I spent several days last week wading through the deep waters of another woman’s sexual harassment and stalking experience. There were pages upon pages of typed notes, collections of years of trauma and psychological torment. They were raw and vulnerable-- her tattered story stripped down to only the worst parts. I read every word… over and over and over again.
I never would have imagined a decade ago this woman and I would be such close friends. It was an accidental friendship that began with her smarting off at me in a very matter-of-fact way in a room full of coworkers and not expecting a smart ass reply from me delivered with a touch of venom (I must admit.) Funny thing, my reply she says earned her respect. Her apology won mine. We’ve laughed about this incident every time we’ve shared a glass of wine or five.
Our paths only crossed for a very short period of time. I had a hard time letting go of the few close friendships from that time in my life. They all seemed to leave me at the very time I needed them all. Obviously, they weren’t leaving me (how selfish that sounds), they were also riding the currents of their own lives. But I was in the midst of having babies (and yes, that’s plural… I had baby after baby after double babies), and more than anything… I needed this experienced mama.
She is one of those mothers who should be pictured under the definition of “anti-helicopter mom.” With a true hands-off approach to parenting, she has taught me so much about guiding my kids to make the best choices and then trusting them. Granted, some of the funniest stories I’ve ever heard about kids doing dumbass things, comes from her. My all time favorite was her son making chocolate pudding in his bathroom sink. “Why?” she asked him. “The directions said add water, mom.” Perfection.
We’ve also shared our lowest moments with one another. It’s so life-giving to have a friend or a few friends you can dump all your emotional garbage on (different than emotional baggage, more on emotional garbage in a bit) and they don’t mind. We are each other’s emotional garbage collectors- sorting through the trash and helping each other find remnants of strength and courage and resilience in the bags of shit.
She brought me a huge bag of emotional garbage about a month ago. I gladly accepted it. I could feel the relief when she tossed it over to me and could walk away from it for a while. (Like when you Marie-Kondo your whole house and take a shitload of stuff you didn’t even realized you owned to Goodwill.) Of course, she didn’t get to walk completely away from it. The marks etched in her hands from carrying such a heavy bag, so far, so long were a constant reminder, and there were other bags of emotional garbage to sort through with the therapist and the lawyers and the courts.
I could tell the weight of all she had gone through was beginning to consume her emotionally. I was happy just hauling off a bag of emotional garbage, but she asked for something more. She asked me to sort through, piece by piece, and help her organize a Victim Impact Statement for her to read in court.
I could’ve sat and sobbed in front of her, but that would have confused everyone’s emotions. The emotion from me was less about the topic we were discussing and more about the trust she was placing in me. See, the truth is… I’ve been feeling like a complete failure.
My main job, over the last almost six years, has been to raise my four children. I am a part-time minister and I have (no joke) four other side hustles to try to earn enough to help support my family, but overall I have felt less than adequate at “building a career.” I’ve felt isolated, left behind, and looked-over for opportunities. I’ve felt inadequate and unsuccessful. I’ve experienced first hand at multiple events, friends and acquaintances alike power-shaking my husband’s hand, asking about his career, and wanting to know what new successes he’s had. Then, they will nervously turn to me, sometimes with just a nod and other times, with the question that truly makes me have an inner-“Exorcist”-moment (where my head spins and vile and disgust spew forth from every orifice on my head… okay a little dramatic but seriously), “How are the kids?” As if my entire existence is reproduction and child-rearing resulting in loss of intelligence, creativity, ingenuity, and ambition.
Recently, Abby Wambach spoke about her feelings on being “benched by life.” And while I know what it feels like to be benched on a sports team when you have the talent to “start” in the field, Abby’s words hit home for me. A little taste of Abby’s commencement address at Barnard:
You’ll feel benched sometimes too. You’ll be passed over for the promotion, taken off the project. You might even find yourself holding a baby instead of briefcase, watching your colleagues “get ahead.” Here’s what’s important. You’re allowed to be disappointed when it feels like life’s benched you. What you aren’t allowed to do is miss your opportunity to lead from the bench...If you’re not a leader on the bench, then don’t call yourself a leader on the field. You’re either a leader everywhere or nowhere. And by the way, the fiercest leading I’ve ever seen has been done between mother and child. Parenting is no bench. It just might be the big game.*
In this moment, my friend was acknowledging my worth and value, especially to her. She needed me. She needed me big time, and she wasn’t questioning my ability to get the job done effectively, she was questioning whether or not I’d take on the huge and vulnerable task of sorting through her emotional garbage and helping her put together a statement adequately reflecting the pain, trauma, and loss she had experienced over the last few years. The process of sorting through her emotional garbage was redemption for me.
I have never felt so honored and humbled. Our emotional garbage is ours. It’s immensely personal and private and exposes the pain in our private and intimate lives. It’s complicated and detailed and multifaceted. Our emotional garbage is a mix of valid emotional pain inflicted upon us by truly hurtful and traumatic experiences but also the “garbage” part of it is the piles and piles of self-doubt, shame, blame, and embarrassment we, as survivors, end up carrying around for decades and decades. That’s the garbage. Survivors know the weight of emotional garbage and the toll it takes on our mental, physical, and spiritual health. It’s time we start baggin’ that shit up and tossing it in the curbside bin with yesterday's’ frozen pizza boxes, microwaveable mac-and-cheese cups, and stacks upon stacks of Friday Folder papers (seriously, how do schools even have time to do so many papers?! Save the trees people!).
As I sorted through her story, and arranged her words and experiences in a document a judge and jury could follow. I tried to create an invitation to those who will hear her, to step for just a moment in her place and feel all she has had to endure. I realized pretty quickly her words were also my words. And then it dawned on me, this Victim Impact Statement could be copied and pasted for hundreds and hundreds of women like us… with only a name and date change.
Not to take anything away from my friend’s extremely painful experience, but so many… too many women have faced similar experiences of sexual assault and harassment, abuse, rape, and death at the hands of men who are selfishly seeking power and control to stroke their narcissistic egos.
She expressed so much gratitude that I helped organize her pain, so she could more effectively communicate it to the court. I found so much worth in our stories and pain and emotional garbage being validation for one another. This needs to happen more often. There are so many women hurting because they have been holding this “secret” for so long out of shame or fear or doubt or blame or all of the above.
Ladies, I believe you. I see you. I know your pain because I have lived something similar. It doesn’t matter if your harassment or assault happened to you as a child, teenager, college student, young adult, middle-aged adult, or senior adult, it is not okay and it is not your fault. In addition, just because a woman is of “consenting age,” does not mean she gave consent to be manipulated and mind-effed by a power-tripping puppeteer with a hidden agenda which included knowingly using his position of power and influence to groom her and gain access to her emotionally, physically and intimately for selfish gain and without mutual respect. A true emotional puppeteer. (Puppeteer: A puppeteer is a person who manipulates an inanimate object that might be shaped like a human… to create the illusion that the puppet is "alive". The puppeteer may be visible to or hidden from the audience.)**
My friend, thank God, gets her day in court, but that also comes with it’s own set of fear, intimidation, and risks. So many of us will never have justice, and many more will never report. Our stories are valid too. I urge you not to hold them inside and try to carry the emotional garbage around on your own. It will consume you and eventually, no matter how strong you are, affect your physical and mental health. Share with someone you can trust- a friend, a mentor, a spiritual leader, or a therapist. We have the ability and strength to reshape these painful experiences into compellingly powerful ones that continue to inspire the resilience of women.
May 21, 2019
*Abby Wambach’s Commencement Address retrieved here: http://time.com/5281711/abby-wambach-barnard-commencement-2018-speech/