Fears and events and prayers, Part II

by Jennifer on March 6, 2008

You can read Part I here.

thwrite.jpgThe judge stepped down from the bench and came over to where we stood with our attorney, clustered around a wooden table. The moment was celebratory. He had just approved Sue’s adoption of my sister and me.

“Congratulations,” the judge said as he reached out to shake my hand. “Now she can spank you legally.”

I swear, those were his exact words.

To another family, it would have meant nothing, a joke. But the words burned through me, true and scorching.

Little details about that day stand out. It was in the summer, June 29, and we missed Vacation Bible School to go to court. I carried a crescent-shaped blue and white purse. I was 10. Grown up enough for a purse, I suppose. And grown up enough to know that all the lots had been cast. This, the final one. It could not be undone, and now no one would try. That was maybe the worst of it. The lawyers had met the legal requirement to attempt to contact my mother. Last known address, that sort of thing. My mother never knew about the hearing. She wouldn’t find out until nine years later about the adoption.

I know I smiled that day. Everyone smiled and said how great it was that we were finally a real family. By then, I was well-practiced at getting along, a skill that may be the one thing in my nature that saved me. But inside, everything felt clenched and heavy and wrong. I knew the adoption had little, if anything, to do with love, though I suppose Sue must have told herself it did. Control was the currency in our family, and it annoyed me that we stood there, pretending that we had all chosen this. That this was the dream, and it had come true, and how lucky we were that she wanted to be our mother.

By the time she adopted us, Sue had been our stepmother for six years. Those years unfolded as fast and as slow as any, with seasons and holidays measuring the time. But I took measure in a different way. I don’t remember particular Christmases, and few specific birthdays. I guess those things are hard for anyone to remember, just part of the information that falls away as we get older. But I can tell you what happened in the course of a year when I was 7 or 9 or 12, and the array of punishments that marred and marked those years, and all the others.

Writing this, now, I am uncomfortable saying all that happened, but not because it’s hard to tell it, which it isn’t now. Time has helped that. My struggle is with myself to justify my reasons for telling the story at all. In that discomfort and unease, I know that now is not then. That now I have a voice, a pen, and people who will listen. I’m a reporter, in a sense. But to what end? Where’s the story now? Who does it benefit?

That girl from then hardly exists now. She’s a small thing inside me, cushioned all around by years and uncountable kindnesses. By love. By strength and courage. And even by anger and knots of desire for retribution that come and go like a tide that, thankfully, stays at sea for long stretches of time.

The truth is, then is the only time that telling my story would have made a difference. But it was a different time. Back then, almost nothing happened on the few times that a shadow of suspicion crept out of our house and made its way to the proper agencies. One of which employed my father as a counselor for troubled adolescents and their families.

Irony isn’t a big enough word.

No words are. How do you say, in small words on a page, things so vast and painful?

Should that girl tell about the time she ate her plateful of beets out on the front steps, without silverware, because she used bad manners at the dinner table? “You can eat like the dog if you’re going to act like a dog,” Sue said. Should she tell about the night when she had an accident in the bathtub, and Sue held her head underwater in it? Should she tell about the time when she was five that Sue told her she was going to go live with a different family, and to go pack her suitcase? And that, then, Sue drove her down a long country road and forced her out of the car, leaving that girl standing on the side of the road with a suitcase, wailing and alone and frightened as Sue drove away and out of sight? Is it important to tell about all of the times when food was withheld? (Once, for three days, because I wasn’t weeding the garden fast enough.) Or how my sister and I would count for each other, when Sue would beat us, the number of times the other was struck. It was an important thing to know, and when it’s happening to you, it’s hard to keep track. And there were the raw, whole onions we were made to eat if we told a lie.

(I just realized that in that paragraph I switched from third person to first–I guess that’s a good sign. Of something.)

The fact of it is, it’s all too much to put in one place. Like writing a book with just one chapter. No beginning, middle, or end, because it’s all just middle, with no end in sight, and who can remember the time before it was like this?

Fortunately, as I said, now isn’t then. And there was an end, at least to all of that. My father finally divorced Sue when I was in college. I am no longer afraid of her. If she has any sense, she should be afraid of us, and of what we could say.

There’s one more thing I want to leave with you, something hopeful.

One of the punishments Sue relied on was to strike our hands with a ruler. I’m sure we’ve all heard of someone who has experienced this. It seems to be the stuff of dark Catholic school stories, brought to bear upon little hands by stern nuns.

In our house, there were degrees of this punishment. She used a heavy plastic ruler, which she kept in a pencil cup next to her chair in the living room. (She also kept one on the visor in the car, to extend her reach in case we misbehaved there.)

If we had done something particularly bad, she would strike with the narrow edge of the ruler. There were times when my hands were so bruised that my fingers curled under like a claw and would stay that way for hours. (Bear with me, I promise I’m going somewhere good.)

My hands are not pretty. Under any circumstances, they would look nothing more than capable. I don’t have long narrow fingers or nailbeds. These hands have done any number of chores, and I haven’t always taken as good care of them as I should. I do now, and have for the past few years. But they are what they are, and I’m not going to get another pair.

Sometime in late elementary school, I began to pay careful attention to my handwriting. I practiced the Palmer Method, and then took off on my own, pleased with what I could do with a pen and my imagination. I filled pages and pages with uppercase letters, especially W’s, which are still my favorite letter to write. I added swirls and flourishes to the letters, and made them my own. It took a lot of years, but eventually I developed penmanship that I was proud of, and even won a modest award for it a few years ago.

But it wasn’t until I was working on a scene in my book that I recognized the seed of my desire for nice penmanship, and for the hours and hours I spent working on it. It was right there all along, and I would have had to do nothing more than scratch aside a little bit of soil to find it.

In the scene, Eva, the main character, is showing her new calligraphy studio to the housekeeper who has been with the family for years. Here are the few lines that tell it:

Maggie turned and took Eva’s hands in both of her own and held them tight. “You showed her. Do you hear me?” She locked eyes with Eva, an earnest look, damp with tears. “Look at me. You showed her.”

It was the first time Eva recognized the irony in the work she had chosen, how something beautiful flowed from the same hands her mother had beaten. She did not know how she could have missed it.

And that’s really everything, isn’t it? If we are among the many whose parents have failed us, isn’t it up to us to become what we are, who we are meant to be, not because of them, but in spite of them?

I am glad for the moments when I see that, the hard, beautiful truth of it.

When I do, I hold it in my hand like a prized marble, and I go on.

{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

Tootsie Farklepants March 7, 2008 at 12:09 am

You should tell it! Tell it tell it tell it!!! And Sue should be embarrassed and ashamed of the monster she is.

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dragonfly March 7, 2008 at 12:30 am

I cannot believe the judge said that to you. Even if it was supposed to be a joke, it truly isn’t funny.

There is more to say, but I can’t find the right words. I’ll just say I’m glad you became who you are.

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Ducky March 7, 2008 at 2:55 am

“Likely Sue doesn’t remember things quite the same way,” she said dryly.

Which doesn’t make any of it less true.

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Emily March 7, 2008 at 3:53 am

The reasons for telling it are manifold.
1) It takes you out of her power. You are no longer the keeper of her secrets.
2) For me, at least, it made me a better mother, because it worked through so much.
3) It allows you to make sense of things. As you write, things will fall into place, practically and emotionally.
4) It helps others free themselves of the silence, like you and your sister counting for each other.

Keep telling, please.

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Mrs. Chili March 7, 2008 at 6:11 am

I’m literally weeping. You and I have a lot in common.

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de March 7, 2008 at 7:40 am

Although I am moved beyond words by your story and writing, I tend not to lurk, so I had to let you know I am here, bearing witness.

I just finished reading Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, and have been trying to gather my thoughts about whether it seems realistic to me that people could treat others as occurred in the novel. You have blown my premise right out of the atmosphere.

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Jennifer March 7, 2008 at 8:04 am

TF–Thank you. I just might.

Dragonfly–I suppose they might have awareness training for public servants now. Maybe not. Interestingly, the same judge also presided over my father and Sue’s divorce. What he said then was this: “Yours is as dysfunctional a family as I have ever seen.”

Ducky–hugs.

Emily–I needed your endorsement this morning. Thank you for your part in pushing me toward writing about this.

Mrs. Chili–It’s never good to hear that. I’m sorry for it.

GM–I think there is a statute of limitations, but I doubt Ducky or I would pursue that route at this point, in any case.
The time on the road was somewhere between 5 and 10 minutes. Long enough for me to start looking for the nearest house, thinking in my 5 year old brain that, logically, I would be welcomed and would live there now.

De, in this case, I hate proving that these sort of things are true. But, on the other hand, it’s maybe the best reason for writing, to let people know it does happen. And there are much worse stories than ours, and that breaks my heart.

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kyran March 7, 2008 at 8:12 am

this made my heart ache.

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Landon March 7, 2008 at 8:21 am

My heart aches for that five year old girl on the road. I’m so sorry. More than that, I am in awe of you and who you have become – the way you have used it all to fuel your writing, thereby turning that ugliness into something beautiful.

One other thing – wasn’t it your beautiful handwriting that brought you to Mr. H? Perhaps your beaten hands and the beauty you create with them ultimately led to the creation of your family. Talk about creating something beautiful…

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Kellan March 7, 2008 at 8:25 am

This was beautifully written, Jennifer and I am so glad to hear that you are good these days – past these bad times in your life. I think that is what people do – when they can – they go on and they live their lives, the best they can. You seem to have done that with grace and dignity and with an exception talent in writing these stories down. These are many others – it is a gift and it comes from these hands that were so mistreated! I’m sorry this happened to you and your sweet sister. I hope you both are able to continue to protect the child, but leave the child safe inside and go on with your lives as strong and loving women.

Have a good day and thanks for your continued prayers for our baby. See you soon. Kellan

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Slow Panic March 7, 2008 at 8:26 am

you know you are holding that little girl’s sweet bleeding hands right now don’t you? and healing them. you are healing those hands.

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Red Flashlight March 7, 2008 at 8:29 am

Is it okay if I quote you on my blog? That judge should have known better! I want to believe that sort of comment couldn’t happen anymore, but I don’t know. Here in Colorado I’ve never seen a judge do anything but bend over backwards in defense of the kids. On the other hand, I don’t wander too far from the Denver / Boulder track . . .

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we_be_toys March 7, 2008 at 8:29 am

Holy Crap! Your childhood makes mine look downright tame!
I think there IS a purpose in telling your story, even if it is past; maybe especially because it is past. To be able to say it outloud; to list the horrors that were visited upon you; to expose to the eye of the world the actions of someone who obviously was not fit to be a parent; it has to be a cathartic process that not only helps you put those nightmares away, but reminds you of where you never want to go, even for a second, with your own beloved children.

And if that woman is out there, reading this – then I hope she remembers that reaping what you sow is not just a phrase from the Bible – that’s what karma is all about.

This was an incredible post – I just want to hug you so badly right now!

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Autumn March 7, 2008 at 8:50 am

Thank you. Oddly enough, those same words “you showed her” came from my oldest friend on the day I finished my first book. I truly wish I could write like this, and get rid of some things. But, thank you for your voice.

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Melissa March 7, 2008 at 10:23 am

Your strength is amazing. That woman–oooh! Words cannot describe what should happen to someone so vile.

You have such a gift for writing stories. I am in awe.

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ByJane March 7, 2008 at 11:05 am

wow! and whew! and flippin’ incredible writing!

you must read the book I reviewed–Carole Gaunt’s Hungry Hill

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HRH March 7, 2008 at 12:23 pm

I just wish I could go pick up that 5 y/o girl with her suitcase and bring her home with me right now. I have tears in my eyes thinking about it…

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marlee March 7, 2008 at 12:28 pm

I always absolutely speechless when I read your posts like this…

I can’t wait to read your book!

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david mcmahon March 7, 2008 at 1:52 pm

Came here from Julie Pippert’s site. From one writer to another – what a memorable post.

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Angela March 7, 2008 at 6:58 pm

I tell because I CAN. And every time I do, I still swell up with fear, like my mouth still belongs to them…but it’s getting easier. My mother used to remind me, daily, to never put my feelings on paper. Or my thoughts. She taught me to fear that. And now I know why. I love your last lines……love them.

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Brenda March 7, 2008 at 6:59 pm

My heart froze when I read the title of your post this morning. I had no idea how unprepared I was for another entry. I didn’t want to read it. I knew I had to, but I didn’t want to. I don’t even know what that says about me.

But I did, and I’ve thought about it all day. Initially there was just too much to respond quickly, then the opportunity was not there, but that was OK. It allowed more time for absorption.

I’m sure you can imagine there is so much mulling around in my brain. And I DID learn something from this one. It was something I already knew, but it was either a different instance or I had not remembered it correctly to begin with. I remembered you telling me in our 20’s about being left while Sue drove off, but my memory was of an older you in a crowded parking lot. Much different than a 5-year-old in the middle of nowhere. (Not that either is acceptable.) I cannot describe how this makes me feel.

But the main thing I want to address is the WHY of telling this story. I LOVED what Emily said, that you are “no longer keeping her secrets.” I think of how many years so many people kept those secrets. So many people still are. Why? What are they protecting? What are they afraid of?

You can’t keep secrets of people like these, because as horrible as it is, there are lots of people in the world like this, and so many try to ignore or deny that fact. There are vile monsters destroying people, especially children, every single day. Every single minute. Denying it and ignoring it perpetuates the problem. Awareness can stop it, or at least slow it down.

I don’t know how much different NOW is from THEN. NOW doesn’t directly hurt you, but Sue hasn’t changed. We know that. Oh, according to some of her family, she has. But who cares? I don’t care. She hasn’t changed enough to admit error in anything she ever did. She hasn’t changed enough to not blame you and Ducky for what SHE did. She is no different. The only differences now are YOU (she can’t directly hurt you anymore, and you are strong) and that she doesn’t have access to children to hurt. But what if she did? She has children in her life, and I fear for what might happen if they had to spend prolonged time with her. But back to you……

Something I came to terms with in my life–unfortunately not until my 30’s–was that the main person responsible for making a corner of my life miserable started doing that when I was too young to affect her life. Yet she blamed ME for all of it. She projected all of her venomous behavior at me and actually told people I was hateful and mean and evil. I was a child, incapable of the emotions, let alone the deliberation she attributed to me. I grew up believing that I was bad and still have issues with that. But I know in my head AND heart now (most of the time) that it wasn’t me, it was her. It is the same with you and Sue. She blamed you for the trouble in her household. She blamed you for everything horrible thing she did. SHE STILL DOES. And the sick thing is that some of her family have denied things for so long that they actually believe her. I’m sure they have to in order to live with themselves. They all have to believe a lie in order to live with themselves. How COULD anyone live with the fact that they are sub-human creatures?

So my point here is that not that much has changed, other than you, since then. So the story is still fully valid. There has been no confession. No repentance. No ACKNOWLEDGMENT. Only hatred and blame. Still very valid.

The other thing that occured to me is that I have my own story (or that of someone who can no longer tell her story) that I want to tell. I’ve had the same arguments with myself over WHY would I do that? Who would it benefit? Is it just to show how bad these people are? But it isn’t. There are lessons to be learned from stories like these. Even if they are hard to read (and write–as much as my heart froze when I read the title, I can’t imagine what you went through to write it all), there are lessons. There are lessons in all of it. There are lessons for those that might have a tendency to unkindness. But the bigger lessons, I believe, are to those who are so kind they can’t imagine things like this exist. When you are unaware of things, it is hard to spot situations and also be compassionate. When there is awareness, there is understanding. Where there is understanding, there is compassion.

As to “spotting” these situations, I know from experience that even when there is suspicion that things are not well, you can never begin to know the full extent. Without being alarmists, when things appear suspicious, it shouldn’t be shrugged off as “probably nothing,” but researched further. Although growing up my family knew this situation was bad, they didn’t have a CLUE HOW bad it was….. not a CLUE.

Did anyone say the words out loud, “Now we are a ‘real’ family.”? How does documentation make a family real? That has so little to do with anything that it repulses me that she would say such things. OK, pretty much everything that comes from her repulses me, but really, one would think she would have somewhere along the line knew to keep her mouth shut because she looked like such a complete idiot.

One closing thought. I read this today in a commentary by an author that I know you were unhappily familiar with in your childhood (strange that you weren’t made to copy this passage over and over). It was in reference to Matthew 18:10 which says, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones; for I tell you that in heaven their angels always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven.” The commentary said that means that the angels of children, the ones there to protect them (the one that kept you alive through all of those horrible years) are in CONSTANT contact with God, the Father. Maybe not everyone believes in God, but I do. And I believe He knew every detail of what Sue did to you and Ducky WHEN she did it. I won’t get into a theological discussion of the “why’s,” but He KNOWS. And as we_be_toys mentioned, it will come back to her. Regardless of whether you pursue it, she will know the consequences quite fully. She probably already deals with (and covers up) some of them, but there will be a day when it hits her full in the face.

Your conscience will be clean. Your beautiful spirit will be way beyond her. Your beautiful hands will be doing something phenomenal.

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slouching mom March 7, 2008 at 7:06 pm

Damn, Jennifer. A beautiful precis of an ugly, ugly history.

I’m so sorry.

You HAVE triumphed, though. You’ve triumphed through your words — through the telling.

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flutter March 7, 2008 at 9:00 pm

I don’t have the right words for this, Jenn

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Hatchet March 7, 2008 at 10:06 pm

Oh.

There is an incredible beauty in past pain and sorrow. Letting go of it feels good. Or even not letting go, but opening it up, like lancing a wound.

As always I am reminded that no matter how bad one feels their life is, there is always someone else who has had a worse time of it. I am so very sorry that this was your life while growing up. I am glad you and your sister both survived it.

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Ducky March 8, 2008 at 8:15 am

The parking lot story is true. That time it was both of us, and we knew that she was going to do it before we left the house.

There were one or two other times in adolescence where she threatened to turn Jennifer over to the state. We believed that she would do it, and we must have believed that our father would have been powerless to stop her. He wouldn’t have been, of course, and I like to believe that he would have stopped her.

It’s still an open question if he would have. That Night wasn’t enough to push him over the edge, and if That Night couldn’t do it, what could? In the end, she was the one who filed for divorce and changed the locks (and those who know should correct me if I’m wrong).

Jennifer, didn’t she make you write things over and over? Surely that helped your handwriting develop?

You both know that telling our stories to people who don’t want to hear them would be an exercise in frustration. They don’t want to know.

I think that’s part of the reason I go to the funerals. If I stay away, it’s easier for them to forget. And in whatever way I can, I will not let them.

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cce March 8, 2008 at 11:50 am

I’m actually overjoyed for you…this writing must serve as some sort of blood letting, a slice in the rotten flesh of what happened, a way to drain the infection away to a safer place beyond you and your sister.

And what of your father? Was he aware of these things she did to you? Perhaps that’s a topic for another day.

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Manic Mommy March 8, 2008 at 6:29 pm

I don’t know what to say but wanted you to know I am listening.

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Coco March 10, 2008 at 6:56 am

Hi-I found you through Emily.

I just wanted to offer you some more support. Every time I read another story of a survivor of child abuse, it makes my heart break a little more.

What is wrong with these abusers, I wonder sometimes? What was the thing in their own lives and brains and souls that just snapped and told them such treatment of children was not only OK, but was deserved and merited, and they were entitled to dole it out? None of these questions are things that have easy answers, of course. I just think about them, as I read another story of pain and then, of survival.

It’s so important to talk about what happened. As Emily noted, you are no longer keeping the family secrets for Sue or anyone who abetted her by looking away. If enough people talk, perhaps eventually, the message those silent onlookers get will not be “It’s none of my business” and will become “We need to act now”. It is a dream, and perhaps it is not entirely realistic, but I continue to hope for it anyway.

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Crazycath March 10, 2008 at 7:52 am

Hi
I found you through David’s authorblog. I read part one first.
This is a very powerful and moving account. You need to tell it. Others are right – it means she no longer has power over you.

You have me crying. I have posted this to my son who has a stepmother (thankfully he did not live with her) who has caused him pain and I cannot know THAT pain as I have not lived it.

I know another pain, still secret. Just reading you and how beautifully you write may one day give me the strength and courage to do what I have so wanted to do for years and speak up. Maybe.

So glad those wounded, abused hands produce such beauty. Thank you.

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Daryl E March 10, 2008 at 7:54 am

I sit here so angry .. so angry .. people like this continue to exist .. continue to hurt beyond the physical.. the lives shattered by people like this horrid Sue are too numerous to count ..

You are so much more than what she did .. you dont need to ‘out’ her .. there is no better ‘revenge’ than making a mark of your own in the world ..

David sent me.

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JCK March 11, 2008 at 11:15 pm

My heart is sick for that sweet little girl. And my heart is full for the woman she became. Amazing …yet hard to take. But, I will keep reading, because I must.

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Jenny, Bloggess March 26, 2008 at 6:35 am

You are amazing. Your words, your strength, your wisdom…incredible.

I’m proud to call you a friend.

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apathy lounge June 30, 2008 at 11:21 am

Holy crap. And I mean that in a very compassionate way. I stand in awe.

apathy lounges last blog post..Even if my dysfunction had been funny, I still wouldn’t be able to write a book about it.

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Indigo January 12, 2009 at 6:37 am

It appears I’m not the only one who strives to find the beauty in the ugly. I think we have to, don’t we…a way of reasoning what happened to us, a chance to make some good come out of the horrible, the pain. I think, at least for me, I spent so many years envisioning what it was like to be loved, wanted – I gave it beauty/substance in my own life.

As for why now when it won’t change a thing…because inside in moments unexpected that little girl still cries. When you told the story, shared that little girls sorrow, you gave pieces of it all to us. Pieces that take away the strength/hurt this had over you. It makes the shadows behind the locked doors we keep in our minds, safer and less frightening. I’m glad you were able to find the courage to share. If nothing else, maybe someone else who needs to hear it will realize they are not alone in their pain. You prove without a doubt the beauty of the spirit that survives such a harsh environment. Thank you for sharing. (Hugs)Indigo

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