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I don’t remember exactly why I chose the books I did.  I can’t recall if there had been a recommendation on a website.  But, I ordered Love Is A Choice and Boundaries in Marriage, along with their accompanying workbooks, and I worked them.

I had to keep them hidden and constantly moved them, burying them deep within a box of old photos, hiding them in a child’s closet, shoving them underneath insulation in the attic.  There would be hell to pay if R found those books.  Even more so if he read what I wrote!

Once the books were completed I felt I needed something more.  I knew I shouldn’t just stop there.  Love Is A Choice gave heavy recommendations for joining a support group, so I mulled that over.  I googled an organization it listed, contacted the local head, and thought of lies to tell R about where I was going.

I’d been to AA as a teen, so I had a little bit of an idea of what to expect.  I remember sitting in the back with my friend, watching as her mother and the others told a little bit about themselves.  It was uncomfortable sitting in the big, cold building, on a hard metal chair, trying to be silent, listening to total strangers’ dark secrets and pain.

This time I’d be one of those standing at the front.  But, I pushed myself to go, feeling like I might die from the fear and loneliness if I didn’t die at R’s hand.

When I got to the meeting place, there were several people mulling around outside.  One woman I recognized as being a neighbor.  People seemed friendly and kept offering me coffee.  I was relieved!  When it actually started, we sat in padded chairs and on couches in the tiny, intimate back room of a church.  It wasn’t as intimidating as I had feared.

However, as they began to talk and share I quickly realized that I didn’t belong there.  The lump in my throat grew larger.  Good thing it was there, too.  It acted as a cap for the anger that began to develop in my chest, and it held it safely within me.  These people shared how they had controlled and manipulated their loved ones to keep them down and needy in order to fulfill their own needs.  And, it sounded like something my mother should have said but never could bring herself to utter.  I could not relate to them in any way.  I could not feel compassion for them for the “pain” they expressed.  When it came my turn to “check in,” I passed.

Disappointed and angry, I returned home.  I had decided to tell R where I was going.  My thought was that if he believed I was admitting there was something wrong with me and I needed help to be a better person, he would accept it.  And, he had.  He seemed thrilled that I was “realizing” I had a problem.

I returned a couple times after that first disaster, and each time was just more of the same.  I could not understand where these people were coming from.  I began to avoid my smiling neighbor when I saw her at the post office, now seeing her as some sort of monster.  I came to see her former partner as a victim, though I’d never liked her as much, seeing her as impersonal.  I developed empathy for her now though and wished I had been friendlier toward her.  Her, I could understand.  I knew all too well what it was like to live with someone who sees you as an object to be used to fulfill their own selfish desires.  I understood what it’s like to share a home with someone who views relationships as a competitive game.

This wasn’t working, but I still felt desperate to find a support group.  But, where?  What kind?  Though I had not found a place to go, I still left on the same evening of each week, letting R think that I was still going.  Instead, I would sit at the river and pray.  I don’t remember why I decided to call the local women’s support group.  I can’t recall what prompted me to see if they had a support group meeting.  But, I called.  And, called.  Weeks went by, and it seemed like an eternity before I had a meeting with the advocate who would grant me access to the meeting location.

And, it was worth the wait.

She changed my life.

The first words out of my mouth were, “I really think my situation is different.  I think my husband might be bipolar.”  She asked me how he might treat a checker who gave him back the wrong change.  Or, a gas station attendant who accidentally spilled gasoline on his truck.  R’s responses in those types of situations were always, always, always overly, sickeningly, oddly gooey sweet and dripping with offers of new friendship, BBQs, and keeping the change altogether.  It was a sharp contrast to the terror the children and I knew if we so much as dripped mashed potatoes on the table or sneezed while he was talking.

After my appointment with her I was granted the location of the support group, and I eagerly attended my first meeting.  There, too, was a “check in,” and I could feel my heart racing as I knew my turn was coming.  What would I say?  What would everyone think of me?  Would I talk too much?  I thought I might pass my turn the first time, just as I had at the other group.

But, when my turn came the words spewed forth.  I could hear myself talking, but it was as though it wasn’t really me speaking.  The women sat and listened intently, and the release of my prison into a somewhat public domain was intense.  I bent forward and cried onto the floor.  I laughed hysterically.  Round and round it went.  All the way home.  Other drivers stared at me as I cycled through this intense release of emotion that had been bottled tightly for a decade and a half.

I attended that support group and participated in “check in” for three solid months before R left, and I faithfully continued throughout the loss of my parents and the majority of the custody battle and divorce proceedings.  I loved it there.  And, I looked forward to “check in.”  I eagerly anticipated that release valve that came with expressing my truth to someone who listened without interrupting or judging.

Unfortunately, my work schedule has precluded me from attending for nearly a year now.  I’ve missed it.  I wonder what has happened to the other women who attended so faithfully during the time I did.  We were in the thick of battle together, and I grew to care about them deeply.  I miss “my” advocate, a woman of strength and wisdom who always seemed to know just the right thing to say.  I was thrilled this week when my afternoon client would be out of town and I could clean for them at any point during the week.  I could make it to my old support group and “check in!”

As I entered I marveled at how different it felt to walk those stairs.  They didn’t seem as long or steep.  I noticed colors and art work that had been lost on me before.  And, I realized that, just like the first time I attended, I didn’t know what to say.

I no longer acutely experience pain moment by moment.  I am not completely unsure of myself and my decisions.  I no longer live in complete fear.

Yes, I have pain.  I will always have pain.  But, I have tremendous joy, too.  I relish my conversations with my Bible study pals and my survivor sisters.  Just the thought of these women brings a smile to my face and warmth to my spirit.  I fully embrace that the pain of my life was caused by someone else’s sin, not my own unworthiness. I enjoy gifts I’ve been given that make life easier and pleasant.  I am preparing for a trip. I go out with friends.  I write and enjoy hobbies.  I have a life.  I live.

I still have many, many doubts.  And, I pray daily over small and large concerns and decisions.  But, I’ve learned to trust my own gut instincts and my ability to discern.  Most importantly, I’ve learned to trust that God’s promises are for me, too, not just everyone else.  He is with me all the way and is faithful to guide me when I seek Him first.

I startle easy.  I have mild panic attacks, occasional sleepless nights, and nightmares.  I take perhaps unnecessary precautions.  Last night, late and dark, as I left Walmart, I held my keys in my right hand, one pointed out to be used as a weapon, bags draped from my arm, and pepper spray in my left hand.  I looked around, hypervigilant of my surroundings.  When I returned home I locked the gate at the bottom of the driveway and upon entering the house I turned on the outside flood light, secured both locks on the front door, and set the alarm behind myself.  Both at Walmart and at home though, I was relaxed and confident in my invulnerability.  I take control of what I can so that my fear doesn’t control me.

So, what would I say?  Did I really belong there, taking up precious time that should be spent on women who are currently in crisis?  Would it be selfish and inappropriate to speak and share at “check in” that I am truly happy and love my new life and the direction it is taking?

When my turn came, so did the words.  I could hear myself talking, but it was as though it wasn’t really me speaking.  It seemed surreal to sit in that same room I’d sat in dozens and dozens of times.  That room where I’d cried and desperately needed the support and guidance I found there.  And, now, I sat calmly and just “checked in.”

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

Up until a year ago when I “checked in,” I felt like I was dying.  Everything I’ve ever known was plucked up and broken down.  I wept and mourned.  I was lonely and had lost everyone and everything.  I was cast away.  I was hated as I warred with my own family.

Now, I’m healing.  I laugh and I dance.  I feel blessed as gifts are received.  I’m gathering stones to rebuild and am replanting my life.  I experience moments of peace, and I know love.

It was probably a lot like returning home to visit family at Christmastime after a long absence. The sites and sounds and memories were there, but it wasn’t the same.  I’ve changed.  That season of my life has passed.  Finally.  And, as I marveled at the difference in how I felt last night compared to the first night I attended, I also marveled at how far my life has come.  It’s been a long haul.  Three very, very long years.  But, to everything there is a season.  It was good to “go home” and “check in” and realize just how far I’ve come.