The Price of Strength, and the Power of Acceptance

The purpose of my writing is to provoke empathy, not sympathy. I don’t want pity. I don’t want worry. All I have ever asked for was understanding. And failing that, acceptance.

A friend of mine once had a cat named Peets–a beautiful sleek tabby cat the color of coffee beans with dark spots that made her look wild.

And she was.

When she was a kitten, her mother had carried her by the scruff of her neck to a hole, and inexplicably buried her alive. Not once, not twice, but three times before my friend stepped in and separated them forever.

Peets was never normal. She couldn’t be touched, held, looked at in the eye. She came and went as she pleased and only occasionally would she stand on her carers’ lap, expecting not to be touched, but to enjoy a few beats of closeness.

On her terms.

Through my acceptance of her distance, Peets grew to trust me. Eventually, she came to sit on my lap. Eventually, she did it often. Eventually she’d let me pet her gently, only a few strokes until her ears went back or her claws sank a millimeter into the meat of my thighs. I could almost hear her say, That’s enough. Just let me be near you.

I believe that Peets and I were kindred spirits. I understood that she’d been forever changed by her mother’s violation of their sacred bond. As had I.

But make no mistake: I know I’m not the only one like me. I’m not the only one who knows the vast wasteland of complete abandonment. The raw ache of being responsible for going on despite not being loved when I needed it the most. The terror of forging relationships when loss seems inevitable. I’m not the only one. Not by a wide margin.

Last year, a man who had been more like a father to me than my own, suddenly ended his own life. I had been casually scrolling through my Facebook feed when I found out.

Goodbye, Bill, read the post. My hand involuntarily clapped over my mouth, as if to hold onto the breath that would inevitably escape my lungs.

No. No, no, no. I thought. I frantically clicked over to his profile where the truth was confirmed. Bill had died.

It’s true what they say. We all take those we love for granted, to some extent. We know full well that those we love can be stricken down, leaving us to make peace with whatever regret lingers in their absence.

Did Bill know I loved him? Could I have helped him?

In the ebb of my pain, who could I call upon? Who did I trust? Who understood me, or at least, accepted me?

Bill was one of the only people who both understood and accepted me. Who had shown me through his actions over time that he could be trusted.

I felt a familiar numb withdrawal. Don’t lean in to the ones you love; you’ll only become vulnerable to the added hurt of their misunderstanding or outright rejection. Close yourself off until you have the strength to bravely face the world again.

In the months after Bill died, my friendship with my best friend flagged.

“I’m here for you. Talk to me,” she’d said.

“I can’t. I need to be alone.”

“Your situation isn’t unique, you know. You’re not the only one who goes through this. You’ve been so withdrawn lately, and it’s a lot to ask of me,” she said.

Those words signaled the end of a friendship that I cherished. A once-in-a-lifetime friendship that can never be duplicated.

I know it’s a lot to ask, to release your friend into the dark. To trust that she knows how to come back to the surface. But she didn’t understand that in her mantra of, “think positive; you attract whatever energy you’re putting into the world,” she was blaming me for my pain. Toxic positivity, it’s called. In one breath she was both asking me to be vulnerable, and rejecting my experience of pain.

And I knew then that she didn’t understand me. She didn’t even accept me.

I want to say that I cried when our friendship ended, but that would be a lie. I’ve grown to accept that I can be hard to love, and my ability to build lasting friendships was damaged in my early development. I’ve grown to love myself anyway, and I know that I’m worthy of being loved.

But I have an intrisic need–like Peets–to merely be accepted. Her survival depended on it. As does mine.

Worse than seeing my mother in the throes of a detox seizure or seeing her hauled away in handcuffs, was the realization that no one was coming.

What I mean to say is this:

Everyone, without exception, needs an unwavering source of nurturance and support in their infancy and childhood.

You learn your pain matters when a bonked head is kissed, when tears are met with comfort. Hunger, met with food. You learn that you matter when you are tucked in at night, read to, held. When you make a mistake and are met with gentle discipline and forgiveness. When you are helped in your learning.

Do we not take these things for granted, too? That everyone receives this type of guidance?

Oh, but not everyone does!

Some little children are left to wilt. Some little children have the life stamped out of them.

For a time, I thought that I would eventually be adopted. I thought I was waiting. I’d seen Annie, and All Dogs go to Heaven. I’d come to believe that I would eventually be scooped up by parents who loved me, that all would be set right.

But it’s wasn’t true. I never had parents who wanted me.

Nobody came. I went through infancy, childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood with nobody in my court. I had to forge my way through life with nothing but pure instinct and the hope that it would matter.

That I would matter.

I’ve been called resilient. Strong.

And I wear those words with pride.

But resilience and strength come at a price, don’t they?

I had to give up thinking that someone would help me. Love me.

Is it any surprise that the deepest part of my brain says NOPE! when someone says, “I’m here for you.”

I write this as a direct reflection of words that were spoken to me last Saturday, at a cousin’s wedding.

At the reception, one cousin (who is almost old enough to be my mother) approached me, and with tears in her eyes she said, “I want you to know that if you ever needed me, I would be on the next airplane. I will always be there for you.”

And even if I couldn’t feel it at the moment, I believe her.

Ten years ago, I met her (and scores of other cousins). I didn’t know any of them because they had been kept away. They knew about me, but because they didn’t have access to our family, they hadn’t known what was happening.

This was done intentionally.

Over the last ten years, I’ve worked very hard to let them in. To spend time with them. To kindle our relationships. I’ve come to know that they love me. I’ve come to believe that they would have helped me, had they known.

It is precious to be loved, even retroactively. This speaks volumes to the power of love and acceptance. It has the ability to heal even the deepest wounds.

Let us not forget that.

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