It is not something I am always good at extending to myself. Kindness, love, compassion, patience, and mercy are graces I will bestow in copious amounts on others who are struggling, perhaps because I identify with it and that familiarity with my own suffering and struggling does not allow me to turn a blind eye to someone when they are hurting. Because the numerous mistakes I make as an imperfect human being do not always require blind, abject, desperate pleading for forgiveness wrapped in an avalanche of apology. When it comes to me, however, mistakes I make are often met with an internal string of damaging insults that did not originate in me but were rather planted there by someone who did not have my well-being and interests and needs at heart. Even as I apologize for something I only think we need to, I say things like, “Oh I can’t believe I am so blind!” or “What was I thinking when I did that?!” or “I should have known better! I knew I would mess it up!” The lines for things that require apology and the things that do not even need slightest acknowledgement blur into varying shades of gray so indistinguishable from one to the next that I, as a result of conditioning, repeatedly apologize, over-explain, and justify why I did or said this one thing, this one tiny thing, in a panic of confusion and obligation without understanding why it’s happening. I just know in an urgent and frantic way that I should. Beyond reason I can be compelled, and without questioning, I comply.
At least a few times a day, I still persist in participating in this self-destructive behavior. I incorrectly attempt to predict something someone needs or wants, and they decline. And then I apologize for my failure, coming just short of falling on my knees and feverishly asking them to forgive my being oblivious as though I was forced down by an invisible weight bearing down on my shoulders like a ton of bricks. Like he was still there, hovering ominously behind me to force me back into submission. Because this is what he would say, all the while screaming and hissing, that I’m oblivious and selfish. That I better apologize or else. For failing to predict a pattern. For not being a mind reader. Because he would tell me that I made the decision based on what an ex liked or wanted or was busy thinking about an imaginary man stealing my attention away from his tyrannical control and would then punish me accordingly.
What do I do when instead of verbally bashing me they tell me it’s okay and I really don’t need to apologize? “I’m sorry.” Even as in my head I’m thinking, “Stop this madness, there isn’t anything to apologize for! What is wrong with you?” … even as I feel the pits of my belly become agitated in nausea over the thought of him pounding around in my brain and pulling strings, I still say it. An epic battle against conditioning that I lose several times a day at best. A war to silence the hissing that, no matter how hard I try, I cannot seem to win. A struggle that I refuse to give up wrestling against, because I know this is what he would want, to sit smugly in the distance and gloat over his ruin of me. To take pride, even in the fact that he has ruined me for anyone else and still even after my forcing his hand to gain back control, there are fragments of that power he still retains. And he doesn’t even have to be present in my life to do so.
And when the person stares back at me in confusion or frustration at my continued and unwarranted apology, for a split second I feel that shame try to creep back in a take residence back up in my heart before they walk away and concede in refusal to continue this game with an invisible opponent they cannot defeat. But then I noticed something different happen, seemingly out of the blue and without effort to reign in my overly apologetic tongue.
Yesterday, I noticed something peculiar when I fielded yet another call from a bill collector setting me up on another payment plan I technically cannot afford. This desperate need to apologize and placate was conspicuously absent from the dialogue. Actually, I wasn’t just that I noticed its absence yesterday, but in every previous conversation I have had with her since the first call where I noticed my stress getting the better of my self-control. The first call where I actually knew in my gut she was getting deluged with the frustration and worry and panic that overwhelmed me at another unexpected vacuum suctioning the life out of my wallet and did not deserve it. That call was the first apology I made since leaving him at the end of 2012 that I knew was owed to her and was not just being extended out of obligation. That call was the return of more of my objectivity, and I realized how much I missed it. That call resulted in the removal of a ruinously burdensome weight that had been yoked across my shoulders and contorting my spine under its persistence. It was measurable progress, a battle in a string of them a mile long I was finally able to win.
And then I remembered a few weeks ago. (Deliberate POV change) Progress isn’t always across the board in the war to eradicate the damage you left behind. Even when you aren’t there, you somehow still break your way in and stumble around inside my head. As I sat uncomfortably in that sparsely cushioned chair waiting staring through the small window in the door, you stormed into my thoughts, stomped down that hall, and moved through the door as though the barrier didn’t even exist. You barged in and sat down next me and stole my peace as the movie from my days trapped with you replayed in my mind, juxtaposed curiously over the present as though the timeline collapsed and the two were merged into one reality mingled with the dust dancing in the air. Your breath hissed and huffed kicking up the air next to me as your phantom rapped its feet against the metal legs of the chair. I looked up to an empty waiting room, knowing full well it was just a memory, yet part of me still panicked in expectation of even remembering how it would feel to look up and be trapped in that icy glare that held me hostage for minutes, hours, and days at a time. I heard your voice grumbling just low enough that I couldn’t hear, and I caught myself straining to make out the orders you barked – or the threats you leveraged – at me before I remembered you weren’t really there.
You hung on me like thick smoke and trailed behind me as I made my way through the door and followed close behind on the long walk down the hall. Somehow I felt you knew what I was about to do, and you were making a timely appearance to remind me of the value of silence. The same silence that enabled you to grow to be more twisted and sadistic as time wore on. You didn’t want the appearances you work so hard to keep up to busted wide open yet again to someone who met you and somehow did not see the monster before her. As I made my way down that hall dragging the weight of you behind me and entered in the small room, my stomach heaved and knotted up in protest of what I was about to do. The door closed behind me, and I sat uneasily with my back to the door. You are in the past in everyone else’s reality, but in mine, you stalked that door waiting in the hall for the right moment to pounce. To catch me unaware and tear me to pieces once I let my guard down. You still demand my silence, but I am no longer willing to pay the price the silence requires. So I sat up straight, swallowed the emotional inferno raging inside, ignored the fevered banging at the door that only I could hear, and I thrust the dagger into the void and gutted your secrets and watched indifferently as they bled out across the thin blue carpet, pooling at her feet.
“If I ever get away, I’m telling everyone what you are.”
“You wouldn’t dare.”
The day I almost died at the tip of a butcher knife came back to mind, and I laughed. She was confused, and I didn’t care.
Day in and day out, I struggle to break myself free of you, dancing around memories of you and your brutality, dodging blows that are no longer being dealt. Day in and day out, I wear myself out as I push on, and I speak on those things you don’t want anyone to hear. Even if I don’t win every fight, even if I have a set back, it’s all progress. It’s all measurable, because win or lose, happy or sad or tired or entirely depleted of all my strength, you are one day further in my past, and I am one day closer to absolution.
With every secret impaled in the light, a part of you is destroyed and just that much more of your evil bleeds out and away from heart.
I haven’t told everyone yet.
I haven’t caught everyone’s ear.
So let’s dance, dear phantom. And I won’t stop until I’m dead.
Your secret is out, and you have nowhere left to hide.