HOLDING OUT FOR A HERO...Or At Least Graduation
Updated: Jan 21
I didn't break up with Shane after that horrible day on the rock. Well, not to his knowledge. I fully own to taking the cowardly route. The truth was, after he shoved me so hard and said those awful things, I was afraid of him. I'd already heard tales of the violence he was used to. If he would do that to me when he was supposedly madly in love with me?
I didn't want to know how he would react if I dumped him.
Over half my school day including lunchtime was scheduled at his campus, and we were guaranteed to be in the spring musical together. After being cast as the Prince Stealing soot-sweeper herself in Cinderella the previous spring, and after switching from the famous Carl to the notorious Shane, my social status there had taken a hit. Plus, a lot of the kids I had hung out with in that school had been Carl's age, and they had long since graduated.
I couldn't count on steadfast, ferocious backing from a pack of my own. I didn't have one of those. I had my best friend Mari, and she didn't take AP classes.
I did not want to spend my senior year looking over my shoulder, afraid that Shane would menace me or corner me with his friends. I didn't know if he was the type to do that. I only knew his history and how he had already treated me. My guts were on constant Klaxon mode, and it was all I could do to muzzle the alarms enough to keep cheering, smiling, winning, shining.
I also feared that he would say terrible things about me to people who didn't know me well enough to ignore him as a bitter guy who'd just been dumped. We all know what happens when rumors rule the day.
It had been three blissful years without walking through shadowed hallways in fear. I had no interest in going back to all that again, so I stayed with him.
I also stayed distant, biding my time. It was my final year and I was in a lot of activities, had graduation and college to think about, so it wasn't too difficult to put on the smile, give him quick pecks, and pray that time and the lurrrrve of a devoted girl would make him kinder.
But school gave me the excuse to avoid going to his house or anywhere else he might be inclined to ask me for intercourse again. Thankfully, he never did.
No surprise, we were cast as derelict partners-in-crime in the musical, which allowed us to have some fun and lightheartedness we desperately needed.
(The directors apologized to me that they couldn't cast me in a major role because of the ruckus from the previous year. I was actually thrilled--yes, to be sans-ruckus. But more, because it was an evil-girl role. There had been a lot of jealousy over my being cast as Cinderella, but I had been equally envious of the girls in the three Wicked roles. Those were the ones I wanted. For one, they were not soprano parts. But more so...um...Wicked!) 🔥😈🔥
Also no surprise, Shane and I went to prom together. I can still feel the tension in my body and the emptiness of my smile when he pulled me close to him as his mom took pictures of us. My mouth moved upward, but it never reached my eyes.
My mom and I had sewn a beautiful dress with a jewel-toned paisley bodice and a skirt of midnight blue satin. She taught me how to tea-dye my gloves. I had never worn something so elegant before. I felt gorgeous in it. Shane told me I was.
All I wanted was to squirm out from under his armpit.
I wanted to break up with him even more.
Only two more months. Only two more months. If my years being bullied had taught me anything, it was that I could weather two months of less-than-ideal circumstances. Besides, as far as anybody knew, we were happy together.
Only Mari really knew how much we argued.
Unfortunately, the strain from this situation exacerbated customary teenager-parental friction into a constant storm. In hindsight, long removed from that time, I now understand that my mom and dad were trying to protect me, to encourage me to protect myself, and to be my best self.
Alas, they didn't fully know what they were trying to protect me from. They were missing some crucial details, because I had never confided my true feelings and fears.
How could I? I was up to my eyelashes in self-convincing and brainwashing in order to maintain enough of the facade to forestall the inevitable explosion of a breakup. I was also the quintessential bully-bait doormat. It's fine. It's fine. It's not that bad. I've got this. It'll be fine as long as I can just keep things calm and happy...enough.
I certainly never told them what had happened on that rock. I didn't even tell Mari about that.
One month before graduation, I wrote my mom and dad a heated letter, expressing my frustration over the way I felt caught between them and Shane. In reality, that wasn't my rolling boulder and my hard place. My parents were trying to steer me into either creating a healthier dynamic or ending a toxic one (exactly what they should have been doing). But I felt like neither of those was an option.
I already knew to my marrow that I couldn't create something healthy from such an unhealthy dynamic. As for Option B?
I mean, c'mon. Adults hadn't been able to protect me from violence in the halls when the offenders were under four feet tall. Shane stood over six feet and was adept at physical confrontation. He was even more skilled in the arts of mental and verbal warfare, as my deteriorating emotional state proved.
So I felt like I just needed my parents to back off, because their solutions could not solve my problem without--to my mind--even worse fallout than what I was already enduring. At least I had the enemy I knew, and if I could hack it for four more weeks, I would have more options.
Hacking it meant I wouldn't have to stand up and act on it. As a doormat, I didn't have to put my foot down and then deal with the consequences of doing so when I had zero skills of protecting myself beyond fawn or hide, and when that failed, duck, cover, and wait for it be over.
I was still several years shy of discovering my first opportunity to learn the arts of self-defense, so I remained operating under those old presets: turn the other cheek. Be patient, compassionate, and kind (even if means you pass out before getting your own oxygen mask on). Never rock the boat. Be meek, mild and pleasant, and therefore "worthy of a man's love."
Plus, you just never know. ✨A miracle could happen.✨ We little girls raised on Old School Disney Princesses were taught to believe in those. "Convince ourselves" is a more apt statement, so we could bear to keep taking it in the teeth, whether literal or not. The Beast, after all, turned out to be a prince under the love and patience of a good woman. If he didn't, there was always That Prince Who Might Come to rescue me. Someday.
Clinging to those subconscious prayers allowed me to keep smiling and telling myself and anyone who would listen that I was all right.
Beneath, I was at my wits' end, trying to keep my boat afloat amidst that final push to graduation. I didn't understand that I was already capsized and drowning in emotional abuse.
I never would have called it that back then. That term wasn't even on anybody's radar where I grew up. Plus, I had a long history of being called "melodramatic, oversensitive, paranoid, etc." When it came to alerting people that I was in an abusive situation over my head, I had learned one thing: DON'T, because they won't believe you if you don't have incontrovertible proof--which I didn't. All I had was my gut instinct, but that had been pooh-poohed too many times. It couldn't stand up next to the facts of reality.
Shane had never once hit me. He'd never even threatened to.
This would become a theme over the ensuing years. That if a man had only hit me, just once, I would have known he was abusing me. But they didn't.
Until one finally did.
It's a slippery slope, those red flags and the more subtle types of abuse. What is a heated argument between passionate people, and what is toxicity? Where exactly is the line between disagreement and compromise vs. capitulation for fear of worsening abuse?
I'm not here to tell you where that line is. I'm not here to tell you what to do about it. I'm only here to tell you my tales. You can decide the rest for yourself.
After I poured my angsty, lost, (secretly enraged and fear-soaked) heart out, my dad wrote me a three-page reply that I have kept all these years. As I've mentioned before, my mom and I are the writers of the family. For him to take that time...he is an all-caps printer, methodical and slow to write, not one to communicate in this medium often. So when he does, you know it's important.
From my dad to me, April 1991:
Like you, I am having a little difficulty putting my thoughts together regarding how I feel about you and how your life is going. This will probably be the last time in our lives that I have the responsibility to try and assist you in your goals, attitude and conduct. Graduation is four weeks away and then it will be over. What will be over? All those terrible years of having to be a disciplined person to achieve what you have done for yourself?
In one sense, yes. Now you have the skills and discipline that will carry you through your next phase of life. In another sense, no. It will take all of your effort in the areas of skill and discipline to proceed on with your life no matter what you end up doing. Life doesn’t stop with graduation from high school. It’s just the next step in a series of steps you will be taking. I thought you were headed in the direction of the next step but lately you seem to have mixed emotions about what your real goals are.
I have found over the years that if you have a goal, you have to prioritize things in your life in order to achieve that goal. It’s like me wanting to semi-retire at 45 years old. I have had to prioritize many things to achieve this goal. First I had to think it through. What am I really getting into here? What will I have to sacrifice and are those sacrifices worth the rewards? Am I being realistic in my goal? Only after I have thought about all these things can I make a real plan.
The same applies to you. What is your deep down inside yourself goal? Is it to become a real professional actress, stage or screen? Or is it to just dabble on the edges of this profession and maybe settle down some year to a family? Or maybe just do whatever comes along, stay single and play the field? Only you can answer these questions for yourself.
I have been trying to watch you over the last several months to see if you were doing some of these things. It doesn’t look like it. It looks like you are starting to panic. Experience will tell you that when you panic you make mistakes. I’m not trying to tell you that you can’t make mistakes. Everyone makes them. You just have to learn by them. Experience will also tell you that mistakes usually start out as small ones, something like mild brashness or disrespect towards someone in authority. Believe me, a polite “yes sir” goes along way in just about any situation. Advancement and disrespect usually do not go together.
I guess the reason I bring this up is to give you the opportunity to really see what’s at stake in your particular situation.
Mistakes: drugs/drug abuse (including alcohol), aids, pregnancy (unless abortion is OK with you) and suicide (brought on by one of the above).
I think these are the biggies. If you get involved in any of these, of course two of them are permanent. The other two could drastically put the damper on any goals you may have. You will be the one making decisions about any form of involvement with the above and if you have any questions about how they may affect our support you better ask them now.
I think young adults sometimes feel that they have their situation under control and we are not to be concerned. In your case you are miles ahead but you seem to be consumed in your relationship with Shane. Your letter to us is very strong in its feeling that we hate Shane. Not so. What I do not care for is the intensity of your relationship. He seems to now have the power over you to turn you into a wreck in a matter of moments. Let’s put this fighting business to rest also. You may argue about our feelings toward him, but deep down that’s not the real issue.
You two are not at the same maturity level and Shane is reacting to it. He needs to have his way and is now somewhat having it with you. My only advice to you at this point is, if you plan to continue the relationship, get control of it. Quit allowing him to push you into making mistakes that could lead to more serious ones.
My daughter dearest, sit down and ask yourself if you are really ready to share your life with someone else or are you finding it difficult enough just managing your own? There really is plenty of time for romance and sex, and all that goes with it. You should know however, there also has to be a full commitment to the other person in order to have a strong, productive bond. It’s taken mom and I twenty years to experience what you guys think you want tomorrow. Passion is not love. It’s only a small but important part of the total package.
Give yourself some freedom. Give yourself a chance to experience your new step in life. Uncomplicate your life and turn down the burner of love for a while and then turn up the burner of direction of self. It’s your life.
I am still here for you.
I love you.
That letter changed everything. Just like that day I almost drowned in the pool when I was four, my father's hand reached down to grab my wrist and haul me back up to the surface where I could breathe. I didn't fully understand the day I read it, but it righted my boat and gave me a single oar with which to paddle to my new shore, no matter the ungainly, halting rhythm.
Although I didn't gain the courage to break up with Shane right away, those words reminded me who I was. They gave me the strength to stop being tossed and turned and torn to shreds by my boyfriend's turbulent moods and demands. Most importantly in that moment, they validated what I had been feeling in my guts by telling me, "Yes. You're seeing that boy correctly. You're not off your rocker, this is not love, and you don't deserve to be treated this way."
That letter also smoothed the long-stormy rapport between me and my father, opening the way for me to become something I had not been since I was very young: Daddy's Girl. Working in the same office during college, and then in the same city afterwards would bring us together in the sweetest way that endures to this day. So much of our connection revolves around those most practical and vital of tasks: our weekly trip to the grocery store, recycling center, and Daddy-Daughter breakfast, as well as the home repairs we do together.
Where the body goes, so does the mind...and vs. versa.
His words helped me grab ahold of my focus once more so I could launch myself through to the completion of my goal: graduation.
Throughout all these decades, especially during the seventeen years we lived across the country from one another, whenever I need that kind of steadying hand and the reminder that someone believes in me and loves me even when I'm lost and botching the boat, I read that letter.
On the day of our commencement ceremony, I dressed in the outfit I had bought during our class trip to Orlando. (Alas, I was drastically outvoted when the administration gave us the choice to go on the traditional trip to Washington D.C.--D.C., people! Seriously?!--or to go to Disney and Epcot. Woot. Whatever.)
Annnnyway...I had bought the most wondrous rainbow tied-dyed outfit in Florida, which I wore under my cap and gown as my parting, "Piss off!" with my ginormous middle finger foamies raised. Only my parents, Mari, and I knew about it, and we all agreed--that outfit was fabulous.
Woe unto my poor school, community, and the family members who came for my commencement: they had to suffer through my Valedictorian speech. Umph. Even before Dain Bramage, nobody wants me giving live speeches about emotional stuff, especially when I have choke-chained too much about the subject. Nooooobody. Set the microphone down and walk away. I should have written my speech and read it.
After that, our Salutatorian/Homecoming Queen/Student Body President spoke, which saved the day. In closing, one of our charismatic badasses reduced everyone to tears before we received our diplomas.
Hugs, more flowing snot, sob-laden laughter, more hugs.
It made me remember all the amazing things I'd shared with and learned from all those people since kindergarten or earlier. I had spent all eighteen years of my life in that town.
And that was enough.
Once set loose upon the world, I peeled off that formal robe to reveal my triumphal regalia of liberation.
The next morning, I called Shane and told him it was over.
He did not react well. I did not blame him. After all, I hadn't even had the guts to do it in person--and I mean that literally. Something in my innards kept warning me not to let him into close enough proximity that he could put his hands on me while he was pissed off.
Turns out my fears were well founded.
I saw him a few weeks later at the nightclub where I liked to go dancing on Underage Thursdays. He tried to convince me to change my mind. I refused. He tried to get me to come outside and talk things over, just the two of us. I refused. So he launched into what a horrible bitch I was.
To punctuate, he clamped his big hand around my throat and slammed the back of my skull against the oversize wooden column that supported the ceiling. "Fuck you!" he snarled into my face.
At least he didn't say it with his fist. I guess.
As he stormed out of the place with his middle fingers raised, all I could do was stand there, stunned--from both the impact to my head and the shock at how spot-on my guts had been when they warned me that he wouldn't hesitate to resort to violence if I didn't behave the way he wanted me to. Somehow I had known that he would assault me if given half a chance. I just never imagined he would do it in a public place.
(That was also destined to become a theme over the years.)
Thankfully I never saw Shane Byrd again.
Yeah, I've got a byrd for ya.
In fall of the next year, I moved to the "big city" on that full-ride scholarship I had chomped teeth around in ninth grade and refused to let go until I made it mine.
Not until you pry it from my cold, dead jaws.
I left that school, that town, that boy, that life, and it's one of the healthiest, most monumental things I've ever done.
Getting to the point where I can write about it where anyone else can read my words? That actually tops it.
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE:
--UP NEXT: JONATHAN - Reprise.
--OR if you don't recognize that name, the next post won't make much sense unless you know about that time I WENT TO A FUNERAL AND CAME HOME WITH A DATE.