Ten years ago, walking hand-in-hand, as those newly in a relationship do, my palms were sweaty with the summer heat and nerves. I was in Portland, Ore., for a weekend away with a man that I’d been dating for four months, the longest I’d been in a relationship. In fact, it was the only relationship I’d been in. I was 28 and had dated plenty. But I’d never had a boyfriend. I had yet to fall in love or have sex.
I didn’t feel like I was missing out, but I worried what it said about me. I didn’t feel sexually or romantically attracted to anyone, but I wanted to be. I’d shy away from beds and dance club corners. I’d laugh when people made jokes about sex. I couldn’t relate to romantic comedies or my friends’ relationship dramas.
Was I broken, I wondered. Years of childhood abuse at the hands of my father had burned its way through my skin into my psyche. I told myself and friends that I knew what I was looking for. I wanted — no, needed — a partner I could trust. I had to feel comfortable. Friends would tell me I was too picky, that there was no Mr. Perfect. That I should go to therapy. I laughed these comments aside, but their words always rolled around in my brain. Were they right? I knew I wanted a family one day, but didn’t know how I would get there or if I even could.
Those of us who hold on to trauma are modern-day Sisyphuses; we push our trauma rocks uphill day after day. Sometimes it is a lovely summer day, and we sweat and heave but can still feel the glorious sun on our backs. Other times, it is dreadful, rainy and freezing. We shake, wondering why no one will come out of their houses to help us.
On our weekend away, a couple of skateboarders coasted by, just barely swiping us. My boyfriend pulled me out of the way just in time. We hopped on and off the Portland streetcar and the Max, marveling at the public transportation. We studied menus in windows, considered ditching dinner for ice cream and eventually decided on both — ice cream first. I was happy. I was terrified.
The childhood trauma that stripped me bare in more ways than one left me a husk of a woman. I had recently moved from New York City to Seattle, hoping to jump-start a new life. I was scared of sex, of intimacy, of men. What I feared most was parenthood. But, oh, how badly I wanted to be a mother. If I was so wounded, I worried, could I create a healthy family?
Finding this boyfriend (who later became my husband) was kismet. We met at a mutual friend’s Halloween party. He was dressed as an ostrich, which I found amusing. I was, however, more interested in the costume than the man under it. At this point in my life, my eyes flitted right over potential partners. I had somewhat resigned myself to being single. As we chatted, we found that we had both attended the same Midwestern college. Over several months, thanks to social media and the help of friends, this ostrich man and I became friends. Months later, he finally asked me on a date.
Throughout those early days, the big question loomed: Should I tell him about my childhood trauma? I wanted him to understand that my extreme nerves around sex and romance had a root. That the childhood abuse at my father’s hands left an indelible mark on my skin and my psyche. If this was going to be the person I ended up with for life, shouldn’t he know the extremes I endured to become the person I am now, the good and the bad?
We scanned the shelves at Powell’s Bookstore: biography, romance, self-help, children’s. We laughed at punny literary magnets and bought commemorative water bottles. Should I tell him now? I mulled it over, deciding, no, not here. Later, eating in a restaurant, I wondered: Should I divulge my greatest secret now? There were so many people within earshot. The waiter hovered. How long would this take? Would it be like confessions I saw in the movies? Would I cry? I decided against it and continued eating my poutine.
Later that night, as we were making out, I wondered: Would it be weird now? Yes, it would be. We were in a trendy hotel in downtown Portland. As we kissed and groped, I couldn’t stop my thoughts from reeling out into the depths. Reminders of my father’s heavy hands, astringent alcoholic breath wafted into my memory. Maybe this was the right time. Maybe it was the wrong time.
I pulled away and took a deep breath, yanking my clothes back on. My heart beat double-time, one for adult me and one for my childhood self. My boyfriend seemed surprised at the abrupt stop, but he graciously sat up and separated himself from my body. This was the time, I thought. Not making eye contact, my back to him, I said, wavering: So I feel like I need to tell you something. My father, well, y’know, he, well, I mean, he was kind of awful … and he y’ know, did things.
My boyfriend pulled me in close, wrapped his long arms around my body. My back to his chest, we didn’t look at each other. I don’t remember his exact words. But it was at that moment I knew he was the trustworthy partner I had been waiting for. As he held me, he took a pebble, a small piece of rock from me. And I felt lighter. So I continued my story — leaving some parts out, not going into too much detail. Some rocks are harder to let go of. But I made it very clear that as a child I was abused in so many ways: emotionally, physically, sexually. I was neglected in ways that, from the outside, one might’ve never known. I told him I was scared.
Shame is something we carry whether we want to or not. And it’s heavier than what one person can truly hold — we aren’t built with stamina to carry it all day, every day. Sometimes we need to put it down. Now my husband helps carry the rocks. Sometimes he holds more, sometimes less, and every day we begin again.
Since my partner knows about my past, it makes certain conversations easier. If a man looks too long at my daughter and I am wary, my husband understands. When I worry I will fail as a mother, my husband understands. When I need our house to be clean, my husband understands that it’s more than nagging. He knows that filth takes me back to my childhood home. When #MeToo started trending, he understood what that meant for me.
I have had friends with varying degrees and types of trauma who ask: Do I share this with my significant other? What will they think of me? Shame is unbearably heavy and can bury us easily. Every relationship is different, of course, but having someone to help carry the rocks is so much easier.