The Year of Finding My Voice

Photo by Jon Tyson

Photo by Jon Tyson

On a day to day basis, the hours can seem to drag. At times, everything feels so monotonous and routine you begin to wonder if your life will forevermore look just like it does today. Progress is strange that way. I have never found myself in remotely the same position at the end of a year as compared to where I was at the beginning. Often, there have even been quantum leaps within a 365-day period. Yet, it is only in rare moments that it feels as if things are changing and evolving. Generally, progress is incremental and, often, unnoticeable in the moment. It’s only with hindsight that we can see how far we have come.

Another weird thing about life and the passage of time is that so often we get tunnel vision. It seems as if that thing that matters the most right now will be the thing that matters most forever. In reality, though, it’s all so fleeting. I look back and, rather than remembering the vast majority of those tasks, experiences, and events that comprised a year and seemed so critically important in the moment, years tend to fall into an umbrella theme: oh, yes, 1999 was the Year of Delerious Love, 2006 was the Year of Change, 2010 was the Year of Grief, 2011 was the Year of Magic.

If you had asked me even as recently as a few months ago, I probably would have guessed that this past year of my life would go down as the Year of Fear. But now, as I sit here on my birthday morning reflecting on where I’ve been in the past turn around the sun and where I’m going from here, I can actually see that it is far more accurately the Year of Finding My Voice.

Nearly a decade ago, on the day my brother died at the age of twenty-seven, my grandma called me. “Nikki,” she choked, “what happened? What was wrong?”

“You don’t know?” I asked her, incredulous.

“Obviously, I knew something wasn’t right, but that’s the extent of it.”

In the course of that conversation, I explained to my grandma that my brother had been battling addiction for ten years. That addiction finally took his life. My grandma was devastated that she hadn’t known this all along. “I don’t know why our family has developed this habit of keeping things quiet,” our matriarch said on the phone that night. “But we have to learn to start talking.”

And so we did.

People say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but that certainly was not the case with my grandma. She was eighty-seven years old at this point, and  over the course of the next nine years, our relationship completely transformed. Prior to my brother’s death, my grandma and I had never been particularly close. I loved her, but her British demeanor ran in stark contrast to that of my mushy paternal grandma. I never understood exactly how to connect with my maternal grandma as a child. At seventeen, I moved across the country, so there weren’t that many opportunities to connect, anyway.

My brother’s death connected us. That conversation connected us. From that point forward, my grandma and I talked on the phone on a regular basis. I made a concerted effort of being as frank and open with her as possible. She did the same. I learned so much about her in those years and shared a lot of myself. I felt known by my grandma in a way that I didn’t by other members of my family. And that felt really good. Our relationship taught me a lot of things. Most important among those lessons is that, even in the midst of tragedy, there are silver linings. My grandma was the big silver lining to my brother’s death.

Every Christmas, my grandma would give my cousins and I a check. This year, I decided to use that money to pay the hosting and server fee for this web site. While the original intent of this site was far different than what it has evolved into, it turns out that Balanced Ninja gave me my voice back. I didn’t know it at the time, but this past Christmas would be my grandma’s last. Fittingly, her final gift to me was the gift of my voice and my truth.

A friend recently shared with me an amazing podcast about trauma-bonding (also known as Stockholm Syndrome). This is one of the more f*cked up things that happens in abusive relationships: the trauma—specifically, the cycles of abuse and love-bombing—actually bond the abusee and abuser. This is all the result of our most primitive biology and survival instincts. But, no matter what the scientific explanation is, when you are experiencing this phenomenon, it just makes you feel warped, helpless, and stuck.

One of the most resonant things I heard in this podcast is that the trauma-bonding is not broken by no contact or the passage of time alone. It is far stickier than that. In fact, these bonds are only broken by moving beyond and obliterating shame and fear.

This blog has done that for me. Sharing my truth has done that for me. It has set me free from the claustrophobia and isolation of shame and fear. Not only that, but it has created connection and neutralized my experience by putting some good into the world. Through this blog, I have been able to connect with others who have been in situations similar to mine. While it horrifies me that there are (plenty) of others, there is solace in the fact that we can share our experience—and, far more importantly than that, our healing.

What I have come to figure out over the past year is that I am very, very lucky. For as overwhelming as my situation has often seemed, I am a white, well-educated woman with resources and a strong support system. It is hard enough to get through this, even with all of those factors on my side. And, certainly, none of this helped me very much when I was in the thick of it. So, with all of that going for me, what about those people who do not have the benefit of these privileges? It horrifies me to imagine what they must go through and how hopeless everything must seem.

Things have to change.

While no one is in any way, shape, or form obligated to speak about the experience of abuse, the fact of the matter is that it helps to put voice to it, both personally and collectively. Alone, our voices are small. Still, each and every voice matters. The more noise we make, the more things will change. The more they will have to change. I want my daughter to live in a world where she has a voice and can never land in a situation like the one I did. In a world where people are more aware, more compassionate, and kinder to one another. Where women are not sidelined in chronic, insidious ways that are often barely perceptible, but still very real.

These days, it often feels like the world is coming apart at the seams. I think it is. But I also think this is happening to shed light on everything that is wrong so that we can fix it. This isn’t just a random thought I ruminate on to make myself feel better. I spend my days talking to and writing for change-makers on all fronts, ranging from financial to scientific to therapeutic to spiritual. Each and every one of them is driving us to a better tomorrow in very real, very prescient ways.

I have barely rounded the corner on the past year and, already, I can tell that it is one of the most valuable periods I have ever lived through. I have come out of this situation gaining far more than I lost. I am stronger, more resilient, more compassionate, more honest, more open-minded, and more powerful. I know what I can withstand and stand up against. I know how to listen to my gut and choose more wisely. I know what I am worth.

I spent yesterday soaking in alone time wandering the grounds of and getting bodywork done at a Zen spa and meditation center. At this time last year, I think that level of solitude and quiet would have driven me insane. Too much time to think and remember and sit with myself. Yesterday, it felt magical. It felt damn good to be with me. This morning, I moved and sweated and chanted in a crammed, mat-to-mat yoga class. It felt like church as we bowed and opened and lifted together. Last year, the only type of movement I wanted to do was kickboxing my aggression out and speed-walking, as if to get away from myself and my life.

I am a work in progress. I already know that some of the things I’ve written on this blog in the past are no longer true. I have evolved beyond them. When I started writing, I was at a point where I was closed off to love. I wanted to protect myself and my daughter, and love seemed like a threat to that. I am no longer there. In fact, I could even make the argument that I believe in love now more than ever. The difference is that I now believe love has to be earned—and not all at once, but on a day-by-day, moment-to-moment basis. For as important as words are to me as a writer, I now understand that love exists in actions, far more than it does in words (although those are nice, too).

And, most of all, I believe that I am worthy of love and worthy of having a voice.


P.S.

On my Mom’s side of the family, there is a birthday every fourth day in November, beginning with mine. As the month kicks in, it’s hard to think about those birthdays we are no longer celebrating, including my grandma’s (for the first time) and my brother’s.

My grandma, in particular, has been on my mind all day today. Tonight, as I drove back home from my birthday dinner I looked up at the sky and saw a new moon. Or, as my grandma would call it, a Nikki Moon. On the night I was born, my grandma went wandering out into the fields and looked up and saw a new moon hanging from the sky. And, thus, it was christened. New moons represent new cycles and new beginnings. Seeing that same moon hanging from the sky forty-one years later on a day that has felt infused with my grandma’s spirit was nothing short of breathtaking. Here’s to 41 and new beginnings, Grandma.

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