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Beyond the Wall

"One day, a little girl woke up in a house, but no one was there. She walked outside and saw buildings, cars and trees, but no people. She wandered into the forest and still found no people. Suddenly, she heard something make a noise. A sign of life! In her excitement, she ran towards the sound only to find a snake that wished to kill her. The girl ran deeper into the forest and began to build a home to protect herself from the snake. As she worked, she considered all the ways in which the snake might get in. She built no windows, no door, and sealed every crack. Finally, once she felt safe, the girl sat and relaxed. After some time, the girl realized that she was hungry and thirsty. But she had neither food nor water. She panicked because she had built no door to get out. No window to climb through. She yelled out for help, but she feared there was no one around to hear her…"

I displayed symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder throughout my childhood. Alongside many great childhood moments, came years upon years of internalizing negative thoughts and suppressing valid emotions. As I grew older, my feelings of inadequacy, which stemmed from perfectionism, were exacerbated by a series of turbulent relationships with men. I was so obsessed with getting their approval that I would become who I thought they wanted. As a perfectionist, I analyzed them and became the person I thought they might love. Did he like long hair? Makeup? No makeup? Ratchet? Bougie? I could be all those things. But for some reason, I always fell short. If he didn’t cheat on me, he was too busy for me. If he wasn’t too busy for me, he wasn’t ready for a serious relationship. But, I always knew what would keep them around longer- sex. All men need sex whether they want to admit it or not. And I was good at it. If all else failed, when the emotions faded, I knew I could control at least one aspect of the relationship. In my mind, they would always want me. But in reality, they would always want sex. And I just happened to be available.

At some point, I had experienced so many heartbreaks that I began to withdraw from the world. I had difficulty maintaining healthy relationships, including friendships. I internalized the behaviors of friends as different forms of the same betrayal. I became untrusting of everyone even though what I needed most was human connection and emotional support. My anxiety told me to continue to perform to maintain the image of perfection. I became the first person in my family to get a master’s degree and secured a career that allowed me access to a lifestyle I never imagined I could have. I became very active in the church community. I joined the professional dance world and worked to get into the best shape of my life. But underneath the perfect exterior, I was cracking.

I would have episodes where I would be so overcome with emotion that my body would feel physical pain. I would begin to feel the omnipresent force of gravity, and with every second, it got stronger and stronger. Until finally, I couldn’t walk, and I couldn’t breathe. And I would start to wonder, “This isn’t worth it”. Then, I would experience shame for letting myself get to that point once again. “Seriously, you’re crying on the floor AGAIN?”, I would think, “You are stronger than this. You have no reason to feel this way.” My inner critic would discredit my emotions because my life was “too good” to feel depressed. And still yet, every time I tried to get up, the weight of gravity pushed me back down. Until finally, I would come to the same conclusion, “This is not the life I want for myself. If I could just get up and grab a knife, I would end it.”

Whoa! That’s tough to type. I am suddenly confronted with two separate voices. At first, I hear Kanye saying, “Say it out loud just to see how it feels”; a verse from his song, “I Thought About Killing You”, where he raps about his thoughts of murder and suicide. Then, I hear my best friend whispering in my ear as I resist sharing my testimony at church. “Say it”, she whispers, as I freeze mid-sentence, unable to utter the words aloud.

"Say it...out loud, just to see how it feels."

I have to acknowledge the main reason my emotions have reached this crescendo. I was raped several years ago. But, as I mentioned earlier, the real pain began long before that awful night. I had become accustomed to emotionless sex in order to achieve some sense of power over men. With each heartbreak, I constructed another segment of my emotional wall.

By the time I got to my rapist, the pain was buried so deep that I was almost numb. The sad thing is, I don’t even know how to really explain how it felt to be a “victim”. I feel like people automatically assume that I was afraid or hurt. Yes, I was terrified and there was also physical pain. However, the most painful part was that, at some point, in the midst of all my fighting and saying “no”, I had to say “yes”. Not out loud. But, within my body. I had to accept him into me. Otherwise, the physical pain would be worse. As my rapist finally overpowered me, I had to relax. And because I was so used to being mentally and emotionally detached during sex, the familiar feeling of being penetrated began to feel ...good. I convinced myself in that moment that this was my choice. I responded to his texts. I was friendly to him. I came to his house. Even though I said “NO!” a thousand times, I still got myself to this point. My body began to respond in the way that it usually did with consensual partners. That’s why I didn't run out when it was over. That's why I didn’t tell anyone what happened. That’s why I didn’t call the police. How could I say that I was raped when eventually, I stopped fighting and allowed it to feel “good”? The thought of it made me want to puke. How could I be twisted enough to find pleasure in my assault?

I know, now, that I was not twisted at all. There was nothing about that night that was my fault as the victim. Even after years of therapy, I still tried to protect myself from the emotional trauma of that event. As much as the pain of that night contributed to the present, it was just a contributor. Anxiety, depression, trauma, loneliness. The accumulation of all these things added to the weight of gravity. “I can take care of myself”, I’d say, as I put up wall after wall trying to protect myself from the pain of reality.

Tearing Walls Down

I am terrified all the time. The process of letting down the walls frightens me. Our favorite movies show glimpses within a neat little twenty-minute window dedicated to the protagonist’s downfall. It’s that moment when the main character’s major weakness is completely exposed. The moment when they break up with someone or the person they loved the most goes away. It’s the moment when we all sympathize with them and anxiously await the resolution of the story. Because every good story has to have a resolution, right? We watch their well-choreographed meltdown. We watch them cry alone in the shower. We watch them hit a devastating but short-lived rock bottom. And then, alas, we see someone drop in to help get their life back together. Sometimes the person they lost returns to them. Other times, they find someone new that shows them how to be loved the right way. And, in my mind, that is always the best ending. Everyone celebrates the arrival of the person who helps them reshape the way they give and receive love. And boom, the movie ends. Happy ending achieved.

The hardest part is sometimes after the happy ending. For some people the hard part IS being with someone who fully knows them and loves them. It’s the process of allowing yourself to be vulnerable after you’ve been hurt. Perhaps it’s different for everyone. For someone like me, it’s more painful than never fully being loved or loving someone again.

My wall was not one, but many. My walls were not made of wood or plaster or brick. My walls were comprised of steel. These walls were impenetrable, and they protected me for as long as I could remember. As life happened, I occasionally allowed people to visit me within the walls. However, no one had ever proven to me that I deserved to be wall free. In fact, most had only proven that I should continue to fortify and maintain this unbreakable steel fortress.

The problem, though, with this fortress is that in trying to prevent anything from getting in, there are no doors. No windows. No cracks. No light! It is dark inside the fortress. In trying so hard to keep the darkness out, you also prevent the light from getting in. For a while, you tell yourself it’s okay because at least you’re safe. But while real steel is virtually impenetrable, a human being is not. You have to work to maintain this emotional fortress. Life happens. You work and you work to maintain the walls. Eventually, you exhaust yourself. You have needs you can’t meet alone. You decide to make windows and doors. You attempt to get needs met. Light pours in and it feels nice and slowly you work up the courage to let the walls down. The thing with metal is that the only way to get through is to injure it. To heat it to a high temperature. Melt it. Bend it. Break it. There’s no easy way to do it. Steel walls have to be destroyed!

So, what happens when I decide to tear down my walls? I am immediately and fully exposed and I am petrified. Not because of the darkness that may be lurking. I know the darkness well now. It is the light that panics me. It is the love of people who know me and love me anyway. The moment the walls fall, my full body is exposed to the light, and it burns me. It feels like my skin is peeling from my body. Like I can’t breathe because someone is suffocating me. Not choking my neck but crushing every part of my body at the same time. It overwhelms me despite knowing that it is good for me. I know my ability to accept love will shape me into someone I desperately want to be. But the moment of transformation is excruciating. It feels like death. The familiar crushing weight of gravity returns and the old me is dying, suffocating, gasping for air. What I experience in the process of healing is an emotional death. The darkest parts of me must die for the new me, the person fully accepting and fully deserving of love, to be born.

In society, transformation is celebrated because of the finished product. We love the butterfly. We love the newborn baby. We don’t want to think about what’s happening inside of the cocoon. We avoid thinking about the pain that comes with birth. Transformation is necessary, but painful. I find myself on a winding path; sometimes moving forward and other times not moving at all. One day, I am celebrating because I allowed my husband to pamper me. Another day, I’m crying about a compliment that sounded too similar to an insult that was given to me by an ex. This process is nothing like that 20-minute movie window. In attempting to operate in the light and establish healthy relationships, I am constantly confronted with the pains of my past.

Beyond the Wall

When the walls came falling down, all the emotions I shielded myself from came flooding in. Not “all at once” as the saying goes. But randomly and consistently over the course of weeks, months, and even years. What I've noticed is that the light has dampened. It has become a gentle warmth rather than a searing burn. I am no longer afraid of it. I allow myself to feel everything and accept the love that others want to give me.

There’s work even in the happy ending. There is pain that can be present even in moments of joy. There is joy that I am deserving of even in the painful moments of my life. I am trusting the process. It is messy, agonizing, beautiful and necessary. It is worth it. I am worthy of a life lived covered in light and love.

I am so amazed by the person that I am when I allow myself to feel and to trust. I am able to embrace love instead of running from it. I am happier and freer than I’ve ever been in my life. My husband and I will be celebrating three years of marriage. When I become fearful or unstable, he remains level-headed and patient. His love for me is unconditional and unwavering. It is a steady stream of light during my moments of darkness. It reminds me of the beauty of life that can only be seen in the light. By letting those walls fall and letting his love in, I am living a life that is worth living again.

"…The little girl sat in her fortress crying assuming that she would starve to death. In her hysteria, she didn’t hear a fisherman tap on the wall. The fisherman, recognizing that this must be a lost child, cracked open the dwelling. He picked the girl up, dried her tears and carried her to safety."

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