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The Power of (Not) Telling Your Story


Tell-Your-Story-Positively-Present

Since 2009, I’ve been here on Positively Present, writing about my life and the various challenges I’ve faced in my quest for living more optimistically and mindfully. I’ve written about the ups and the downs, the loves and the losses, the positive progress and the painful setbacks. I’ve written about tough topics, like my sobriety, and easy ones, like the publication of my first book. But, since 2015, I’ve only briefly touched on a set of circumstances that have altered my entire life.

I’ve avoided the details because I didn’t want to hurt or embarrass other people. I kept quiet because that’s what “respectable” people do. I also kept quiet because what had happened — the sex, the surgeries, the shame, the embarrassing behaviors I tolerated, the pills, the anger and anxiety, the suicidal thoughts — didn’t feel very “positively present.”

But last night I got all fired up. I’m going to finally write about it!, I told myself. I’m going to write about ALL of it, and I don’t care who reads it or what they have to say! My heart was pumping with excitement, and I was convinced that this was it — the writing was what would free me from the heartache, telling my story would set me free from all of this pain. I pulled out all of my old journals, the notebook filled with scrawled, sad poetry, and leafed through them. I’ll put it all out there, I thought, And maybe I’ll even just put all of these journal entries up as they are! I’ll be so brave, sharing my story in such a raw way!  

I looked up an old Anne Lamott quote — “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” — and lettered it with a fierce excitement. Yes, I thought to myself, I will write about it all, every little thing, and he will read it and he will finally understand how much it hurt — and still hurts— and then… And it was in the midst of that thought when I realized it: this wasn’t about my own healing or even (as I’d tried to convince myself) about helping someone else through a similar situation. It was about him.

Sharing all of the pain — the trysts and the surgeries and the disappointments and the lonely nights and the rejected invitations and the tear-soaked pillowcases and the loss of so much damn time — was still, for me, about getting him to really see me. I could tell myself otherwise — “This will be healing!” or “Sharing what I’ve been through will help others!” — but, embarrassing as it is to admit, it was really about getting his attention, about somehow convincing him that what had happened — something that wasn’t his fault but that he certainly had a part in — meant that he owed me something.

Over the course the three and a half years we were spending time together, he told me countless times not to have hope. But I did anyway. Hope can be an amazing thing, but there’s a reason it was found in Pandora’s box, beneath all of the world’s evils. It can cause a great deal of heartache, too.

Despite what he said and did — and, more importantly, didn’t do — I continued to believe all of this pain would live up to that old Ovid quote, “Be patient and tough; someday this pain will be useful to you.” I never wrote about the truth of it — never even mentioned him here over the course of the past nearly four years — because I thought to myself, Someday this will all make sense and I don’t want to write anything that might upset him or make it even more difficult to have hope. I will be patient. I will be tough. I will be quiet and good.

Over the weekend, as I was gathering my "evidence" — Look at all of the misery I wrote about in my journal! Look at all of these words he said to me that I’ve written down word-for-word! Imagine how good it will feel to put this all out there for everyone to see! — I was focused on the opposite of being quiet. I was going to be LOUD. I was going to scream every ounce of truth onto the screen until my fingers were numb from typing. I was going to be fierce and brave and unbelievably raw.

But here’s the thing: screaming the truth won’t make him hear me. Telling everyone what happened, what it’s been like for me since the summer of 2015, won’t make him do the things I wish he would do. Words, no matter how powerful, won’t turn a man into someone he is not meant to be.

Writing might be cathartic for me, but sharing this story with the world isn’t necessary for me to recover from this. He isn’t necessary for me to recover from this. He might be the catalyst for this story, but he isn’t the author. I am.

It’s my story to tell — and maybe someday I will — but, for now, as I prepare for my fourth (!!!!) surgery tomorrow, I’m going to do what I should have been doing all along: I’m going choose compassion over comparison. I’m going to remind myself that a person who can act with indifference in the face of another’s pain must be in pain himself. I’m going to focus on healing over hoping. I’m going to remind myself that people are not projects, and the only pain I can truly mend is my own.

Yes, I own this story. Yes, I can yell it as loudly as I’d like, for the world to hear. And part of me still does want to write every detail, to put all of the sex and the scars into words so that I can feel the freedom of having finally said it all. But when it comes to telling our stories — the good, the bad, the oh-god-why-is-this-my-life — I’m realizing that peace probably won’t come from pushing publish on a post. Peace won’t come from having someone else see my pain. Peace comes from feeling that pain, living through it, and moving forward without dragging it behind you.

Maybe putting it all in writing would be like leaving behind a heavy bag on a hard trek. Maybe setting it down would make the rest of this climb a little easier for me. But maybe, just maybe, I can put the bag down without putting it into words. Maybe there’s more to being a survivor than sharing the story of your survival. (Or maybe I’m about to write a tell-all book putting it all there, ha!)

Whatever I end up sharing or keeping to myself, I hope this post serves as a reminder that, yes, you have a right to tell your story, but just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. You own your stories. Tell them if you want, but don’t forget that it’s not the telling that will set you free. You have to do that all on your own. 

 

 

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Comments

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First, I am truly sorry for your heartbreak and the years you invested. We learn and there is some good weaved in but I totally relate to feeling like chunks of time have been stolen or wasted. Second, I don't know what your surgery is for but hope you mend quickly. And lastly, my healing comes about daily and repeatedly through prayer, not just for myself but him too. You are so right about can and should, either way if you shared or didn't was the right choice for you at this time. Have an amazing day and thanks for these words!

Oh Dani, I'm sorry to hear you've had such a painful time. I relate to a lot of what you've written here.

Two years ago I published a book about the most painful time in my life and I can say hand on heart that it was cathartic to write, certainly, but it was not healing, not in the way I expected anyway. I expected to feel miraculously better, finally wrestling these manky, rotten corpses from the past out of me, but that was all the writing did - it got them out. What was left were wounds, and a vacuum where all that hurt, anger and pain had been. It made me finally realise that I would never, ever be able to go back to that time in my life and make different decisions so I could avoid that pain.

Writing a memoir forced me to accept the truth - it had all happened and I couldn't change any of it. And also, publishing a book and talking publicly about the bad behaviour of others was not going to somehow make everything ok. Like you so eloquently put, my words would not miraculously make them see me. I will always be wrong in their eyes. All I could do was write as honestly and graciously as I could, being willing to accept that other people might remember things differently (and they would be welcome to write their own book if so) but this was how it happened from my perspective. I had to own my story, I had to own every single thing, all the things I wished had been different, and especially the bits where I didn't come off very well. I realised the part I had played in my own downfall and I had to forgive myself. And I suppose ultimately *that* was what was healing.

I love that Anne Lamott quote. I kept it nearby and looked at it every time I felt my nerve failing while I wrote. I also recommend reading Dani Shapiro's words on the subject, she is very reassuring.

You are a brave, wise woman and you're absolutely spot on when you say that shouting your pain from the rooftops, while cathartic in the moment, is not usually the thing that will heal you or give you peace. But it helps. I do think writing it out, getting it out of your head so it's somewhere else, even if no one else ever sees it but you, can certainly be helpful. But when or whether you share it, that's trickier, and you've got to go with your gut feeling on it. Ultimately, writing my memoir helped me draw a line under that time in my life - I wrote the book I wish had been around for my 25 year old self, that might have helped me make different decisions. And I could only have written that with perspective, not when everything was raw. And I now have somewhere I can go whenever I want to think about those events and those people - I just pick up the book. It's not all in my head anymore.

I waited nearly 10 years after the events to write about what happened to me - and I'm sure that your story will have it's time too. And you'll know when that time comes.

Sending you love, strength and solidarity from across the pond, and wishing you a swift recovery from the operation xxx

Deanna - Thank you so much for your kind and inspiring words! They've helped me to feel more positive!

Philippa - Thank you so much for sharing your experience with memoir writing. It's made me feel so much less alone, and reminded me that it can be useful to share my story, but only when it feels right for me. And thank you so much for your kindness about my surgery. I'm not looking forward to it, but the sooner it's done, the sooner I start healing! :)

This story without the details was a gift. It allowed me to insert my life into the wisdom of your choices and even the back and forth of what you may or may not decide to do in the future.

May this be your last surgery and thanks for being you.

Luan - Thank you so much! I really appreciate it!

sending you healing vibes for your surgery! what amazing self-awareness to know that ultimately it's about something you think he owes you. i went through a tough break-up in 2015 as well, and i was so resentful for a long time. i hope you find some healing and the strength to let go. i'm sorry someone hurt you so badly. i read a return to love by marianne williamson last fall, and the relationship chapters really stuck with me. i recommend it for self reflection! you're awesome! been reading your blog for so many years now!

Jade - Thank you so much for sending healing vibes! So far, I'm doing really well. I'll definitely have to check out Return to Love. Sounds like a good book for me! :)

This was really meaningful to me. I have to remind myself all the time that I am allowed to take up space and own my own experiences too. Thank you so much for sharing!

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