This week in the UK is National Storytelling Week. Stories are very close to my heart, be they the shared experience of truth or the flights of fantasy and imagination. I learn more from stories shared heart to heart than from any text book.
On 3rd July 2009 I wrote a story. I know the date, it was the day before my world was turned upside down by the attack on my son, and it is odd to know precisely where my attention lay the night before That Morning. While my son’s evening was unfolding 150 miles away, I was tapping away at the keyboard, writing a tale I hoped would help a woman in trouble on the other side of the world.
Abusive relationships are also a subject close to my heart. I know from the inside the damage done by abuse. It does not always have to fall neatly into the categories of sexual or violent abuse, it can be more insidious than that. Less easy for both the abuser and the victim to realise and understand, less obvious to the observer. Yet it is just as damaging, if not more so. A physical bruise will heal, the inner scars seldom do without help or a major shift in perspective.
So, from my heart to yours…..
Freedom and Fear
Once upon a time there lived a woman. She was very far from her homeland but that didn’t matter. She had her children and a little home. One day, she found that she had fallen in love unexpectedly, and as her lover also had children, they decided to make a home and journey towards happy ever after together.
It was hard work sometimes, trying to meld the two separate families into one, but love was enough to help the couple through. Steadily they made progress. Then the problems began, cracks began to appear in the household and everything the couple had strived for was on the verge of being lost. The man became very depressed, drank and began to talk of suicide, while the woman struggled and juggled to keep them afloat, trying to protect the man from any further worries, scared that anything else would push him over the edge. The stability they had achieved, the home they had worked for, everything was at risk.
The depression became the primary factor in his life and little by little had become the ruling factor in hers. Unconsciously he controlled her every action through fear of upsetting him, causing more instability and disturbing what little peace they had. She lived on a knife edge, waiting for the next outburst of anger, the next plunge into darkness and it took its toll as these things do, eroding her energy, her sense of self-worth and her ability to act. Every word had to be watched, money had to be available. She was so wrapped in worry and fear for him she failed to see how much of herself she was surrendering to his control and her own fear.
Finally a letter arrived, giving the little family three days to leave their home. Three days. They had nothing, and nowhere to go. Yet, the sun was shining and the woman never gave up. She tried for those three days to find a solution.
And little by little, as all other means hit a brick wall, a solution occurred to her.
She could not see her family without a home. She knew that they only needed to buy a little time for it to be possible to avert disaster. She tried all the official and normal avenues, but finally, she could think of only one way. The woman did not believe anyone could be so cruel as to throw her family onto the streets on a day of tragedy. Logic gave her a solution. Fear and love blinded her to its flaws.
It never occurred to her that the one thing that made any home special was the family within it… all the family.
Now this woman did not believe in suicide as a solution to any problem. Unless it was a symptom of a real mental illness, that was different. She saw it as running away, and she knew that whatever one runs from keeps coming back over and over until it is dealt with. The Karmic debt of suicide was, she believed, a heavy one and would take lifetimes to pay. She accepted that. She loved her family and could not see them homeless. She had tried to talk to the man, but he was so imprisoned within his depression he did not hear what she was telling him. She had nowhere else to turn.
She knew that no-one would understand her actions. Knew she would be hated… and hoped that hatred would lessen the grief for her loved ones.
Of course, her logic was flawed. Home is where people are, the people one loves. Family is about facing problems together. And of course, her children would rather face anything than the loss of their mother.
Yet, she could think of no other way to protect them. She felt she had failed them somehow, by allowing disaster to touch them, forgetting that it was not of her making, not seeing that by taking the responsibility to herself, she had robbed them of a chance to learn and grow together. Fear for her family made her blind to many things.
So, those last three days she was calm and happy. She stored up each moment of joy with her man, she treasured each smile from her children, and then, on the last day, she set her alarm very early, and settled down beside him, revelling in his warmth.
She didn’t sleep much. There was no longer any reason to sleep. As she got up before dawn, the man opened one eye and she smiled at him, taking one last look with her heart aching. She wished she could look at her children too. She went downstairs and wrote a note for them, telling them how proud of them she was and how much she loved them. She wrote a note to her man, telling him she was sorry, that she loved him, and why this was the only way left; giving him detailed instructions on what to do to save their home, knowing he would not be able to think clearly.
Then she took every pill she could find until she knew she had taken enough and more than enough, and she closed her eyes, smiling, with the image of her children in her mind and knew no more.
Yet, fate took a hand. An hour or so later, one of her children came downstairs early. The alarm was raised and an ambulance was called. The woman was within minutes of death when they arrived, and over the next few days she hovered between the worlds. The only thing that held her was her youngest child, holding her hand, stroking her hair, willing her to live and pouring love, strength and understanding into her.
Strange dreams and visions peopled the silence where she hovered, many things became clear in the darkness and she was sent back.
As she awoke once more to the world, inconceivably, it seemed that her ridiculous solution had worked. A miracle of human kindness saved their home, the man had snapped out of his insulated bubble of pain and began to live, doubts were laid to rest and the two families learned they could act as one.
Yet there is always a price to be paid, and the price of her action was a double edged sword.
The doctors pronounced that there was no mental problem. Fear had offered a logical, if radical, solution to an actual problem, and desperation had blinded her to the desperate errors the plan contained. Only her youngest child understood the extravagance of her actions and forgave her with unconditional love. One or two stood by her with understanding and empathy. Some despised her cowardice, some hated her for the hurt she had caused, friends turned their backs on her and on the family, and some believed she owed them a debt because they had not turned their backs. Some used it as an excuse to cover their own mistakes and justify their actions.
She herself could not forgive herself for her blindness. She had given everything for love and had said her goodbyes. And yet, all she loved most dearly was given back to her. But fear had gone. She was no longer afraid to speak her mind when things went wrong. No longer afraid to see the weakness in her man and admit to herself that his very human weaknesses were an echo of her own. No longer afraid to risk losing the things she loved, simply because she loved them. No longer afraid to see the deeper problems which had placed her family at risk in the first place. No longer afraid to see her own fear, faults and weakness.
The woman had voluntarily relinquished all she had and all she was… and nothing had a hold on her any more. She had the freedom of strength to choose her path and her actions. And the blinkers were removed from her eyes. And as she began to grow in strength and understanding, the man withdrew from her, challenged by her clarity until finally they parted.
Many things that she had believed were essential to her life she found herself discarding. Her own viewpoint had changed and she was, for the first time, able to see how fear had defined her life so far… fear of loss, fear of failure, fear of disapprobation… and most of all, the fear of not being loved.
She felt herself at once to be empowered and adrift in an unfamiliar sea. As the weeks and months passed and her life, to all outward appearances settled back to normality, she knew in her heart that this was not so. She was even able to finally see that her desperate action had not been inspired by love, as she had truly believed, but by fear… the fear of letting her family down, the fear of failing to protect them, the fear of allowing them to be responsible for their own choices.
Finally, the woman saw that life had come full circle and she had the chance to break the cycle of fear, handing back to her loved ones responsibility for their own lives and actions. She learned that loving does not give one any rights over the object of that affection… only the responsibility to be the type of person that one believes the loved one deserves to be loved by. She learned that true love, even a lifetime long, is a precious thing that is lent to us for just a little while and should be treasured like a jewel, for it may be as lasting as the rainbow caught in a diamond, or as transient as the prism in a dewdrop in the morning sunlight.
She learned too, what she had always known, but never understood. The only thing to fear is fear itself.
The work of photographer Matt Baldwin-Ives and Ian Thurlby may be seen at their website Miles Cross