Mistakes I Made on My Journey Toward Self-Compassion

By Michelle Dowd 05/15/19

The emotional and physical abuse had cost me every last ounce of self-respect I had. But I refused to see myself as weak, a victim.

Image: 
Woman's face, blurry, recovering enabler recognizing trauma.
I was drawn to people with addictions the way I am drawn to sugar, metabolizing them quickly and easily, with a counterintuitive calm. Photo by Callie Gibson on Unsplash

John is escorted into the courthouse wearing a dirty ochre jumpsuit, cuffed at both the wrists and ankles. He looks straight at me in the wing and then quickly lowers his eyes, while I follow him boldly with my gaze, as if this is a staring contest I intend to win.

I notice the public defender right away, a small bald man who pulls his briefcase behind him like a suitcase. He is wiry and can’t sit still, either hopped up on coffee or cocaine. The district attorney has instructed me not to get emotional. “This is just a hearing,” she says, “there’s no jury yet, and judges don’t like it when you seem like an unreliable narrator.”

I roll my eyes. “I’m not going to get emotional,” I say, “It’s not my thing.” She tells me she has seen public defenders get hostile, make accusations, try strategies to get a victim discombobulated, to contradict herself, to look mentally unstable.

Not me.

When I received the subpoena to testify, I was also given a victim’s packet, a small handful of pamphlets informing me of shelters, therapists, and resources available to petition for restitution. I threw them away. I refuse to be a victim.

They call me Jane Doe and I am satisfied with this identity. I would rather be anyone than who I am: a survivor of his raging chaos, the predictable woman who positions herself as collateral damage in a psychodrama in which she envisions herself the savior. I internally restructure my story to cast myself as a resilient hero, an arbiter of the complicated events of my life that have somehow made me stronger, clearer, more potent in my circuitous journey.

I tell myself John was an opponent, not my perpetrator. A perpetrator is an illusion, a false dichotomy of black and white hats. He didn’t beat me up, I beat myself up. He was my sparring partner, and I wanted to know my weaknesses and where to grow stronger. Like Clouseau with Cato, I gave him access to my home, my body, my mindset, my skill-set. I gave him my weapons and the keys to my personal kingdom. I asked him not to use them against me, but God knew we would eat of the fruit and gave us access to it anyway.

I run through the ways I never trusted John, as this is proof that I couldn’t have been betrayed. Either I don’t believe I deserve happiness, or I generated my own ultramarathon training session. I suspect it's the former, but I try to convince myself it’s the latter. I may lose a battle, but I won’t lose the war. I repeat this to myself as I sit in the DA’s office, waiting to be called to the stand.

“Did anything the defendant do frighten you?” she asks.

Very little the defendant has done the past four years has not frightened me. To be more precise, the emotional and physical abuse have cost me every last ounce of self-respect I had. But I refuse to see myself as weak, a victim.

“No.”

She doesn’t shake her head in disgust, but rather acquiesces, as if she has seen this over and over.

***

The first time John broke into my home, I was at work. When I got home, he was on the balcony with a kitchen knife he’d used to cut his hair. When he saw me, he pressed the knife to his throat, just slightly, to make an indentation without blood. He stared at me until my fear softened to compassion. I hadn’t seen him in months, but I didn’t call the police. I just calmly talked him down the stairs, as if he were a negligent child, and reminded him that he could have seriously hurt someone. I politely asked him to please not break in again.

“Okay,” he said.

When his mom hadn’t heard from him in over ten days, she called me to ask for help. I researched addiction symptoms online, and searched local arrest records until I found him. Since his arrest had nothing to do with me, I convinced myself I could be of service and made an appointment to visit him in West Valley Detention Center. The weeks that followed were a jumble of court proceedings and miscommunications.

He was released in less than a month with a misdemeanor and a punch card for Narcotics Anonymous meetings.

I saw him as the victim of a system that didn’t understand his illness and I was defensive and proactively defiant. I spent his first night out of custody in a motel room with him, nurturing his wounded spirit.

Then I helped him get his car out of impound, let him borrow money, helped him get medications and appointments, helped him get back into school and into a part-time job, and genuinely believed we would fight the madness with surefooted logic and love.

No matter how deep into the rabbit hole of illness he descended, through the drinking, cocaine and hallucinogens, and even when his numerous arrests would sometimes lead to jail and eventually prison, nothing shook my loyalty.

“I love you,” I reassured him, “As long as you exist in any form, anywhere, I will find you. I will always come to you. Wherever you are, I will be there. There is nowhere I won’t look. In life or in death, I will come for you.”

And I meant it. I loved John irrationally, with an intensity I didn’t have for myself or my well-being. I loved him in all the ways no one loved me, and I nurtured his brokenness like I wish someone had nurtured mine. I couldn’t go back and hold myself as a little girl, so I clung to him, and to the idea of rescuing him.

I didn’t ask him to change, I didn’t even know what change would look like. I loved him without regard to what he did. I loved every muscle and hair on his body, every nuance of his mouth: the way it silently shook instead of making noise when he laughed, the wide sardonic grin, and even pursed with displeasure. I loved his deep voice and his dramatic anger, louder and more direct than anything I am or could ever display.

I loved him for his ability to fall apart.

When he broke into my home again, the consequences were more dire.

***

After John was convicted, I broke all communication with him and got myself into therapy. After the hearing, the judge insisted on a protective order for me and my children. Shaking, I took the papers into the bathroom and looked at myself in the mirror, a skeleton of a woman, 25 pounds thinner than I was when I was first subpoenaed. I didn't recognize the frail woman looking back at me. All I knew is that I needed to change.

I was raised to turn the other cheek. If someone takes your cloak, give him your shirt. If he imposes on you for one mile, go with him two.

My mother taught me if a man tries to abduct you, pretend you adore him, and you won’t get hurt. I never fought back. I was raised to respond to aggression with a smile.

I was drawn to people with addictions the way I am drawn to sugar, metabolizing them quickly and easily, with a counterintuitive calm. I was drawn to the way they let me play a supporting role in their life drama, so I didn’t have to recognize my own drama. With someone chaotic and wild and suffering, I didn’t have to think about myself. There was always somewhere to hide.

I thought turning the other cheek made me a good person. I didn’t care how many slaps that got me or how much it hurt. I just kept turning the other cheek.

My therapist recommended a daily yoga practice, so I began the journey of learning to listen to and trust my body. Through yoga, I learned to pay attention to my body. I began to recognize I could feel, and that I did feel, and I learned to be more honest with myself about the trauma lodged in my body.

Before yoga, I didn’t even recognize trauma.

It took sitting in my pain, rather than working to fix everyone else’s, to teach me to pay attention to my own needs. The process started with breathing mindfully, and then moving mindfully. Eventually I learned to feel my body, then recognize its pain, and eventually, recognize desire.

I am a recovering enabler. I had to unlearn self-abnegation to understand that you can’t really be empathetic until you know where you end and someone else begins.

Meeting my own needs serves as an example for others to meet theirs. When we show compassion and care for ourselves, we give others in our lives implicit permission to find wholeness in themselves, without needing or relying on us.

Now I begin every morning with sitting in stillness, listening to my body, and paying attention to what comes up, even if it’s painful. Especially if it’s painful. Since I’ve committed to this daily spiritual practice of ruthless self-honesty, I haven’t had time to rescue anyone else. I have enough to rescue right here.

Listening to the wisdom of my body has healed the cognitive dissonance once lodged in my psyche. I can now talk lovingly to the demons inside, rather than projecting them onto other people, trying to heal in others what I didn’t know was wrong in myself.

Letting someone hurt you in the name of love hurts them too.

Before we can be in a healthy relationship with another, we need to be self-aware enough to know who we are, and to identify what we want and don’t want. And we can’t do that when we spend all our time running around trying to fix other people.

I no longer want to be anyone’s light or hope or savior. Now, I’m committed to being my own best friend.

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Michelle Dowd is a registered yoga instructor and lead teacher for Yoga Alliance Teacher Training. She believes in the healing power of community.

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