Rediscovering Myself

By Angela Ashe 06/02/17

Shame enveloped me at playdates and school pickups. I was sure everyone could smell the stink of failure on me, the twin smells of fear and sadness.

Woman in flowy dress swimming underwater
I am going back to the sea, to sing my siren song.

I was mute, like the little mermaid. Not the Disney one. The Hans Christian Anderson one, the one who had her tongue cut out when she went human for love. The one whose feet felt like daggers sliced into her soles whenever she walked, part of the pact with a sea witch to lose her tail and transverse the earth for a mate. Like the Mermaid, I lost my voice, for what seemed like an eternity, but was really only 12 years.

How does it happen, you ask yourself.

How does an educated, intelligent woman, a published author, for God’s sake, lose her ability to speak?

It wasn’t instantaneous, like the fable. It happened incrementally, every time I was attacked or criticized. I chose an abusive partner, and through a series of episodes, by attrition, I forgot who I was, who I wanted to be. Who I could be.

It started early, like most abusive relationships. There were red flags from the start, like when he berated a cabbie for the route he chose to take us to my newly purchased place in Queens.

Why are you going this way, he ranted, it’s too long. He proceeded to tell the cabbie, in detail, all the steps he should have taken. How does he know so much about Queens? I wondered.

My last girlfriend lived in Queens, he answered my unspoken question, resentment in his voice, as though it were a major imposition he didn’t feel like repeating for me.

I felt uncomfortable. Why would he tell the cabbie the best way to go, it seemed so trivial. So controlling. I brushed it off. He was coming with me to help me host an Oscars party, to set up a TV I had purchased for the occasion. That was more than most guys I dated would do.

Then there was the time we bought groceries at Fairway and schlepped them back to his place in the rain, again in a cab. He yelled at me for not unloading the groceries properly, for getting the precious cargo rained on. I left my body a bit as I hauled those damp brown bags up the four flights of stairs. It was scary, the way he would suddenly lose it on me and others.

Another time, he went out with friends, returning at 4 am so drunk he had no idea where his wallet was. I had waited up for him, terrified he had been killed or mugged. As we talked early into the morning, he opened up his childhood wounds and I held him. I thought he was brave and emotionally available. My heart wrapped around his in shared grief.

Like so many abusive relationships, there were powerful incitements. I wanted more than anything to find a man who would stay, who would father a child with me. I had dated my share of Peter Pan New York bachelors, and this fellow from the Southwest I had found on a dating site felt familiar from the first contact.

I don’t like him, he has sad eyes, my best friend told me as we gazed at his profile picture. I scanned the photo for evidence, but didn’t agree. I didn’t see sadness, I saw intelligence. I saw a guy who was available, and this felt like everything.

Witty repartee bloomed via messages, then blossomed into a phone conversation that lasted two hours.

He was thoughtful, genuine. He liked punning and got my jokes. His slight southern accent was unpretentious, slower than the East Coasters I had dallied with. He felt like home.

If you catch a woman at the right time, it is like catching a fish. You can reel her in. I was at the peak of my vulnerability, in my mid- thirties and ready to mate and procreate after a year of self-enforced chastity and abstinence from the dating scene. I guess I was hungry after the fast.

He was petulant when my best friend got me a backstage pass for the Beastie Boys. She worked in production and had an extra ticket. No such ticket was available for him, and he sulked. I ended up foregoing the show rather than make waves. I regret it to this day. The Beasties were the mascots of my generation, the background to all my rites of passage.

He proposed in my home town on one knee, after a morning filled with unpredictable mood swings and temper flares. I was so dazzled to see a diamond I forgot about the irrational behavior that preceded it. The mermaid took another step.

Wedding planning was acutely stressful. He made Excel spreadsheets and proposed a tour of three cities, as our families were far flung and hard pressed to stay in New York at expensive hotels. Rather than argue, I agreed, sweeping my misgivings under the rug. Thousands of dollars racked up like Monopoly money, never mind that it was all too-real and hard won. No one met anyone as we took our act on the road, the separate clans hermetically sealed in their respective communities. By the third city, we were exhausted.

I sold my apartment. All my assets, merged in the communal pool.

Pregnancy followed a year later, sustaining our connection. When we lost that first healthy child after a couple of months due to my rare and undiagnosed blood clotting, we bonded in agony and sorrow. We got pregnant again shortly thereafter, and after much monitoring and measuring produced a healthy and beautiful baby girl.

The next few years are a blur. Lost in a tsunami of sleep deprivation, I navigated the controlling and helicoptering as best as I could from my partner. He had an opinion on every aspect of child rearing, and woe betide me when I disagreed. He literally pulled her off my boob at eighteen months, convinced she was starving from malnourishment even though the pediatrician told us she was on her curve. As the primary breadwinner with the title, benefits and salary (I have always been a creative and a freelancer), he never ceased to remind me of his superior status.

He didn’t like me talking on the phone, thought I was “too loud” when I wrote at night (the clacking of the keyboard was apparently too much for his sensitive faculties). There were frequent outbursts of temper, as he told me I was a “child” and to “pick a lane” in life. When I asked him to communicate from less abusive "I" statements, his response was that he didn’t have to talk the “P.C. AA talk.”

I lost confidence, rearing our child alone while he worked late. I spent my savings, worked part time as a yoga teacher, and felt the slow erosion and crumbling of my identity. I thought maybe it was post-partum, aren’t women in recovery highly susceptible? I took some antidepressants for a while and tried to rally.

Shame enveloped me at playdates and school pickups. I was sure everyone could smell the stink of failure on me, the twin smells of fear and sadness. I had a shameful secret, too dark to admit to myself. I envied the “working” moms with established careers, never at pickups, too busy advancing. I was glad to have time with my daughter, to watch her grow, but terrified I was missing the boat of my own career. Panic set in, jolting me awake and ravishing my peace of mind. I am a recovering alcoholic, but with the new circumstances, meeting attendance was sparse. I need a meeting, I would timidly tell my partner, and listen as he barked he was too busy or tired to cover for me at home. Disconnected form my support system, and a coast away from my family, I started losing faith in myself and any connection to a loving higher power.

Something in me forced me to keep going forward. I went to Alanon meetings, not sure what the problem was. I knew he had been raised in an alcoholic family, he had told me so, but I clung to the notion that he was a “normie”- someone who could function in the everyday world.

I went to AA meetings, and found a recovering bipolar alcoholic who happened to be a writer. She invited me to her writers group. And my life started to cohere again.

In Argo Tea on University, I got my voice back.

I started writing, not for escape or a book deal, but as though my life depended on it. It did.

I wrote essays, narrative nonfiction, selling little pieces under a pseudonym to a recovery blog.

And I began, week by week, to write a new book.

We meet every week or so, the bipolar, me and the third member of our coven, a young woman who beat skin cancer and the modeling industry. We are an unlikely trio, a motley crew. We read our work in public to one another and ignore crabby old men rattling the Times and barking “too loud” at us. We share resources, how to pitch, and to whom.

We drink too- sweet tea samples from Dixie cups, and share banana nut muffins. We trade tips and encouragement, notes and suggestions. Mostly, we egg each other on.

We’ve sold some pieces, and cheered each success.

We believe in ourselves. Each other. And we all have voices.

Recently, I decided to pull the plug on the marriage. I decided with a lot of help and support that even if someone told me a million times that I am a child, out of control, on the wrong track, I didn’t have to listen. I could take my power back with one powerful “No.”

I have continued to recover, to reach out, to grow, at a snail’s pace, and then in quick bursts. I feel awake again.

The spell is fading. I see the shimmer of scales beneath my socks. My painful feet seem to be receding as the fin grows back. I am going back to the sea, to sing my siren song.

My voice sounds better than ever.

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Angela Ashe is a pseudonym.