Good people give bad advice all the time. And said advice generally comes in well-intended pithy (and occasionally alliterative!) axioms. The rule of thumb for discerning bad advice: does it fit on a bumper sticker? If yes, then it is too simple to be of much use. Funny? Sure! Worth honking for? Why not! Helpful? Not so much. My least favorite of these little adages is the perennial “Live like you are dying!” I think there’s even a country singer out there that made his career peddling this.
In the most general sense, technically all of us are living like we are dying because we are all headed for the final curtains at some point. But very few of us ever have to live like we are actually seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. I can’t speak for everyone – and trust me when I say you don’t want to hear me sing country – but living like that is no way to live.
The Little Green Box
I could hear my roommate J softly snoring as I crawled into our softly dark bedroom, cold, shaking and terror stricken. Not even trying to be quiet, I went immediately into the bathroom and shut the door. I was about to do the most rational thing I’d done over the past three months of complete irrationality.
That night was when I made the box. Unceremoniously I dumped out all the cosmetics the little green Rubbermaid box held and began to refill it. First in was my torn shirt. And then a picture of me showing the bruises on my neck, chest and upper arms – bruises that I had spent the last week wearing a turtleneck to cover, bruises that had caused a fellow bridesmaid to exclaim “What in holy hell happened to you?” In a church. Next, an altoids box of blood-soaked razor blades I’d taken away from my boyfriend in a feinted attempt at suicide. Then a dark poem he’d written me. But the most important addition was a plain college-ruled notebook. On the first page I had written the date, my name, and simply the words the evidence.
See, that night he had told me he had a present for me. I could tell by the strange twitch in his smile and the fire in his eyes that I would not like it. But I listened. I didn’t really have a choice – he held my car keys, threatening to throw them into the dark abyss of the canyon at night. “I wrote a list. A list of 100 ways to kill you.” He waited for my reaction.
I waited for my reaction. But there was nothing, just the pounding of my heart and a sense of inevitability settling over me like a comfortable blanket.
“The first one is to peel back all the skin on your skull. So I can see what it looks like. I imagine you have a beautiful skull.”
I didn’t picture it. I just held my breath and waited as he read down the list, detailing way after creative way to kill me. Did he mean now?
“And then I ate the list. So I’d always have it inside of me.”
Who says that??
“Does that scare you?” He tenderly pushed the hair away from my face, “Because it should.” He paused and then added, “You look like an angel tonight.”
By that night, I had long since stopped being scared of him. Don’t get me wrong, he still had the power to terrify me but the element of surprise was gone. It was surreal. I lived in his world and he made the rules. This was how it would all end: he would kill me. There would be no break up, no leaving, no whining to my girlfriends. We would either stay together or one of us would die. It was a possibility that he would kill himself too. Either in addition to killing me or just to hurt me with his death. He’d threatened me with that possibility before (hence the tin of bloody razors).
That night I wrote it all down. Every bruise, every threat, every crazy incident written in a numbered list in that black notebook. It took four pages before my urge to purge was sated. As I re-read the list, it was with a sense of foreboding. I knew that one day those papers would be used in a court of law to convict him. That green box was my failsafe. My explanation. My reassurance that when he killed me, at least they would know who did it.
The box was made before he sexually assaulted me. I later added my bloodied and torn clothing from that night. Even later still I added a letter that he gave me on the day I got married, still claiming me as his. And even after that, I would add notes to my list or print out the e-mails that he still sent me. For five years I kept that box. For five years after we had broken up, I still fully expected my life to end at his hands.
The Aftermath of Not Dying But Not Living
After the sexual assault – the day that severed the ties of our formal relationship – I went into a downward spiral as many victims do. Turbo Jennie summed up her experience in a comment on a previous post thusly,
“I was raped when I was 21 and the result was my fiance calling off our wedding, me drinking more than anyone should, sleeping with more random people than anyone should and an attacker that spent a mere 15 days in jail.”
What she did on the outside, I did on the inside. Relationships felt superficial, hobbies felt too difficult to maintain, classes felt too hard to finish. And why bother? I was going to die anyhow. There were times during that period that I wished he really had killed me. Anything had to be better than the protracted pain of not-recovery.
And then the court case happened. My box of evidence was invaluable in convicting him, tangibly refuting his claim that he didn’t even know who I was. But then the box was gone from me and I felt naked without it. Unprotected. He was in prison. He was alive. I was alive. Somehow everything had worked out for the best. And then it was that the fear set in. I had lost my excuse. For five years I had lived like I was dying.
Now I needed to make good on the chance that I had got, I had to live like I was actually living. I had no excuse not to take risks or try new things or emotionally invest in the people around me. I had no reason to continue with my destructive eating disorder (which had been my primary coping mechanism during the drawn-out court case). In fact, for the first time in my life, I felt like I needed to love, nurture and take care of the body that I had. It had suffered a lot both at my own hands and the hands of others. I might be around another 80 years for all I knew and I needed it to be in good working order! It was liberating and dizzying and overhwelming.
It was hope.
And that’s why I bring this up now. First, October is domestic violence awareness month – aptly commemorated by Rhode Island becoming the first state to make domestic violence education mandatory in high schools. I think dating violence education is an important message for all young women and men to hear and I hope that by talking openly about my experiences that that will inspire and further discussion between teens and their parents and teachers.
But in a more general sense, I think a lot of people live like they are dying. By some circumstance in their lives they have lost hope and faith in a future that will be better than the past. They don’t feel their present is worth improving and so they go for the quick fix of alcohol or the numbing release of television or the tantalizing but never satisfying gossip. I’m not saying it’s easy to live for the sake of life – it’s both joyous and painful to experience everything – but living like you are dying is no life at all.
I hope I have not been too strident or, worse, trite in my handling of this subject. It’s just that five years is a long time to waste. The green box served its purpose for a time but letting it go was one of the best things I’ve ever done. What can you let go of?