I don’t like confrontation. In fact, I’ll go to great lengths to avoid it. My heart races, my palms get sweaty, and occasionally, I forget to breathe. Panic. Basic human instinct kicks in. Fight or flight—I learned young. Run. Far. Away.
I got my first taste of freedom at five years old. I wanted to play with Mom’s make-up; the baby-sitter refused. So I had no choice but to take matters into my own hands. In one grand display of independence, I ran away from home. I’m my own woman. I can do as I please. Nestling my Himalayan kitten safely into a large paper sack, I carted her out the back door, and across the huge field behind our house in London, Ontario. At the neighborhood basketball court, under an old wooden bench, we hid for at least an hour. I wasn’t afraid at all. I felt safe. Just like in tag, I was home-free! In that moment, a runner was born.
When I turned nine, Mom was offered a job on Parliament Hill. We moved to Ottawa, and I joined the track-and-field team. But every day, little by little, the things I ran from became more serious until, eventually, I was running from myself. I ran from the bully who knocked me to my knees and forced me to bark like a dog; from the boy who stuck his hand under my skirt during recess, and refused to remove it; from the girl who followed me home after school, yelling “slut” and “bitch” at my back; from the man who chased me six terrifying blocks on the way to a friend’s house one night. There were other things, too, that I couldn’t escape. Some things you can’t run from no matter how hard you try. Believe me, I tried.
I couldn’t run from the men who abused me. I couldn’t run when, at three years old, my dad asked me to hold his penis in the bathroom during a rare weekend visit; when my friends’ grandfather touched me there so hard the ghost of his fingers haunted my six-year-old soul until the day he died; when, at seven, the director of my summer camp videotaped two friends and me naked in the poolside showers; when the priest hearing my First Confession sat me on his lap, played with my hair, and whispered into my ear. I couldn’t run when a jealous ex-boyfriend raped me at seventeen. Or when Dylan, my new boyfriend, called it cheating, and wrapped his thick hands around my throat. I did nothing. On the outside.
On the inside, it was a whole other story. I started to run laps in my mind. I mapped pathways to secret rooms in far corners, and created clandestine passageways leading to inner sanctuaries. Every single scar was covered up. Protected. I hid memories in iron cages with invisible locks, and laid landmines set to blow at the slightest sign of trouble. I was on lockdown. I said nothing. I told no one, not even Mom. I kept those dark secrets closer to my own heart than the things I loved. But our bodies remember what our minds try to forget. I punished my body for what it remembered; I was hell-bent on self-destruction. By the time I reached my twenties, I was practically an expert.
In the beginning, I twirled my hair into tiny knots to feel the tight tug against my scalp. I pulled my eyelashes out, one by one, until they were gone. Later, I starved myself because I wanted to be thin and perfect. Invisible. Mom was terrified for me. “You need to eat something,” she implored. “Come on, I’ll make you anything you want.” I ignored her pleas. Mom dragged me to see several psychologists, but to no avail—I’d perfected the mask. At home, I clawed my face in anger, threatened to kill myself, longed to curl up and die. Living hurt. My drug-addicted father’s long absences, interspersed with theatrical apologies and inappropriate behaviours, had led me believe I was unlovable. I blamed myself. Everything was my fault. I ran to escape the shame, the pain, the burden.
I dropped out of high school four credits shy of graduation, and spent the next year working retail to save money for a move to Vancouver with Dylan. He never forgave my “infidelity.” I accepted his blame because I thought I deserved it. In addition to physical violence, Dylan also introduced me to drugs: pot, mushrooms, LSD, ecstasy. On weekends, we went to raves and danced all night in deserted warehouses, or hung out under the bridge with our group of Lost Boys. I saw Mom when I stopped in to grab a change of clothes. Eventually, Dylan and I got to the coast, where we settled into a twisted cycle of violent outbursts and tearful apologies. For five long years, I ran back-and-forth across the country, searching for a way out of the relationship, getting sucked back in. When Dylan told me no one else could ever love me, I believed him. Completely.
Until one morning, after another long night of screaming accusations, I woke up in a cramped trailer in dusty Vernon, B.C., and just didn’t believe him anymore. Or maybe I decided I’d rather take my chances than be resigned to this life of insidious manipulations. Faced with the slow death of my soul, I chose life. Dylan drove me home. With an ounce of marijuana, and three-thousand miles to travel between us, we said everything there was to say. He dropped me off in Ottawa with little fanfare. A few weeks later, I received a phone call that changed my life forever. Starboard Cruise Services: the chance to run in a totally new direction.
In Miami, Florida, I boarded the largest cruise ship in the world, and embarked on an eight-month voyage that led me through the Caribbean islands to Alaska. The dream of a lifetime had landed in my lap. I took full advantage of the opportunity presented to forget myself. I stayed up all night, chasing beer after beer with shots of Jagermeister, only to awaken in a stranger’s bed every other morning. If the body is a temple, mine was on fire. I wasn’t going to sit and watch it burn—I’d light the torch, set it aflame myself!
My twenty-fifth birthday was spent in Ketchikan, Alaska. The cold glacial air calmed my boiling blood to some degree. I found time for reflection among the orcas and icebergs, filled notebooks with poetry about “wanderlust” and “my gypsy soul,” and ceased the relentless roll from bed to bed. When I met Roger Bennett, an English musician who played in the lounge across from my shop onboard, I was ready for love. At the end of my contract, we parted with kisses and promises.
I travelled to South Yorkshire, England, a few months later to visit Roger. Within six weeks, I was pregnant with our son. I flew home to Canada, and stayed in a maternity home during a tortuous engagement that involved government officials, Immigration, and the British High Commission. Roger and I were married in my third trimester. Two weeks later, Jack was born, and we were given permission to immigrate into the United Kingdom as a family. In reality, Roger and I were little more than two strangers with a child. I filed for divorce a year later.
Our brief union ended after one violent night of physical abuse that still haunts me on cold fall evenings when the crisp air carries the scent of a memory: I’m outside. Roger’s thrown me out—topless, bleeding, beaten-down. I stand in the yard, shivering. Broken into pieces. Cast aside like a rag-doll. Alone. Jack’s muffled cries from inside the house pierce my soul. I try the door. It’s locked.
After a vicious bout of red-tape battles with a foreign court system—involving threats of kidnapping charges, three rejected Visitation Agreements, and five months on the brink of starvation—I was granted permission to bring Jack home to Canada. Run, baby, run. Jack and I lived a low-key life back in London. For nearly two years, it was just the two of us. Then I met Adam. Adam was a second-rate con man who preyed on my weaknesses and fears. In the end, after four months of chaos, I put my foot down. I was pregnant; it had to end.
I asked Adam to leave. He punched me in the head. Out of sheer desperation, I went to see Father Bob, my grandfather’s priest. After I explained the situation, he looked me straight in the eye, and said, “You need to get the fuck outta Dodge.”
He offered me a train ticket and $300 cash. I kept thinking: If a Catholic priest said fuck, he must really mean it. So I took the ticket, the cash, my son, and ran for my life. We spent Christmas in a shelter for abused women and children in Ottawa. On Valentine’s Day, Jack and I moved into a subsidized apartment downtown. Johnny was born in July. Life was quiet for nearly a year, until a neighbor decided he wanted to be more than friends. After several months of criminal harassment, I woke up to find the outside wall of my apartment building covered with graffiti—whore, bitch, cunt, slut. I took photos, called the police, pressed charges, and moved my boys out to the country. Thirty-one years old, and I was still running.
I had no choice. I was too terrified to sit still. Up-and-down, round-and-round I ran, over the Penrose stairs inside my brain. Memories rose to the surface—their sword-tipped wings clamouring against cages behind tightly locked doors—begging to be released, assailing me with their force and violence and sheer numbers. Nightmares gnashed their teeth on my bones. I couldn’t sleep, or eat, or think. Severe hives. Fits of rage. I didn’t recognize myself.
I lived in Merrickville with my sons for seven months, followed by a short stay in Nova Scotia. When we finally returned to Ottawa, exhausted, I broke down. I found a therapist, consulted a psychiatrist, and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Eventually, I stopped running away. Healing is a journey in itself. The roots I’ve laid down grow stronger every day. After years of chasing the wrong men, I let the right one find me. Old wounds resurface on occasion, but I’m not afraid, because I know I’m safe. I’m home-free! I still tend to avoid confrontation, but I’ve learned that, once the initial fear passes, muscles relax; a heart-rate returns to its steady, rhythmic beat; shallow inhalations give way to deep breaths. Fight or flight is a choice as much as an instinct. Faced with the death of my soul, I chose life.
Last year, I took a leap of faith, and ceased running laps in my mind. I made a slight shift, and it changed the entire trajectory of my life. I completed Carleton University’s Bridging Program, and I’m working towards a degree, achieving excellent grades. I’ve proven to myself that I’m far more than a rag-doll. I’m a writer, a wife and mother, a survivor. I’m my own woman. I can do as I please. Piece by jagged piece, I’m putting myself back together. Some days, the fragments fit easier than others, but I’m determined to manifest the vision I have for myself. One that is whole. I spent a long time believing that I wasn’t good enough; that I was worthless because these things had happened to me; that no matter how hard I tried, I’d never amount to anything. I permitted these beliefs to define me, allowed them to control my life. In truth, I let them run me ragged. But I don’t run anymore. These days, I move towards the future, not away from the past. And there’s a big difference.
(Story won Honourable Mention in Carleton University’s Writing Competition, 2014)
*This post first appeared on Living the Dream blog*