It’s February 5th, and I am alive.
I said this to myself over and over again while doing some mindfulness meditation before work.
Mindfulness meditation has helped me substantially as I have adopted the practice over the past year. The goal is to be in the present moment. This is a challenge for me having HSAM, which makes me want to go to the past. But also living with anxiety which stems from my fears about the future. It helps me to repeat the date over and over again in order to remind myself to stay in the present.
Today’s meditation was themed with the idea that your thoughts are like cars on a highway. A metaphor that was a little untimely considering I was in an accident three years ago on this very day. But I found the metaphor useful nonetheless.
The meditation went like this: You are sitting on the side of a highway while cars are passing by. These cars are your thoughts. The narrator challenges to not chase the cars.
“Don’t try to jump in front of a car and stop it,” he says.
Don’t flag down a car and get inside of it, just watch the cars as they pass by without engaging with them to create a non-judgmental and present awareness.
For me, many of these thoughts or “cars” are personal memories. I see the cars fly by on the highway with “June 26th, 2007” painted on the side door or “August 25th, 2014”.
I have tried so many times to chase the cars to get in them and fall into the memory. I have also tried to jump in front of the car, stop the memory and shout, “no, no, I don’t even want to see you. I wish you would have never even happened!” But sadly there is no “memory junk yard” I can send those dates to like a would an old car I wanted to get rid of– they will always be on the road.
I have been trying to learn how to just watch the cars as the meditation instructs me to do instead of jumping in one of the vehicles and escaping to another time. This is a coping strategy I have used too often instead of dealing with the present.
It’s February 5th, 2020 and I have made it to work.
Minutes before I grab my computer and my coffee tumbler to walk into our weekly staff meeting my phone lights up with a message:
“So, I was looking through my Facebook memories, and a picture came up from the Superbowl Party we went to… Anyways, it led me to your blog site and some videos about you and your HSAM. I remember you talking about your memory while we were dating, and I must apologize for never taking it seriously….”
Even having HSAM, it is interesting how things from your past can become further and further away, so much so that at one point a person’s name can remind you of one image, one place, one feeling.
Do you all have this too?
With Luke, the first thing I see when I think of him is not the 2014 Superbowl he was referencing in that text message, but rather the blue and white plastic rosary he had hanging on the rear-view mirror of his car when we were dating all those years ago.
“Why do you have a rosary in your car?” I asked him on one of our first dates back in the summer of 2013 as we drove down Highway 41 in between Green Bay and Appleton.
Although I was in college at the time we were dating, Luke lived back up in northern Wisconsin, so the geography of our relationship spread across Green Bay, Milwaukee, and many times even the Chicago metro area for a weekend trip.
“Well not only can I pray the rosary on my way to work or whenever I am driving, but it keeps me safe,” he answered.
I don’t know if I ever pictured myself praying the rosary while in my car at the time, but I did like the idea of safety, almost like a reminder of a guardian angel or something.
Instead of a rosary, I had the tassel from my high school graduation hanging on the rear-view mirror of my car. That’s a good metaphor for mine and Luke’s relationship.
Luke: the devout Catholic who made the Church every part of his life from his car decor to his Facebook profile picture.
Me: the casual Catholic who consistently strolled in late to 11 AM Mass and preferred the feeling of the tassels in between her fingers when she wanted something to fidget with at a stop light.
I’ll admit, seeing this text message from Luke six years later made me almost drop my coffee on the floor of my office. It wasn’t just hearing from Luke out of literally nowhere, but also the content of his message. I never in a million years dreamed of an apology from him for not taking the time and energy to understand my HSAM.
“I remember you telling me about it,” I read over again.
I didn’t even know what the term was for my memory back when we were dating. I took Dr. Nielsen’s learning and memory class the fall after we broke up.
But I knew exactly which conversation he was talking about.
It was Christmas of 2013. Luke and I laid next to each other in his bed side by side. Both of us staring straight up at the ceiling as the snow fell gently outside through the window, almost as it were a dream.
But this had been the Christmas straight out of a nightmare.
Every word that came out of each other’s mouth was said too harshly and taken the wrong way, making the other person feel uncomfortable and unloved. I will take my share responsibility for this, as I hope Luke would too in hindsight. We were both walking on pins and needles the whole evening, and we were waiting to burst open until we were alone.
Luke’s family had all gone home. Everyone went home except for me because it was snowing too hard to make it all the way back to my parent’s house 40 minutes down Highway 41 by myself.
In contrast to all the noise during the family gathering of laughter, conversations, two Christmas movies going at the same time, and the clanking sound of forks as thirty people scarfed down pumpkin pie, the silence was kind of nice. But it was more so awkward because neither of us were proud of the way we behaved towards each other that day.
Luke was the first to break the silence, but his question threw me for a loop.
“What do you think about?” he asked.
I asked him for clarification. I wasn’t sure what he meant.
“Like every day when you’re at school walking to class or something. When your mind isn’t focused, what do you think about?”
There was a long silence.
“Your life?” he asked.
“Yeah, it all plays like a movie in my head.”
He looked away from the ceiling and into my eyes, communicating he wanted to know more.
“My past and everything from it just plays over and over. Not in any order through. One minute it’s a scene from high school the next is a figure skating competition. But even though it’s not in order, it all makes sense. I connect it like a story. And the story adds context to whatever I am going through in the present.”
More silence ensued.
“Selfish,” he muttered.
“What?” I asked turning more towards him.
“That’s selfish. All you are thinking about is yourself.”
I didn’t know how to respond, so more quietness filled the room.
Maybe my way of thinking was selfish? I was thinking about myself, but it wasn’t like other people weren’t included either. Or that I didn’t use my way of thinking to connect with or help others. I often thought about how other people felt and what I had seen them like or dislike in the past in order to use that information in the present.
“What do you think about?” I asked.
“Oh,” I started, “I mean, I think about God too. How He has worked throughout my life as I watch the movie in my head.”
“No. It’s not like that with me. I think constantly every day about what God wants me to do. What will make Him happy. I constantly question if what I am doing is a sin or not because that is what you are supposed to be thinking about as a Catholic.”
I knew how he thought, it was similar to how I used to think before I was treated for OCD, and I wanted no part of it.
“Do you actually pray?” I asked, “Or do you just obsess over sinning?”
At this, he started crying. “I try. I try to pray. That’s why I have the rosary hanging from the rear-view mirror of my car. That is why I am late to work every morning, I take time to try to pray. I want to pray more. But all I can do is judge.”
As you are probably already thinking, I should have walked away from this relationship pretty soon after this conversation. But the hard and fast truth is that I didn’t. Personally, when things went south between Luke and I, instead of mustering the courage to initiate a breakup, I dove back to a time in the past when things were good and relived it. In some ways I tricked myself, and I think I wanted to.
I would relive the past so deeply that it became real again. The mental 2D movie became virtual reality, an escape. But this Christmas instead of going back by myself, I saw a car flying down the highway in my mind, stopped it, got into it, and pulled Luke in with me.
“It’s September 28th and we are back in Chicago,” I started out loud still laying next to each other in bed, “Well we technically arrived in Chicago on the 28th for the Blackhawks game, but by the time this conversation happened it was past midnight and already the 29th.”
I looked over at Luke, and I could tell by his face he was accepting my invitation into the memory, so I continued to take him with me to somewhere only we knew.
“We’re walking down the streets in your dad’s childhood neighborhood. We’re fighting,” I almost said “as always” but I didn’t have to, we both knew arguments consumed most of the communication in our relationship.
“I took your hand and we stopped on a stoop of an old building that was closed for the night. And we prayed. You prayed in your way first, and then I prayed in my way. You know I don’t pray like a Catholic,” I laughed, using humor to tear through the wall we had built between each other.
“So on that stoop because we couldn’t talk directly to each other, I talked to God instead. But out loud so you could hear. And you talked to him too, but you used His words. Both ways we prayed were beautiful, but they are just useful in different moments. I am thankful we pray and think different because if we didn’t think differently, we would have never gotten to this next part,” I turned over to him and smiled.
Tears were rolling down Luke’s face in real time. “How could I forget about this?” he whispered to himself. “It wasn’t that long ago, and I already forgot and let myself get so mad at you. And over what?”
“Want me to keep going?” I asked.
I got a nod and dove back into the memory.
There Luke and I were, together, walking down a dimly lit neighborhood street on Chicago’s west side. He had said he wanted to show me something. Suddenly we were standing in front of an older house where he stopped and just gazed at it the midst of a deep fog that seemed to engulf the night.
“This is the house my dad grew up in,” he told me, “I don’t know why, but I really wanted to bring you here.”
At the end of his sentence, as if on cue, the sky broke and it began to pour down rain. It was the kind of rain that pierced through the layers of the atmosphere, landing so sharp it had to have fallen directly parallel to the cloud it came from. Before we knew it, the rain was pouring down so hard we could barely see one another. But even though his face was made blurry by the thousands of raindrops, I could still see he wanted to say something. And I knew exactly what it was.
“I love you,” he said for the first time.
“I’ve wanted to tell you for a long time…” he continued. I could tell he was going to keep talking out of nervousness.
But before he was forced to continue nervously muttering, I leaped through the curtain of rain between us, flung my arms around him and said, “Luke, I’ve loved you for a long time. I’ve loved you, and I love you now. So much!”
I remember you talking about your memory while we were dating, and I must apologize for never taking it seriously.
I read the text message on my phone again as our staff meeting began. We always start our staff meetings off with “highs and lows”. Everyone goes around the room and we check in with each other. Work related or personal, everyone shares their best and worst parts of the week.
High: I meditated this morning. I’m in the present. It’s February 5th, 2020. And I’m alive.
Low: one of my ex-boyfriends just texted me saying he read my blog, weird right?
But another high: he apologized for dismissing the way I thought and remembered things.
Low: I was going to write about our relationship in my next blog post, but now I feel like I am being watched.
I said none of this to my co-workers. Instead I said some crap about the weather and a yoga class.
After our staff meeting, I proceeded to go on my lunch break. When I got out to the parking deck and hopped into my car the first thing I noticed was my blue and white rosary hanging from my rear-view mirror. I reached for it and touched the beads, drew my hand down to the white crucifix at the bottom and held it to face me.
Back in 2013, Luke and I had gone into the mall together to look around at all the things that were going to go on sale for Christmas. I saw a pair of knock-off, Ugg boots and went over to try them on.
“What do you think?” I asked Luke, turning my hip to him and lifting up the heel of my foot.
“Honestly, I think those boots are ugly.”
“Wow, a simple ‘I think you could do better’ would have sufficed,” I said, irritated.
“Just saying I don’t like them…”
Silence followed as I narrowed my gaze. I could feel myself shutting down.
“Why do you want them anyway?” he asked.
“They’re nice to wear in the winter with a sweater and some leggings. A nice cozy outfit to hangout in.” I replied as I pictured myself wearing them while sipping a nice warm cup of hot chocolate under a warm blanket amidst the harsh, Wisconsin winters.
“Leggings?” he began, “Do you know what boys see when they see girls wear leggings? They picture you naked and they picture themselves having sex with you. I don’t want you wearing leggings…and I still think those boots are ugly.”
I looked around to see if anyone was in earshot. I was mortally embarrassed.
We walked out of the store as I carried a large Macy’s bag cradling a shoe box. I bought the boots in protest. In my other hand, I had a bag with a dress Luke had picked out for me and bought me earlier that night, one he deemed suitable for me to wear to Mass. He thought the dresses I was wearing to Mass currently were too short and didn’t cover my arms enough, but he said this one would do just fine and insisted we get it.
Driving in the car we were silent. We had been silent since I handed the cashier in the shoe department my debit card to buy the boots.
This time I broke the silence.
“Why do you care so much about what I wear?”
“Because short dresses and leggings will make you look like a slut, okay? And you’re not a slut. But people will think you’re a slut if you wear that stuff, especially if you wear that stuff to Mass. All you will be doing is distracting men who are just trying to pray.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” I protested, “You do that you know? You say stuff that’s really…”
Before I could finish my sentence Luke raised the tone of the conversation yelling, “I can never do anything right!”
He let out a scream of anger, nothing like I had heard from him before. Engulfed in rage, he grabbed the rosary hanging on his reviewer mirror, yanking it so hard he manged to rip the entire mirror off of the ceiling as the car swerved. The beads from the blue and white plastic rosary flew everywhere, one hitting my cheek sharply, and others bouncing off various parts of the dashboard.
I was so startled that I had screamed and naturally curled into a little ball.
Luke pulled the car over and saw me cowering in the corner of the passenger’s seat. He looked down at his hands, holding his detached reviewer mirror and the remains of the rosary and became still.
I, on the other hand, remained terrified and the silence only made it worse.
I dove for the handle on the car door, “Let me out! Let me out!” I screamed. “Help! Someone help!” Although I knew no one could hear me, the words just came out anyway.
As I started to yank on the door, the automatic lock clicked shut. I froze, a sinking feeling of fear spread down my body, through my fingertips making my knees buckle. Once I was able to move a little, I slowly turned towards Luke only to see him sobbing. A completely different person than I was in the car with only thirty seconds ago was sitting in the driver’s seat.
I watched him cry for a moment, until he slowly looked up at me and said softly, “Don’t leave me,” tears still running down the sides of his face.
At nineteen-years-old, I thought the problem was Luke having trouble gaining control over his anger when things were heated between us. At 25-years-old, I am now aware that the root of the problem wasn’t his anger management, but instead was the fact he couldn’t let go of having control over me: what I said, what I did, what I wore and most importantly what I thought and believed.
At nineteen-years-old buying me some flowers at Walmart and handing them to me through the frozen car window as an apology was enough for me I guess, enough for me to stay.
I’ll never forget the next morning, my mom and I found each other in the living room. My dad was still asleep. We both looked at the flowers I had put in a vase, and then our eyes locked.
“You know,” she began, “flowers can’t always fix everything.”
In that moment, I didn’t think to open up to her. I didn’t think to tell her what happened, to ask for help. I was embarrassed at the way I was treated, at the way I let Luke treat me.
So instead of turning to my mom and open up to be vulnerable with her all I could do was hide behind my shame and think:
How did she know? How did she know those flowers weren’t just to tell me he loved me? How did she know they were remorse roses?
I couldn’t look at a rosary for months. But now six years later, I have one hanging on my rear-view mirror, just like Luke did. And you’re probably wondering why:
Luke always wanted me to pray the rosary with him, but I declined every time. I made up some excuse because I didn’t have the strength to tell him when I looked at it all I could see was his face full of rage and the beads flying everywhere in his car.
It was not until that March when I opened up a little black chest in my father’s nightstand and saw a box full of rosaries that I reconsidered their symbolism in my life. My mom and I were going through my dad’s things the night before his funeral.
“Why?” I began in shock as I opened the box, “Why did he have so many rosaries? I don’t know if I ever saw him pray one.”
“He used to make them,” my mom told me, “and sell them when he was growing up. Your dad was a very spiritual man, you know.” she continued after a long pause, “You may have not seen him pray, but he always cared about God.”
My dad’s death, as horrible as it was, did help me open up to my faith more. Although I was still dating Luke, I had an experience he had not had now: losing a parent. And although he had always claimed the authority on everything religious, I felt that this experience with grief allowed me to explore my faith in different ways than I could before. And in ways Luke still could not.
For the first time in a long time I felt like I had a part of my faith that was my own not to be destroyed from an overly conservative Catholic argument Luke would wave in front of my face, making me think I was stupid-that I knew nothing about my own religion.
I actually started to pray rosaries, but not because anyone was forcing me to. Because I wanted to. I found myself staying in the present as I prayed them, a lot like meditating. I also found myself connecting to my dad as I prayed them, like I used to be able to do with a simple text or phone call.
“You just know so much about Catholicism,” two of my friends I met a few years later in graduate school both said to me.
Both Katie, my roommate, and Ree my neighbor who were both in my master’s program had said this to me on different occasions. I just brushed it off as it being the effect of me growing up Catholic, an experience neither of them had unlike the people I had been surrounded by my entire life until I moved to Indiana.
At the time, I didn’t tell Ree or Katie my knowledge on the Catholic Church probably came from the hours of listening to talks by Fulton Sheen in the car with Luke as we drove up and down the coast of Lake Michigan to the many locations of our relationship. The only reason I was listening being I had grown tired of fighting over what we played to the radio, me waning to listen to music and Luke wanting to listen to a talk on Relevant Radio.
I didn’t tell them that I constantly educated myself on Catholicism for a long time not because I was in love with the faith, but out of fear of having it used against me by someone who knew more than I did. And I still don’t know if I didn’t tell them this because I was afraid to admit it or if I was and still am trying to wrap my mind around exactly what happened with Luke.
It was a challenge to look back conceptualize all the times I was forced to go to Confession (something that I used to enjoy doing) because in Luke’s opinion, I had tempted him or we had done something bad.
“If I don’t take us to confession right now, we are both going to Hell,” he would say.
So there we would be ditching the plans we had made to drive to the nearest church whether it was in Chicago or Milwaukee and tell a complete stranger about how I had tempted my boyfriend.
After this relationship ended I decided I would never again let someone use my own beliefs to humiliate and abuse me. I learned everything I could about Catholicism, at first out of fear. As I began healing from the pain of my relationship with Luke, I started to fall out of love with him and in love with my faith, genuinely in love with it. Maybe what they say is right? Maybe fear is the heart of love after all.
Luke always told me he was my protector.
He took on this role especially after my father passed away during our relationship. To his defense, I cannot even count how many times Luke was there for my mom and I during this very difficult period in our lives, and it wouldn’t be fair to discount all that he did. Knowing this may even help you understand more why I stayed for as long as I did. Toxic relationships are not all sunshine and roses, obviously, but they are not all bad either.
And when things got bad, I would do exactly what I told you– jump in my little memory car and get away. But no matter how many times I used my HSAM to escape to the past, what was happening in the present was taking a toll on me and sculpting my view of the world.
From the beginning of our relationship a world was painted for me in which men were trying to hurt me. Around every corner, all they wanted was sex and I was their vehicle of choice. At the time, I was especially vulnerable to buying into to this narrative because only a few months before I met Luke I had been sexually assaulted.
It wasn’t until September 17th, 2014 that I reported the assault, only a few weeks after Luke and I started to end the relationship (it was a process).
My best friend, Allison, and her boyfriend, Chris, were sitting with me in the Marquette University Police Station as I reported being sexually assaulted almost two years ago in my freshman dorm room. My assailant had contacted me that morning. Describing the assault and asking if “I missed what he did?” and “If I’d ever want it to happen again?”
“I am sorry I have to ask you this,” the female police officer said as she looked at me, letting out a deep sigh.
I looked over at Allison and Chris, afraid of what she was about to ask.
“…but what were you wearing?”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“What were you wearing the night Brock assaulted you?” she repeated.
I remembered exactly what I was wearing. I was wearing a red top with a butterfly painted on the bottom left corner of it that my Aunt Dee Dee bought me when I started high school. The antennas had rhinestones the followed their swirly curves.
And I was wearing a pair of black leggings.
I looked up at the officer afraid that the answer, the true answer to the question of “What was I wearing?” would be the wrong one. I was afraid it would make the assault my fault.
I knew what I was wearing that night. I knew what I had worn every day since 2005. And on March 22th, 2013, I was wearing leggings. Even though I was told numerous times not to by my parents, teachers, and later on by Luke. Leggings made my butt look too big. Boys couldn’t control themselves when girls wore them. Leggings aren’t pants. I’ve heard it all. But the narrative spelled out by Luke rang the loudest:
Leggings? Do you know what boys see when they see girls wear leggings? They picture you naked and they picture themselves having sex with you.
I could hear him saying this as if I were back in the Macy’s shoe section all over again.
“Jeans.” I told the police officer. “I was wearing a red shirt and jeans.”
I learned that relationship abuse can take on multiple forms. It isn’t always sexual, it isn’t always verbal, but instead there are multiple kinds of ways people manipulate each other in relationships. Toxicity can spread between the two of you, and both people over time can start behaving irrationally and be hurtful towards the other person. The narrative I had built about Luke in my head while we were dating, him being my protector and one of few moral men left in our world, was shattered like a hammer to mirror months after our breakup when we got together to catch up.
I had actually just gotten off the phone with UC Irvine doing my second set of tests for HSAM, the 10 Dates Quiz. Because I had gone into so much detail, I found myself running late to meet Luke at one of our favorite coffee shops we used to frequent when we were dating.
We were outside of my car, and I dropped my keys on the ground as I was getting them out to unlock the door. That’s when I felt his hand on me. A tight and aggressive squeeze followed by the words, “You still have a nice ass.”
Luke was no different than Brock. He did things Brock never did, good and supportive things. But the reality was that an underlying entitlement to my body existed that hit me like a brick in that parking lot.
Yet driving back to Green Bay from Appleton that evening, I still felt a force, something in my brain, wanting me to turn around and go to Luke, tell him I would throw it all away—college, graduate school, everything for him. That’s what our biggest fights were always about: my career. It was clear he would have preferred I not had one at all. But even though now I have a career and my master’s degrees, what still scares me today is that the brainwashed part of my mind lives on somewhere inside of me.
And that’s when the HSAM cars become helpful. When I am going back to bad places, I can stop a memory in its route, jump in and go for a ride to somewhere else that fosters my strong and confident sense of self instead of the weak and submissive one that was fostered through toxicity and abuse.
When being interviewed about HSAM, I never fail to get the questions, “But what about the hard times? It must be so difficult to relive things so painful?”
Let’s be honest, its painful for everyone to relive bad times in their lives. And I am no exception on either end of the spectrum. But what does maybe make me unique is using my vivid and accessible memories as an escape. Lately, however, I have been trying to re-frame this method by embracing bad memories for what they are and using them to find my strength.
This brings me to February 5th, 2017.
My mom was visiting me while I was in graduate school at Indiana University. We had just watched the Super Bowl at one of my favorite restaurants in town, The Tap.
I dropped her off at her hotel and headed back to my apartment on the other side of town. As I drove, I looked at the newest addition to my car, a blue and white beaded rosary hanging from my rear-view mirror.
Although I had grown to love the rosary after my dad died, I could never come to put one in my car since the incident with Luke– until now. Someone at church handed me a plastic rosary as I was walking out of Mass the week before, and I just had a sense to put it in my car, despite the bad association.
As I drove back to my apartment that night down a dark, country road, suddenly bright head lights flooded my view. Before I could serve or even think for that matter, a car going the opposite direction slammed into my vehicle head on.
I had never heard the sound of things breaking so loud before. Smoke went everywhere, the air bags inflated, and debris flew at every part of my body. All I can really remember during the actual hit itself is screaming as the car spun around and around down the road. I had never felt a sense of something being so out of my control. I closed my eyes as I screamed but that only seemed to make the spinning worse, so I opened them and focused on one thing: the rosary.
It turned out I had been hit by a drunk driver. A drunk driver who fled the scene on foot and ran through the forests of Bloomington, Indiana leaving me alone in the middle of 3rd Street.
But the part of the story that still shocks me the most is the moment when the car finally stood still after spinning out of control.
This was the moment I fully realized I was still alive despite telling myself only seconds ago, “This could be it. pray. Pray Pray.” I remember feeling my legs, then my arms and my head. This was the moment I realized I wasn’t alone, and I never had been. My dad would never leave me, and despite everything neither would God.
I grabbed the rosary hanging from the mirror and stepped out of the totaled car.
It was February 5th, 2017. And I was alive.