I needed to get more perspective. I still do. And I will. But I resisted some of the big, popular titles that everyone was pushing (because I have an initial prejudice against “popular” things) and I didn’t have a lot of time to invest. So, Thomas Sowell to the rescue. This book didn’t necessarily do a lot to explain the current state of affairs in full, but it explored some of the really strange relationship “the elites” have had with minorities over the course of American history. Truly eye opening.

 Discerning the Will of God: An Ignition Guide to Christian Decision Making by Fr. Timothy Gallagher. So, if you’ve been following this blog, you’ll see why this book was relevant to me this year. I’ve had some big decisions I had to make and as God doesn’t speak to me in neon signs, I wanted to be very diligent in not letting my emotions or biases get in the way of important matters. This book was instrumental in helping to create peace of heart in some of the choices I’ve made this year.

 The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandyr Solzhenitsyn. I finished Volume 1 and have barely cracked into Volume 2. This had been on my to do list years before Jordan Peterson caused its resurgence in popularity so I bought the set in their hardback, first edition glory and called it “self care.” It’s been more than I hoped for. I expected more dry history, less philosophical triumph. And it’s been something I’m taking my time with because there’s nothing like it. I have long running notes of excerpts and quotes from this book and have found so much solace in my own weak parallels to Solzhenitsyn’s interior life during his exile.

 A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. Each year I like to re-read at least one “old friend” in literature. It’s been many years since I last spent time with Francie in Brooklyn and I swam in the familiar story with a new appreciation. This is among the tops of my list with regards to favorite classic literature.

 The Plague by Albert Camus. The first full Camus work I’ve read since The Stranger back as a teenager. I’ve been flirting with Camus more and more over the years, via his quotes and short excerpts from his works, and was happy to make an excuse to dive into one of his books. Here was an exception where I DID jump on the popularity bandwagon to read this book, this year. I mean… because. It did not disappoint.

 Death in Other Words by Dom Hubert van Zeller. A few years ago, I discovered the Van Zeller is one of My People. And I’ve done what I can to read everything of his that I can get my hands on. This was Lenten reading this year and it was beautiful. “However muddled and unpleasant our affairs may become, we should never doubt that life is a gift from God and a good thing. He does not place us in the world just to be muddled and unhappy. The chief reason why it is a good thing is that it gives us the chance of getting nearer to Him.”

 The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine Aron, PhD. Finally. I can make sense of my inner world. I’ve sometimes felt so often on edge for no reason and have an extraordinarily high startle response. The volume of life is overwhelming to me and light fixtures and smells at certain stores make me feel nauseated. I thought I was a freak. Thought I had PTSD that would never go away. Being an HSP isn’t a diagnosis or a disorder. It’s simply a way that certain brains work to process stimuli in this world and it is both a blessing and curse. It’s different from being an “empath”. (While the two sometimes overlap, one is a neuro-scientific construct and the other a pop-cultural construct.) I’m not an empath… I just need you to not yell in my face please. Having the knowledge that I am an HSP doesn’t suddenly “fix” my autonomic nervous system, but it has made me aware of what I need to do in order to feel at home in my own body.

*    *    *

Goals for 2021?

I have a some very specific titles on my short list, but other than those I plan to finish my time in The Archipelago, explore polyvagal theory, and read my very first Stephen King novel… may there be ample moments of stillness for all this to happen. Happy reading!

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The Last of Human Freedoms: Part Three

 

(Part 1)
(Part 2)

This is the part of my story I don’t want to tell. This is not the time. I have silently borne the weight of a bittersweet pain for a very long time. And it is too soon to give it voice. But now, indirectly, my children were brought into this. I am well aware, it will hit very sour notes for many who choose to read this. I see and bless your pain; these are hard things. I am not seeking your allegiance or acceptance with this disclosure. And the last many years have demonstrated clearly who is willing to do the work to understand, who sees me and accepts me, and who looks away in discomfort or who have, as Virginia Woolf said “… an inability to cross the street.” I don’t begrudge anyone the need to just avoid the drama; it’s certainly not easy to understand. And humans tend to like things to be in clean, black and white categories… they are very uncomfortable with gray.

Unfortunately, here in the land of civilly divorced/canonically married, there exists some gray in actual Church teaching. I get that it would be more ‘comfortable’ for some people if I could just be the pious martyr of marriage and continue to be on my knees begging God for reconciliation with my children’s father. I do not do this anymore. I do pray for the man who has chosen to scorch the earth and destruct our family in his disposal of me, quite a bit. I pray for his own healing journey to happen… and I pray that it happens somewhere far away from me.  I also wish I could say what I want and have it be my own, private truth… and not a story that includes others. But, here on earth, we commune with saints and sinners and not many can live exempt from impacting other people around. When it involves the lives of my children, I will speak up.

This is not a love story, and yet, I have “been in love” with a man for well over a year.  It is a very deep, very old, and very rooted love. The growth of which I resisted for a long time. It descends from a true, meaningful friendship that has existed for longer than my marriage has. We have seen each other through joys and sorrows for 20 years. More salient: we have seen each other. I know him deeply, in his gifts and in his flaws. And he knows mine. We speak each other’s language and are fluent in each other’s silence.

It was a pure and platonic love back when we met in junior college. We connected intellectually and spiritually in a singular way then, and that accompanied us through the ups and downs of our own, respective married lives ever since then. Our families were close friends over the years. All of us shared many evenings of meals, laughter and conversation. I was there in his darkest days (to the degree that anyone could be in my vocation). And he didn’t flinch in mine. He was instrumental in my reversion to the faith and was always challenging me to study, to do my own research, to think clearly and rightly. We have long had a mutual respect for the other. I was so excited when he got married and very happy to meet his wife. She and I became fast friends and became even closer than Justin and I were for many years.

Being her “first Washington friend” there were many shared joys along with the united work of our hands in a mother’s journal we published. It was a good friendship. I trusted her. Respected her. Loved her. And I still do love her today, in her strengths and in her weaknesses. I forgive her for discontinuing our close friendship. And I also forgive her for what can only be interpreted as a willful blindness or willful indifference to what’s happened, to what is happening. 

Initially, when her ex-husband—Justin— was buried in his own pain and darkness, she had my ear alone. While my marriage fallout was fast and hard, theirs had been struggling for years. And I was taken in by the stories regarding her spouse, bewildered at the tales told about my old friend. I knew she was hurting and that he’d made mistakes but… this? Still, I projected onto her something of a sister in abusive marriages once my own fallout began, thankful for the sense of camaraderie in our pain. I didn’t yet know the full story. All the things she said sounded too terrible to be true… they didn’t all add up, considering how well I knew Justin. Still, living through my own unbelievable nightmare, I was grateful to be friends with someone who knew the difficulties and isolation of being in a failing marriage in the small, orthodox Catholic world. She seemed to get it. 

When Justin came back to life and began opening up to me more of what his experience had been, the fuller picture came into focus. I could see both of their mistakes and shortcomings clearly. I loved them both and felt an allegiance to both as a unit. But where Justin was contrite about his errors and wanted reconciliation, she was unable to accept this. Her hurt was too much and my attempts to wake her up were rejected. I pleaded with her to commit to her marriage… being a little bit further along on the divorce road, I was seeing the trauma take place live among my own children and wanted to spare theirs—one of whom is my godson— this same fate. I sent her prayers. I sent her the book Primal Loss. Begged her to do the hard work of humble reconciliation. I did not want to see her family destroyed. It was ultimately ineffective. I was cut off from her inner circle as I was not one of the people willing to co-sign on her decision to break the family apart. She had her own reasons. She felt very alone and unhappy and couldn’t see her way out of it. I understand. I have no shame or judgement for her and I wish her health and healing in her own right. But I couldn’t agree with the divorce and felt pushed away because of this. 

Justin and I supported each other in fighting for our marriages even as they were simultaneously collapsing, for very different causes that ultimately coalesced into the same reason: because our spouses were each intent on ending the marriage. We ached in our own respective isolation, as friends. I encouraged him to keep fighting to save his marriage and he encouraged me to keep extending offers of reconciliation. Our friendship is good and rightly ordered.

His ex-wife and I barely talk anymore, though we are polite, and I pray for her.

When my son called and detailed his surprise and pain over being told by his dad that he was dating this woman a few days ago, my heart stopped. Flat-lined for several minutes, it seemed. I asked him to repeat the words he had said. I couldn’t believe it. I don’t know what it means to live in a world where someone I was once so close to, who once knew more of my story than most other people, could turn away, invoking the need for “Healing!”  “Growth” and start “dating” the man who to this day, has never acknowledged nor taken any responsibility for what has happened to our family in the last four years. (… to say nothing of an apology.) I still don’t understand. It does not compute.

That my children’s father could be dating the ex-wife of the man I love. What do those words mean? What do those words MEAN?! I still don’t understand. If you are confused, you are not alone. There are many conflicting narratives swirling around out there. It’s messy. Think. Pray. Question. And walk away if you can’t or don’t want to make sense of us four, strange people. I get it. This is all cognitive dissonance to the nth degree and it’s important to protect your peace. For me, it’s also important to protect my truth. 

I would have borne that shock silently if they had. What my ex-husband does in his personal life and she in hers is none of my business. I don’t know what happened with the first, other woman. I don’t care. But where I kept silent during the years that the last woman existed under a fake, male name on his phone, THIS relationship was intentionally announced to the children and—with that deliberate disclosure— made public in my mind. Jesus, have mercy.

Now, it’s personal.

My son was confused. Asked about annulments.* I told him that his dad and I were still married in the eyes of the Church and neither of us were free to be “dating”, in the way our culture understands it. There is no certain trajectory. There is a more heightened need for prudence, temperance and utter sobriety in the knowledge that any relationship at all, may go nowhere. And introducing this to children who should never have to suffer through a serial string of Dad’s new girlfriends or Mom’s new boyfriends, especially on this side marital validity was not okay. 

I also told my son about Justin. And the reason why I did this matters because it wasn’t a conversation I was planning on having with my children (or the world) until it was appropriate. Until I was free to. But the damage has already been done, and the delicacy and gradualism I had hoped to introduce this other person with—whom my kids have known their whole lives— is gone. There are no good options and my kids are left groping for meaning with what is now overt in front of them with their dad and what had been hidden in my heart for so long. Now, the objective has changed. Inferences have been made. Questions asked. Confusion. 

So, I feel impelled to use the sorrow of this Love that I feel as a lesson to my kids and to my Catholic community (which may very well reject this) on how to hurt in deference to our Faith. I am not free to be “dating” nor do I have any interest in it. I don’t have a “boyfriend” in the traditional sense. I have something far more serious with one of my best friends and I would love it if we could have a future together. But I am not free to be anything more than a “friend” to Justin in practice. And even while in counseling together (his idea!) to try and collectively sort the difficulties we have in front of us, and the traumas we bring from our pasts, we are both soberly aware that we may always have to remain “just friends.” This is a reality we accept and we have tried to infuse as much dignity as possible into our very precarious situation.  

Here’s the thing: I never WANTED to date, even if I was granted an annulment. I am not a “Swipe Right” kind of woman. I had no intentions at all of remarriage after my husband divorced me. God has blessed me with a temperament well suited to soak up the silver linings of the life I currently have as a divorced mother of seven children: I have a strong sense of introversion and fierce desire for autonomy. I have a promising career. Great coffee. And more books to last me a lifetime. I enjoy solitude, sleeping by myself and using my free time to write in journals, wander along salty shorelines or scroll through the memes found in the newest, stupidest Subreddit of the day. Like Oscar Wilde, it seems to be a self-evident truth that “With freedom, books, flowers, and the moon, who could not be happy?” I can hire a handyman for any practical needs I have around the house and my large family is now close by for emotional support. A “man” was simply never something I wanted to bring back into my life. Not after the hell I’d been through. *shudder* It would have to be quite the man to ever make me interested in sacrificing my current freedom to enter into a relationship again. And, hi. Here I am. In the same relationship I’ve been in with just such a man for 20 years… only unfathomably deeper. 

Many don’t know him or only know him a little bit, do not like him. Why? Because he doesn’t fit in a recognizable socio-political box, speaks his mind without fear of consequence, and he tends to only reveal small parts of himself to the general public. But those who know him very well— and they are few— tend to love him. 

I never asked for a love like this. I never planned on it and I didn’t seek it. We are extremely similar in many respects and others have commented on our connection for years, including our spouses. And it was always a pure, respectful, and appropriate connection. 

Then, he taught me about selfless Love. And I was an unruly student. Ignoring his messages many times that were simply him reaching out asking if I was okay. I pushed him away, acted aloof and guarded my heart because it had been obliterated in years of abuse and exploitation. Vulnerability was too scary. Not for me. I had no use for it. No thank you. 

He taught me about Respect. He supported my boundaries. No man has ever honored and encouraged my own autonomy the way he has. One of the major themes we kept grappling with over and over in our friendship, was the concept of Freedom and what it means to have the capacity to engage in a healthy relationship. There were many tears spilt as things were disclosed, traumas were shared and security was developed. 

He roots for me and challenges me and he accepts my own cheerleading and chiding back. And I have admired the principles he had in fighting for a marriage long after he’d stopped wanting it. I could relate as I’d done the same. He and I began sharing more of our pains and sorrows. More cups of coffee and walks in Olympia where we’d meet every couple months. I was transparent with and encouraged in this friendship by his ex-wife. We grew close. And we grew deep. Here, in the shelter of the other… we still recognize and genuflect at the sacramental space between us. 

And we know that might be the end of the story. 

Because there is something greater than our feelings that matters here. There is propriety. There is honor. There is obedience to our vocations and teaching of a faith system unto which we have voluntarily submitted ourselves. 

We will always be friends. But I can not currently imagine the insanity for my kids to have to consume this sort of bizarre, wife-swap soap opera.  I’m a damn writer, with a strong (though fallible) intuition about people. And in my role as a therapist, I’m pretty comfortable inviting others’ skeletons out of the closet and demons to tea… but this?! Well, this particular plot-twist has rather knocked the wind out of me— along with any premature swagger I may have been tempted to feel thinking “I’ve heard it all before.” And sadly, without seeing it in person but knowing them both well, I have a pretty confident idea of how it’s playing out: having lived the “phase before the discard” myself, and having researched an enormous amount of material on particular types disorders and their lesser-known phenotypes. I’m not judging. I’m not diagnosing. I don’t need to. But, please pray for us all… and most especially for our children.

Maybe their “relationship” will grow legs. Maybe it won’t. But, either way, I can’t stand by silently while my children are learning that Black is White and 2+2=5, and enter on stage months later where they might interpret this as some sort of cheap mimicry to whatever form of reality those two are living right now. No. 

So, I’m speaking out prematurely so my kids know the true story. That they know it’s okay to love. To have feelings and hopes and dreams. I know what this is like. 

And more importantly, that those must be tempered in light of what our Faith has revealed to us.

And I’m also speaking out because what I have with Justin has been so careful and so intentional, for so long— that it feels wrong to let such an old, deep, discerned, and rightly ordered love be an afterthought to someone’s else’s new, convenient “dating” object today. 

I wish my ex-husband health and healing. I wish her health and healing. But, I am not going to be a silent supporting actor in the relationship being introduced to my children. I am tired of my life choices being limited by others. So, I am exercising the last of my human freedoms to respond to the situation in front of my family in a very proactive and public way, even through my fear of backlash. I apologize for what discomfort this brings to anyone and can only hope that it sparks some thoughtfulness, dialogue and healthy boundaries for all the couples I know.  I will repeat something here that I’ve said many times now over the past couple years having experienced all that I have and witnessing what effect it’s had on my children: I am even more ANTI-divorce now than I ever was before. 

Come what may, Justin and I will still drink our coffee and read our books and think our thoughts and laugh our laughter. We are friends. 

 

(Here is his side of things,  for those who want to understand better…)

 

 

_____________________________________

*In January of 2020, I filed a petition for an annulment. For the previous 2 years, I had been waiting around, thinking my ex-husband would file. He had begun the process immediately after our divorce was finalized, but he never followed through. When I asked about it, months later, he had said that he was busy. I filed. It took a lot of time, research and prayer to be able to do this in good conscience. I had to make sure my motives were pure and that I was being obedient to the (well-catechized) promptings on my heart. I wasn’t looking for loopholes. I wasn’t looking to rewrite my history. But I was and am seeking clarity. Either I was irrevocably shackled to this man for the rest of my life, or I would be granted psychological freedom and peace with a decree of nullity;  either outcome will be a relief. Living in this limbo, divorced but seriously questioning the validity of your own marriage, is intolerable. I want to know what my cross is and I will adjust accordingly. I had stumbled on my very old journals, written during my dating period wherein the constant theme was questioning if I could trust him, my relationship. Everything was so syrupy sweet and perfect… it seemed too good to be true. Yet, I had misgivings that I pushed away. I wanted to believe it was true. And I ignored the warnings my close friends and family gave me. We had no meaningful marriage prep. And most of all… I have a strong, educational, experiential, and clinical knowledge now of certain parts of psychology that could seriously impede one’s capacity to consent to the demands of marriage. So I submit the question to the hands of those trained to assess these matters within the context of Canon Law.  
While many Catholics seek annulments for the sole purpose of remarriage, that was not my objective. Obviously, I have guarded hopes for my future with Justin, but he has long warned me from the get-go that not only might he not accept the results of his own annulment results— that his ex-wife had petitioned for— but that he might not accept mine if he felt that the process wasn’t given its due diligence and thoroughness. I respect him all the more for this. There are things more important than our feelings. I didn’t file for an annulment in order to get remarried. I filed for one to hope for some element of psychological freedom… or at least clarity.  When I let my ex-husband know that I did this, he said he would have nothing to do with it. That this was on me as he had “discerned it wasn’t in the best interest of the children.” (Well… “Curiouser and curiouser…”) He did not participate in the paperwork at all. Interestingly, he chose to review all the papers though. He read my testimony, my witnesses’ testimonies and my therapists’ testimonies. He saw every word written. And he chose to not speak on any of it. This is convenient for the sake of the “having nothing to do with this” narrative… but I am at least thankful that my case will be adjudicated with nothing but honest material. I was told that I should expect to hear the results of my petition late next spring.
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The Last of Human Freedoms: Part Two

The Legal Years

Divine Lover and Heavenly King, have mercy on me, my children, and their father… please don’t let this be weaponized into bitterness and retaliation, but rather make it a piercing, purifying flame of truth that gives birth to contrition and conversion. Lord, hear my prayer…

(See Part One here.)

At the separation hearing, I got my first taste of the American Justice system. I can’t say it’s an acquired taste, four years and multiple appearances later— but hey, some of the security guards were nice and seemed to have a genuine sympathy for me as I’d trudge in and out over the next many months, filing papers and such, especially once I was without legal representation. I bless them today for offering me a touch of humanity with gentle smiles as I came and went. 

Here is some of the language used in that first declaration against me:

    •  “Her behavior is erratic and turbulent, such that the children and I feel confusion and anxiety around her because we are waiting to see what version of their mother we will get.”
    • “This sort of manic behavior has become dangerously normal to our children…” 
    • “She has harassed my friends and coworkers, and all but terrorized me…”
    • “Ellie is an unfit neglectful mother, and she is certainly no housekeeper…”
    • “The incidents of child neglect under Ellie’s watch are far too many to recount.” 

 Words can never describe my horror upon reading this and the blatant lies and distortions that accompanied these words. Jesus, are You real?! Do You see me?! Can You hear me? Where are You?!  But it was just beginning. Herded into the domestic relations docket—the real leveler of humankind, as we all squished like cattle to ogle over each other’s dirty laundry before our own skivvies were put on public display— The Commissioner told me to wean my baby and get a job. A Guardian ad Litem was (understandably) ordered to the case in light of these alarming claims. In addition to these recommendations, a 50/50 parenting plan was ordered, $2200/month was offered by way of support for myself and the seven children, and I was ordered to pay the mortgage and all the utilities on the home. Me. The woman who’d been out of the workforce for more than a decade and had been a stay-at-home wife and homeschooling mother while my husband had been building his career up for years. How is this possible, Lord?Additionally, I was only allowed to live in the home during my residential time. They call this a “nesting” situation and it was a highly imperfect and ineffective attempt to stabilize our children while their family was being torn in half. So, in other words, at this point in time, the children didn’t shift households… the parents did. When my husband was “off duty”, he had rented a private apartment to which he could retreat. When I was “off duty”, I had nowhere obvious to go. I remember scrolling through local campsite availability because I felt too ashamed to be a burden on my friends. But, people reached down into darkness and pulled me up from that thinking. I ended up bouncing between a couple friends’ homes who took me in and gave me space in their spare room. While living this nomadic life, living at home just 50% of the time, I was working as a hostess at a restaurant. I was 35 years old, being trained by a sweet, blonde 19 year old on how to handle customers, bus tables and attend to my apparently primitive eyebrows. (Incidentally, I am extremely grateful for the year spent in the restaurant industry; the life skills I learned there were significant and important.) 

Some nights I would wake up from nightmares and be entirely disoriented, not knowing what was going on. It would take long minutes for me to get my bearings and rack my brain to remember where I was. I would stare at the ceiling numb—yet with a racing heart— trying to make sense of my body, my location, and my reality. In the early days of this arrangement, I would be unable to sleep— afflicted with aching breasts but no baby to relieve me. I tried pumping milk for a while, but the stress and pain had my milk supply drying up pretty fast. I had nothing left to give him and so, he was weaned. These were hard, unreal days, weeks, months, years…

My husband resigned from his position at the church, told me he had “lost” his job, and went back to federal civil service. I grieved for and with him. And it was all my fault. Rumors in our community were like wildfire during this phase, many of them untrue… and some true. Many friends tried to reach out to my husband. Many folks tried to approach him and me to help support our marriage. They were amputated from his social circle. But many, many others just tried to give us privacy and prayer in our struggles. 

During the summer, my husband filed emergency orders to keep our children out of the little private school in which I had enrolled them. It was too closely entwined to the parish where he used to work. He had some very choice words to say about the community and insisted that the children would be in a much healthier place at the local, public schools. The judge split the baby. Two were allowed to attend the private school with Dominican sisters. The other two were sent to the public schools. During the next school year, I had five children in four separate schools on four separate bell schedules. It was a logistical nightmare. In September, I was preparing for a settlement conference… a David vs. Goliath type encounter of inexperienced, trembling me vs. a tenured lawyer in the last months of her career who had a reputation for being The Bulldog of the county. My proposed plan was very fair. His was not. We were unable to settle and the case was headed for trial. 

Meanwhile, that same month, my second son was hospitalized for a stomach issue that had resulted from a previous surgery. I went to the hospital to be with him for a few days while he was in there. An out-of-state friend came to manage my household while I was gone and collaborated with other local friends to throw a birthday party for another child while I was with the infirmed one. I was accused of “abandoning my children”… to be with the sick one.

Throughout this year and into the next ones, so many people supported me financially. I would receive many anonymous envelopes of cash or folks who used the church to disperse a check to me, grocery gift cards stuffed into my purse. The whole community seemed to see the injustice. I felt like I was living in a fishbowl… only my water levels were dangerously low and the world saw it. I was stunned. Embarrassed. Each and every time a dollar was sent my way, I was shocked all over again. I don’t know how I would’ve made it without these unseen angels. I was able to purchase a small, used vehicle to drive. I was able to pay my bills. Stay alive. Family friends gave me a home with cheap rent to live in. I learned to stop blushing when I paid for my groceries with food stamps and begged the school for free tuition. And I clung like hell to my crucified Jesus. You are real. You do see me. Bind me now to Your Cross and never let me go.

During this phase, I reiterated to him that I was willing to reconcile. Willing to work on us. He refused. I had “annihilated our marriage” with how unstable I was. I didn’t understand. 

On November 1st, my father died. He had finally succumbed to years and years of pain and illness and died surrounded by his wife and children. My older brother held his wrist feeling his pulse die out and my hand was on his heart as it faded into stillness. 

I was a shell. Numb. Grieving the father I needed to protect me right then. And also grieving the relationship I never DID have with my father. But there was no time for sorrow. Trial was just a couple weeks later. I had represented myself through the summer but knew I couldn’t do trial alone. I took out a large, personal loan to hire someone for that. 

During trial, he tried to double down on convincing the court that I was crazy. Court was not convinced. A parenting plan was rendered wherein I had custody of the children about 64% of the time. No one tells you how gross it is to dissect a home and make claims on joint goods. All I really wanted was the books, the art and the old vehicle. His lawyer had capitalized on my weariness and naivete and convinced me and the court that the home was a Zero asset, due to its age and condition. I knew it was worth more but God help me, I was so tired of fighting… I just wanted to walk away. 

Not insisting to be granted some financial part of the home was the greatest monetary mistake of my life. I could’ve at least had my graduate studies and lawyer fees paid for instead of being very deeply in debt today. Just give me peace, Jesus. He can have the money; I want the peace. 

Life was supposed to be beginning just then. 2017 had utterly demolished my ability to make sound decisions in my life. I was, in the most meaningful sense, a survivor of trauma in multiple domains. I had been homeless half the year. My husband, God forgive Him,  had been verbally, emotionally and psychologically abusive to me and was quitting on the marriage. I was trying to mother seven children alone. And begged around for childcare while I worked in the restaurant. I had hired and fired lawyers and was under a form of systemic legal abuse that as of this writing, has still not ended. My father died. Father, my father…

2018 was normal— so long as one is comfortable calling a dystopia normal. During these years of my life, there could be whole novels written about the constant and intentionally hurtful messages sent. The acts of violation on multiple fronts. It seemed to never stop. Very many difficult parts of my life will remain untold during these years as this world simply can’t tolerate “But wait! There’s more!” to be played on repeat, ad eternum. Hide my children in your veil, Mother!

I began graduate studies to become a Mental Health Counselor. This forced me to quit my job. To make my life work, I just maxed out my student loans each semester for regular living expenses. Very quickly after the six month waiting period was over from the date of our Legal Separation, my husband converted our separation into a divorce on August 10th, 2018. I didn’t show up to court. I would have no say in the matter anyway. But he was successful in getting the judge to order me to pay his attorney fees for that day. Justice. So, I paid for a divorce hearing that I never wanted, didn’t attend, and fought like hell to avoid.

There were many struggles with my older children during this time. Single mothering teen boys going through trauma was not a particular skillset of mine. And I had no backup from their father, only a lot of undermining and triangulating. I made a lot of mistakes. Life was blisteringly hard. But my mental health studies were meaningful, helping me make sense of what I was experiencing, and I had hope. In the summer of 2019, I was served papers wherein he was asking for a parenting plan modification. He was asking for full custody of two of the teen boys only. Not the five other children. And he wanted the court to grant him this AND 100% of the weekends with all the children. In the State of Washington, to modify a parenting plan against another’s will requires extraordinary circumstances. The extraordinary circumstances he was citing were abuse. He declared that I was “physically, mentally, and emotionally abusive” to our children. He insisted that a Guardian ad Litem be appointed to investigate (again) and we were back in court. Maybe he really believed all the lies. Maybe his (inconsequential) phone calls to CPS on me were made in sincerity. Maybe he is more unwell than malevolent. This line of thinking has helped my heart to stay soft. It’s imperfect and tempts to harden… but I fight hard to keep it watered with humility and forgiveness. Pray for me.

The case dragged on for months. No movement. Everyone knew it was a junk case. He had no evidence and if I was really abusive, court would have been expedited and all my children removed from my care. But here in America, anyone can file anything they want and the court is required to go through the motions of entertaining the allegations at least. So the tension of my children being taken away from me was held over my head for an insufferably long time as I was in the middle of my clinical internship and final year of school. By the end of the year, I had begun serious discernment on moving back to my hometown a couple hours away. It was a painful decision. I knew I would have a job there. I knew I would have family there. And I knew I would have distance from the ever-present interference of someone who seemed always on the prowl for ways to punish me. I needed my family desperately. I no longer had a meaningful sense of “home” in that city. So I spent months in prayerful discernment, feeling the weight of what this decision would mean for my children. 

In March of 2020, I filed for an Intention to Relocate. Prior to this, I had asked to have a conversation about it, wanting to collaborate on a parenting plan. He refused. I invited him to Dispute Resolution. He refused. Predictably, he filed an Objection to Relocation. More court. More money to hire a lawyer for a hearing. More gracious individuals helping me cover these costs. God, reward them! I was denied temporary orders to move so we were headed to Trial. Again. Unable to afford that representation for a two-day trial, I spent a lot of time preparing and studying on my own about what to do. I had all the notes from my paralegal friend who’d guided me before. I had a a capable mind and a foolishly courageous heart. I drove to Montana on a personal retreat to prepare for trial. I stood in wind storms, talked to cow herds, hiked through Glacier and watched YouTube videos on how to represent oneself at Trial. I was feeling pretty hopeless. An attorney who knew about my case stepped in at the 11th hour to help me, pro bono. Hope!

God bless him, but it was ineffective. Hopeless.

Trial went very, very poorly. My ex-husband’s performance was extraordinarily persuasive. And it was a performance. Suddenly, I wasn’t a terrible, abusive mother and it was being pushed that the children NEEDED me in close proximity to their dad! Lies were told. Sometimes directly. But usually, in the most insidious ways lies tend to flourish in our world: by mirroring so closely the truth that the counterfeit is nearly impossible to discern. My situation wasn’t adequately presented.

After his domination at trial, there was a painful interim period where more hearings needed to happen, temporary parenting plans here. Final orders there. I filed to move in March. Trial was in July. Temporary orders in August. I chose to represent myself at a final evidentiary trial in October. It was highly empowering. A decision was rendered in November… there are still loose ends today. 

I wrote what follows this summer and never published it since I was afraid of how he’d use it against me before we had our 3rd trial. I will end Part Two of this saga with these important notes on my move:

(*Note that a very fair parenting plan was ultimately ordered, considering the circumstances. Blessed be God forever! But the financial disparity between us is still an inscrutable abomination. I make half as much money as he does and pay HIM more money in child support than he pays ME (though this will shift as the three oldest graduate high school). Additionally, I am on my own to pay tuition at the children’s school and there are still squabbles over me being forced to pay thousands of dollars for the GaL that he insisted on having to investigate my mothering. Bizarre beyond words. In this too, blessed be God forever! Also, I am grateful that my mother has loaned me money to combine with an offering from a friend to finance a safer, more reliable vehicle for us. Truly, I am blessed.)
(**I can not emphasize enough that this is a man that I have nothing but goodwill for. I have seen enough life and worked with enough disordered individuals to know that any one of us is capable of great evil, given the right situation, anomalies, and context. Please pray for him, and love him, and hope for wellbeing for all of us.**) 

“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained.”

 —Solzhenitsyn

*       *       *

August 16th, 2020

Home. A word that hurts very much to me and one I’m still trying to make sense of.

I no longer live in the bustling, shipyard city where friendships were cultivated, babies were born and a marriage was broken. I made a home there for over 10 years and a part of me will always call that corner of Washington State home. Part of Whidbey Island, Washington is home. Part of Ventura County, California is home.

And full circle, I return to the place where that word became incarnate, and where a conceptualization of the word Family was first cobbled together.

Family.
Home.

OuchBoth of those words are now knowingly and deliberately mutated as slurs against me for the sole purpose of causing pain.

So, here at the beginning again… I sift through my emotions in a wire mesh strainer, hunting for something recognizable. While terrible at many things, self-analysis is a strength of mine. Yet these large, stony things yielded in the strainer are foreign to me. Is it Defeat? Relief? Sorrow? Hope? Unsure, but likely an amalgam of these words and others. I suppose they’ll get categorized under Rilke’s “Things beyond words…” Again. And again. And again. 

Hard things. 

I didn’t want to leave.

Even after my marriage was dashed against the salty, jagged rocks in that county, I wanted to continue my life there. And I tried. 

For my children, I tried. 

When he found reasons to stay away from the house more and more, I still hoped.
(Maybe he was really busy.)
When he told me his relationship with another woman was a “non-negotiable,” I still hoped.
(Maybe I just didn’t get it.)
When he told me his marriage vows were a mistake and that he hadn’t loved me for “the better part of 15 years,” I still hoped.
(We all say regrettable things in anger.)
When he said he was no longer committed to me, I still hoped. 
(Maybe he would change his mind.)
When he divorced me, I still hoped.
(Maybe… maybe… )

For my children, I tried. When my heart was no longer into it and it was just an extension of my marital duty, I tried. When reconciliation was denied to me time and again on both sides of the divorce, I tried.

Stepping over the broken olive branches, with a pride too vanquished and a desperation too strong to know better, I tried.

Wading through the gaslighting and the maltreatment that I was willing to endure, over and over again, I tried.

But when the harassment and hostility bore relentlessly into my mind and heart, with no end in sight, I could no longer try. When my very ‘home’ could no longer provide a sanctuary from his invasiveness, I could no longer try. At some point, for the sake of sheer self-preservation, one must close her arms around her mind and heart, stuff them into an iron cage… and simply run like hell. 

Here is the quiet, insidious, nature of psychological abuse: It is hidden. It needs to remain hidden in order to continue. If a woman went about her daily life with the visible signs of physical wounds, people would not tolerate this. The outrage would be immediate. Not so with psychological abuse. The damage is deep and long-lasting in a way that even physical abuse typically is not. But you can’t see it. It alters your reality with others in a way that is common for all abuse to do. Beyond that, psychological abuse also alters your reality with yourself in a way that words here can never do justice. And when you succumb to the isolation and silence, out of fear, the chasm between you and the rest of the world becomes increasingly immense. People on the other side of the chasm sometimes support where they can (my gratitude is immeasurable), even without “getting it.” And there is guidance and advice that is sometimes helpful and sometimes not (thank you for caring). But the chasm still remains littered with omissions and misunderstandings, tin-can laughter and untimely tears, stifled anger and many, many dollars and hours spent in God-blessed therapy.

But the abuse remains as the unseen scourge that it is. Unbelievable: “It’s just so unlikely!”  Especially if you want your perceptions in life to make sense and choose to accept only bits of information that align with the confirmation biases we all have: “People are generally good; how could this possibly be true?!” Malcolm Gladwell has a fantastic book that touches on this phenomenon. Humans deny, deny, deny… until the evidence is incontrovertible. And when the deception isn’t obvious, but comes to the party dressed up in just enough true-sounding facts to fool most people— the danger is all the more real. This is how darkness makes the most gains in life; it stays close enough to the light that the Truth is indistinguishable. 

Screwtape to Wormwood: “Just a loaded adjective here, an artful omission there. A sprinkle of projection. A dash of minimization. Easy does it… subtle now…”

Unless you were there for the conversations, read through the court declarations, and strode through the manufactured narratives and nauseating manipulations that frequented your inbox every, single week for years, (Look the other way, now) I can understand the denial. He is a super “nice guy” in public so how could this be true?! For the average lay person, the dynamic of my situation doesn’t make sense. For those who’ve gone through this or who have the clinical training to recognize it: this is textbook. 

But knowing what’s happening does not inoculate one from feeling the effects of it. And the wounds today are very, very real. 

“I never said that.” (Black eye.)
“You’re delusional.” (Cut lip.)
“That never happened.” (Bruised ribs.)
“You’re unstable.” (Broken collar bone.)
“You’re abusive to our children.” (Bleeding. In. The. Brain.)

Can you see me?!
Can you hear me?!

I know this is not polite conversation.
I am not sorry.

But I weep that Truth comes so often dressed in Sorrow. And is so often misunderstood by those who mean well.

For being alone in Gethsemane.
And then betrayed at the praetorium.
And then crucified at Calvary. 
For begging that this cup be taken from me. Every day.
For the need to choose forgiveness and conversion. Every day.
And yet blessing this intimate connection with the Ones who came before me: The Man of Sorrows. The Mother of Sorrows.

Moving to my hometown was done for my family’s sake. To provide for my children the best, and most secure future possible in profoundly sub-optimal circumstances, circumstances that—despite my very serious flaws and shortcomings—I never chose for them and that I fought hard to avoid. I didn’t want to leave.

And only four of the seven will come with me… the oldest boys left with grief under the protective mantle of Our Lady, Star of the Sea.

Today, I am in my mother’s home.
I am waiting to begin life all over again.
Again for the 3rd or 4th time.

So, I scroll mindlessly through new legal plans proposed to me: the one that suggests my children be entirely without me for a cruel and inhumane length of summer. (Blood flowing from my side.) The one that insist that if I want private school education, I alone pay for it (Damaged spine.) And I scroll blankly past falsely inflated child support calculations. Feeling no surprise that even as I rely on state aid programs, the generosity of subsidized rent, and car tires that compensate for their baldness with a combover of unabashed courage— and before I’ve had a chance to unpack my belongings, catch my breath, or earn a single dollar to provide for my children, there is a proposal to cut his child support obligation by over $1000 a month. (Punctured lungs.) Here. In the middle of a pandemic. Where I will be forced to work limited, evening shifts since I must guide our children’s remote learning in the daytime. Where I am attacked for trying to make adjustments in situations that were unforeseen to me. (Concussion.)

I’ve been entangled in steady court proceedings for over a year now and off and on for almost four years. No surprise and may the merciful blood of Jesus Christ sustain me during this war of attrition.

Please, oh sad, and ailing human… I know there is a soul in there somewhere. Here. Please take my cloak also. And those of my children. I assure you of my prayers. You may be able to buy many legal conquests, but my integrity isn’t for sale and my soul is beyond your reach. 

As such, the ultimate victory is mine.

Will you look away?
Will you plug your ears?
Are you uncomfortable yet?

Blessed be God.
“I will rise.”
Blessed be Jesus Christ, true God and true Man.
“Still, like dust, I’ll rise.”
Blessed be God in His angels and saints.
“Still, like air, I’ll rise.”

 

—Elizabeth Rose Augustine Clark, MA LMHCA, NCC

 

(See the final, 3rd Part here)

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The Last of Human Freedoms: Part One

I have thought and prayed carefully for four years on how or if I would ever share my marital fallout. There have been bits here and there, pennies of thoughts and pounds of discretion as I grapple with what it means to be authentic and navigate legal battles that serve to stifle my voice on matters of import. I am also mindful of how misunderstood hidden abuse is and have wondered about my role in offering a cautionary tale regarding the public and social institution of marriage, versus… the repugnance I feel about being a poster child for Catholic Divorce Tales Gone Wrong. I never asked for this and I never wanted this for my family. 

So, what I am sharing now is done with grief, and sooner than I had planned on sharing it, even though there are many details I am holding back for the sake of all involved. What you are about to read is a fraction of what has been endured in the last four years. I am uncertain that this world would even have to capacity to understand all that has happened, were I to tell it. But that’s not at issue here. With this, I have just a small platform to honor my truth by giving it voice. What comes after that is almost none of my business. Some will like it. Some will not. Some will shame me. Some will praise me. I pray to be indifferent to it all. This is for my kids.

Know this: ultimately, I want the father of my children to be healthy and holy and happy; I pray for him regularly and forgive him the damage he has done to me and to our family. Whatever circumstances—psychological, social or spiritual— that have happened in his life to contribute to his treatment of me, I lament for him. I am not better than him and I am a sinner in my own right. He is a soul that I care very much about as he will always be the father of my beautiful, extraordinary children. But I will not be doing him nor my family any favors by hiding reality in shrouded vagaries, so in some hard-to-explain way— I will and pray that this serves as a painful wakeup call to take seriously the path to honesty, self-awareness, and healing. Jesus, let this be a medicinal injection of truth! Additionally, I ache to know that someday my children might read this. But my hope is that I can hold space for their pain and heal with them, even while partially pulling aside the veil that hides the wounds in my heart… which bleed onto them. I wish for them truth, and love and faith in honesty.

The need to write my story now has become imminent because I have been made aware of a new, pressing threat of others writing it for me, which will be explained in the final part of this.

Part One of Three

2016

It was early spring when I had a dream out of nowhere. Six months pregnant with my last child, sleep was a fitful thing already, but I shared this dream tentatively with my husband. “You decided to cheat on me with _________.” He was taken aback as much as I was considering that there was nothing to lend credibility to this dream at all. At the time. A month later, I noticed a connection between him and her. Others noticed it too. He’d light up when she came around and their conversation was so light, fun and easy. I felt jealous. Strange. And really, really stupid. 

When they began texting more, I expressed my discomfort. He tried to avoid texting around me to not trigger this discomfort. This led to evasiveness. Awkward conversations. Me feeling even stupider for being bothered by it. We were growing distant. What was my problem? Why was I so insecure? 

When I went into labor with our son in May, I texted him and he came home from work. I didn’t want him there since we were emotionally out of tune but felt bad advocating for myself. In less than three hours, from start to finish, our 7th baby was born at home in the most awkward home-birthing position I’d ever been in… on all fours, with my slightly estranged husband pinned underneath me.

The baby was baptized shortly thereafter and the woman came to our house for the baptism reception. He forgot to tell me that he invited her. I tried to act normal and be accommodating as she held my son and was very pleasant.  Before the end of the month, I had consulted with my closest friend, out of state—too humiliated to bring it up to my local friends— and she advised me to ask him to stop all of the texting and have a professional-only relationship with her. I wrote up a template message for him to send. He agreed and sent it. The next day, he was extremely upset and nervous for how awkward things were at work. How she’d taken it, seeming so aghast at any hint of impropriety. We talked a lot. It sounded like I was clearly just insecure. She rationalized and normalized their friendship in such a way that I felt really, really stupid for feeling uncomfortable with it. And my husband seemed to feel foolish about asking for boundaries. We had never encountered anything like this before and neither of us knew how to handle it

This began Operation-Get-Ellie-Comfortable-with-Our-Friendship. It involved an unspeakable amount of alcohol. (To this day, please never offer me Tanqueray Gin or Fireball Whiskey. Triggers.)  And I tried. I spent time at her house. I tried to get to know her. I tried to like her. She was really fun and charismatic and a great conversationalist. No wonder he liked her! And I felt so stupid for not wanting her around my husband. We spent the entire summer going back and forth on identifying boundaries and trying to back off of the texting and then easing up on restrictions because I didn’t like for him to be upset at me because of the loss of his friend or awkwardness there. I shoveled more and more piles of stupidity and inadequacy upon myself as he spent more and more time at work with her or running errands for her and less and less time at home. I felt neglected and shamed myself for these feelings. Self-loathing. Every time I brought it up, it was met with exasperation and frustration that I couldn’t seem to accept that they were just friends. What was wrong with me?!  She was well aware of my emotional floundering on the friendship. One day I’d tell her that I wanted to support their friendship and the next I’d tell her it was too difficult. She kept feigning surprise that I even questioned their friendship at all. I was growing increasingly “unstable”… a charge he’d later use against me in court.  At one point, he was discussing dopamine rushes with getting her texts and feeling love-like feelings for her, but then he quickly backpedaled and it was that she was just like his sister and I simply wasn’t able to understand.  By August, he told me we would have to agree to disagree on this and he was willing to endure my discomfort to maintain this friendship. God, hear my cries of despair and find me in Your bleeding heart! The isolation I felt was deep as he and she both thanked me for not opening up to my local friends about my concerns.  I felt like I was honoring my husband. Protecting him. Noble. Everything else must have been made up in my head…

During this phase, I believe he at least tried to do the right thing to a certain degree. Maybe he couldn’t help his disordered feelings. At one point, it was proposed in deep frustration that “Fine, I’ll quit my job and we’ll move to Vancouver!”  I begged him to please put that out of his mind. The thought of leaving the life we had so carefully crafted was unthinkable. To take our children out of their wonderful church community and move away was just not an option. Maybe this remains my greatest contribution to the fallout. Maybe I should have agreed and insisted on a move away from the other woman… but I couldn’t believe that it would actually lead to an END of my marriage so a move seemed to be a really disproportionate response. Still, I was not perfect here. There are no maps on how to navigate a marriage fallout of this kind. At any rate, the idea never gained any traction and we continued our struggle. I wanted to believe this was something we could handle appropriately.

By the end of August, he’d turned to ice on me. Rejecting bids for attention or physical connection. We tried to go on a getaway but I kept bringing her up and he’d lash out at me that “No one cares about her the way that I do!” A priest advised him to stop seeing her but he equivocated that the priest didn’t understand. In a profound moment of terrifying vulnerability on our getaway, I asked him to please choose me and discontinue contact with her. He said I was in “too biased of a position” to advise him properly on this matter. The words rattled around in my shell-shocked brain: Too biased. Ellie, you are wrong to make requests of your husbandHe sought spiritual counsel with another priest… who agreed but never followed through on meeting with him. (Father, Forgive that man…) During September, I tried to be extra attentive to him. Bringing him cookies and iced tea at work, he said I was smothering him. When I tried to give him space and distance, he said I was ignoring him. I was paranoid of making a wrong step and didn’t know what to do.

We went to a marriage counselor for 2.5 sessions that year. Session one was all about my discomfort with the other woman. The therapist advised my husband to have a professional-only relationship with her until we could fix our marriage. He was unhappy about this. We didn’t return until after I had written to the other woman, asking her to please stay away from my husband and my children in anything other than a professional capacity. She agreed, at least in word. He was exhausted from the restrictions I kept wanting to put on him and her. I was paranoid she wouldn’t heed my requests. Why was I so obsessed? What was wrong with me?Ultimately, she never did respect my request. And they continued on. In the final session, he disclosed that he was indeed willing to continue a ‘friendship’ with her regardless of my feelings on it. I asked the therapist if there was a point to continuing sessions if we had different goals for our marriage. She said no. We left. It was my fault that counseling didn’t work. 

One day, A local friend came over and confided in me something unrelated that included a reference to this other woman. She noted my extreme discomfort in the conversation. Despite saying nothing, my agitation was evident with shaking hands and squirming in my chair and avoidant eye contact. She probed me gently. And I confessed my discomfort. My friend was stunned. I was horrified that the words had spilled out of my mouth and shamed myself for this ‘betrayal’ to my husband.

I immediately apologized to my him for not keeping it all a secret and begged forgiveness. I asked if I could consult with our priest about it. He refused to bring “his boss” into it. He also didn’t want me speaking to the counselor I had previously seen, as she went to our parish and knew us well. I apologized to the other woman (!) for sharing what I did with this local friend. And she held my hand and stroked it, leaning in and told me firmly that I was being manipulated by that person. I was so confused. Or maybe I had just been poured too many drinks. Either way, I couldn’t breathe… What was wrong with me?!

 I asked my husband in October what he wanted. He said he didn’t know. By the beginning of November, I told him I needed to know if he was committed to this marriage or not. He said he needed time to respond, so he stayed gone until the wee hours of the morning… sleeping in his office. I didn’t eat for 2 days. I walked around in a daze, waiting for his response. I couldn’t sleep. I was horrified. Unstable. I kept prodding him for answers. Maybe I’m being too pushy. Maybe he needed more time. I choked my way through November, never knowing what was going to happen. Forcing myself to eat because I had a nursing baby. Trying to focus on the kids’ homeschooling but failing miserably. We enrolled a couple children in school because I was decreasing in effectiveness. All my fault. After he began sleeping in the kids’ room, I told him that can’t be the new normal. He said it was. I lashed out “Well why don’t you just divorce me then!” And he kind of laughed and said there was a process to this. I said again…  a month after I asked him the first time and a month of dire limbo and sleepless nights and cold sweats of terror… “Are you committed to me and this marriage?”  He looked at me and said “No.” Then he sent a message saying that he was done being “manipulated” by me. Jesus, mercy.

I was stunned. My world was spinning. Shock. Utter shock. Am I alive? Is this real? The next day, after consulting a good friend, I told him that I refused to cohabitate with a man who wouldn’t agree to act like a husband. I asked him to move out. I offered him ideas of where to go. I told him that I loved him and hoped that with space, he would realize that this marriage was worth fighting for and I’d be ready when he was. I still have a copy of this letter. I sent this on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. He was livid. And refused to move out. He set up a room in our basement and I agreed that this would be ok for the time being. I had no way of knowing the hell that would follow upon this arrangement… and I begged God to save my marriage.

The year ended with me being told that my marriage vows had been a mistake and that I didn’t truly understand what love is… among with many other unspeakable things.

2017

January and February  were a blur. I couldn’t figure out what was happening or what to do. I would vacillate between feeling like I could just have a white martyrdom via a contempt-filled husband for the rest of my life or wondering if I should take the kids and go live with my parents and hope he’d recommit to the marriage. He rightfully insisted that I was unstable. (Later I would learn that human beings aren’t particularly “stable” in deeply abnormal circumstances. But I had a long way to go on my understanding yet.) My in-laws had stopped talking to me. I asked to have a conversation with them about what was going on but they wouldn’t speak with me. I was blocked from all social media accounts and messages went unanswered. To this day, I still grieve the fact that I lost much more than a husband in this divorce. I lost an entire family.

I begged him to go to Retrovaille with me. A friend sent money for us to do so and I had babysitters lined up. No. I begged him to go back to counseling. No. It was over. I had ruined the marriage with my “instability”, he said. We came up with an informal parenting plan whereby we’d each be in charge of the children on particular days. During his days with the kids, I tried to stay in my room or in the attic. I had moved some furniture and boxes around, plugged in a lamp and claimed it as my own personal space. I painted in large letters on the wall “Courage, dear heart…” and soaked a lot of paper in ink, paint, and tears. Drawings. Paintings. Writings. And writings. And writings. My little garret was a slice of solace in a house where I felt utterly displaced. The atmosphere was extraordinarily toxic when I was in his presence. He made certain to show me how unwelcome I was; communication took on three forms when it wasn’t the silent treatment: sterile logistics about the children, gaslighting about what had happened, or hostile criticisms about my character flaws and how I’d ruined our marriage. It was not easy for me to leave because he would not let me drive any of the two vehicles; I was told I could walk somewhere if I needed to get out of the house… in January… with a nursing baby. Large amounts of money started disappearing from our bank account. He said he was protecting it from me. Searches for “divorce” and “annulment” were found on my computer. My blood ran through my body like ice water. On my days with the kids, he would disappear completely. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how to answer my children’s questions about where he was. I was suffocating. Disappearing. Stumbling through a nightmare that I never believed possible. 

Eventually, he asked if I wanted a divorce or legal separation. I said “Neither! I want my marriage back!”  He calmly replied “You lost your chance at that.” Oh God, help me fix this! How had I “annihilated” my marriage as he said? Please God. Teach me how to be better! Don’t let this happen to my children! I was losing a lot of weight, being told I was crazy, and utterly incapacitated to leave a situation where my husband was living a bachelor life downstairs and abusing me on multiple fronts upstairs.

In February, after consulting with a priest, I filed for legal separation. I wrote him an email telling him that I absolutely did not want to dissolve our marriage… but that the situation was untenable and hopefully space would help shake up some particles of commitment. His response was mild surprise: “YOU filed?” On Valentines Day, I had a minor, ectopic surgery. He insisted on being at the hospital, even against my will.  (Suddenly, I understood the need for HIPAA laws…) It was profoundly unsettling to be in such a vulnerable position in front of him, and needing his help as I was trying to get my clothes back on etc. I hated it. To this day, I don’t know why he wanted to be there. To control the narrative? For the pleasure of seeing me in a weak place? Out of a genuine, conflicted goodwill? I didn’t understand. Unstable. Many parts of my story can not be intellectually conquered. Such is the human mystery I suppose. As I recovered at home, the situation did not improve. I was still not allowed to drive anywhere to escape the toxicity. I was still required to turn in receipts for every dollar spent, be it a gallon of milk or pack of diapers… all while some of my skirts were being tightened up by safety pins since no money was allowed for clothing that would accommodate the weight loss. I was still told how insane, lazy and negligent I was. But I was too weak to walk around town huffing a baby along with me. Friends came to pick me up and take me (and baby) to their house. And I tried to make sense of my world…

 

(See Part Two here)

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Unanswered Questions

Further adventures in a tale told out of order…

I cross-examined the father of my children in the court-room last week. I wonder how many women have ever had to do that. There were lots of objections by his attorney… some were sustained, but others were—gratifyingly— overruled. The most beautiful thing about it was the absolute confidence and freedom I had in facing him alone. So much has been taken from me already, and he has already gotten nearly everything he’s asked for in this particular action. This produces a deep, deep freedom for me in having very little faith in the justice system and thus being able to speak my truth with almost nothing to lose. He can run laps around me by way of having extra money and time to spend on lawyers and litigation. But after appearing in court more than 14 times in the past four years, begging the ear of multiple attorneys, advocates and one especially wonderful paralegal… I’m now able to speak and write in broken Legalese. It’s sometimes filled with procedural blunders and it will always lack the quintessential, smirking dialect typical of some natives. But this doesn’t phase me the way it used to. I am not afraid. Bring me your condescension. Bring me your soured, volatile ethics. Temporal battles don’t scare me anymore; I know where my victory is… and it’s not of this world.

The difficulty is that I was not allowed to “relitigate the past” according to the judge. Bother. As so many damaging precedents have already been set on deceptive, styrofoam foundations, this is quite a blow. I had hoped to shed light on the current issues by highlighting (just some) of the internal contradictions in the history of the testimony presented against me. Alas, opposing counsel objected to this line of questioning under the grounds of “Irrelevant.”

Well. 

I did not realize that Truth was invalid currency here or that establishing Credibility had an expiration date. Be it so.

Stat crux dum volvitur orbis

At any rate, for the sake of posterity, and even if the family law system isn’t interested in following up on matters of integrity, I would like to leave here some of my “irrelevant” questions that remain unanswered:

1.  In 2017, you testified, under penalty of perjury, that I was mentally unstable and tried to prove to the court that I was crazy:  

  • Why didn’t you seek to ask the court for a psychiatric evaluation? 
  • Why didn’t you seek a restraining order or supervised visits with our children?
  • Why didn’t you go on to inform my university where I graduated, Summa Cum Laude with a degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling that they were making a great mistake?
  • Why didn’t you warn the Department of Health who licensed me or the National Board who certified me as a therapist that I might be a danger to my clients?
  • What is your opinion of my mental stability now?

2.  In 2019, you testified, under penalty of perjury, that I was physically, mentally, and emotionally abusive to our children:

  • Why didn’t you call the police?
  • Why didn’t you seek a restraining order or supervised visits with our children?
  • Why didn’t you try to protect the youngest children from me and only want full custody of two of the older ones?

These are grave, life-altering accusations. 

These are mind-boggling anvils thrown at a woman who had already been discarded into the middle of the ocean. 

Do we live in the world where words no longer matter??

Yet… I am grateful.

Yes, you read that right.

 Without these past four years, I would never have known that I could develop the strength, skill and stability to swim in such storms. 

Thank you sir. May you be well and find peace and growth of your own in this life. 

—Elizabeth Rose, MA, LMHCA, NCC

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Writing to Know How I Think

Some things need to be said. And they will be said. But the time is not yet.

I will not write what is happening, but just pluck through snippets of how I feel. Doing this assists me in moving through All The Things with clarity and completion. If you can tolerate vagaries and shadows of thoughts… rather than a linear narrative, read on. Writing is something I can control.

I feel as though I don’t know how to interface with the world right now. I am in pain. I am wounded. Deeply. And this requires me to show up for myself and look me square in the eye and say “I see you. I know you. I hear you. This is real.” That’s my responsibility. The covert nature of what is happening creates a fog whereby most others are unable to understand. And even if the veil does get lifted soon, many will look away in discomfort. I accept this.

In the meantime, I own my breath. My body. My thoughts. My soul. There is my freedom. There is my peace. No matter the circumstances surrounding me, that interior dimension is beyond a threshold whereby only my Divine Lover is invited to cross. He weeps with me there. But He is also, quite simply— there: embodying the fullness of joy which can only be properly experienced when it was born of sorrow. I can still laugh. And mean it. Thanks be to God.

It is my responsibility to not transmit this pain onto others, intentionally or unintentionally. 

I alone, am responsible for its transformation. For my relationship to the pain. 

There is meaning here.

And I am noting once again, a reset of my threshold of delight. Today I walked—no, sauntered!— to the mailbox halfway down my block alone. It was like a mini-vacation. My office has air conditioning. What good fortune!  I dedicate myself to important work, an honor! My house is appreciated and loved by my children— I am the wealthiest woman in the world! And there are a few who have remained by me in the most tumultuous years of my life and have proven themselves to be True Blue, in spite of myself… a staggering gift.

Having been knocked down, over and over and over again… with no end in sight… I will still move through this. Having an internal experience that is hidden or misunderstood in the bustling world is not something I want to resist. I want to welcome this.

I will kiss the ground in the terrain of my soul and walk with courage down unknown paths.

 

DOMINE Iesu Christe, Fili Dei vivi, miserere Mei, peccatricis

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