Friday was one of those days that gave me a reason to stop and take stock of my life. It was a gorgeous Fall day and thus, not a bad day to park aways out and enjoy a longer walk across the quad at Sacred Heart. That was a good thing, because, as usual, there was precious little parking available. My stroll took me past the administration building where, five years ago, I had so nervously filled out an application to be re-admitted after having failed out at 19. There hasn’t been a single day on campus in these last five years that I haven’t felt the specter of the anxiety and sense of failure that plagued me all those years ago. When I dropped out of school in 1992, it wasn’t something I talked about. If pressed, I’d say I didn’t really want to go college or that it was more practical to earn my bookkeeping certification from a business school and go to work full-time. That was my cover story and I hid behind that for the next three decades.
Friday was special to me. Not just because I was enjoying one of my dwindling days on campus. It wasn’t that it was Friday the 13th and a full moon or that Halloween decorations are showing up everywhere (and I live for Halloween). No. This day was special because I was so keenly aware of being at a tipping point in my life. 12 years earlier, I had walked out of Superior Court with my copy of a restraining order and the filing for divorce in my hands. I had finally decided that after 12 years of abuse, I was done. I’d had enough and I wanted to build a new life for myself and my sons. I had no idea – none whatsoever – what that life might look like, but it had to be better than where I was.
12 years in. 12 years out.
Friday was the tipping point and I felt it with every step I took. I can still remember every moment of that day 12 years ago. Walking out of the courthouse. Taking off my wedding ring. Picking up my kids. Turning off my cellphone and turning on the new one I’d secretly purchased. Every mile on road was one more mile of safe distance as we went into hiding until the marshals could serve the papers. The deep breath I took as we crossed the state line felt like the first deep breath I’d allowed myself in years. And now, walking across campus 12 years later, watching the sun play across the bell tower of the chapel, every step was one more step out of that long, long shadow of my past. Every step now is beyond it’s reach. I’ve been out now longer than I was in, free longer than I was caged. I know what it feels like to dream again, to look ahead to what life might be in a few years, to allow myself to plan for a future rather than simply survive the present.
For the first few years after leaving, I didn’t talk much about what happened behind the closed doors of my marriage. I was afraid to for many reasons. It took me a few years to find my voice. But once I did, I learned there is power in these stories. What had once seemed an impenetrable darkness, ready at any moment to take over my life again, became a shadow that shrank back from the light of the truth. The flame of truth that I once feared would burn me alive instead became the light that showed me my way forward.
So why is that I don’t have that same profound sense of freedom when it comes to being back in school? Why is it that I’m still competing with a ghost? Why is it that I will obsess over the difference between a 98.01 and a 98.87 when ultimately, it will count as a 4.0 either way? Because, even now, I don’t talk much about those stories. I crack jokes in my classes about having the dubious honor of having spent two semesters simultaneously on academic probation and the Dean’s List. It’s my go-to “fun fact” about myself. But I don’t talk about the emotional toll that failing so miserably had taken on me. I walked out of one of the best high schools in the state ranked 32 out of 182 and felt like a total failure because I was outside the top 20. I suffered panic attacks on the college campus, missed classes, and when I fell behind, I gave up entirely. But that hasn’t been a story I tell.
Until now. This past week, during a break out session in my social work course, one of my much younger classmates asked me a series of rather point blank questions about why I’d come back to school at my age (translation: OLD), why Sacred Heart, how did I fail out, and when I told her my GPA from 1992, she asked, “Like, did you just not even try?”
I hadn’t gone to school Wednesday night prepared to make a confession of my academic sins, nor was it really a part of our discussion for class and yet, somehow I found myself sitting in the hallway, with a dozen much younger students, telling my truths rather than recycling my worn-out old cover story. I told them I had been through a lot of grief and trauma between 14 and 19 and it had taken a massive emotional toll on me. I couldn’t handle it and I didn’t know how to find help, so I shut down instead. And lo and behold, that old darkness of failure started to fade into shadow, losing it’s power in the light of truth.
There is a great deal of power and light and grace in our stories, even the ones that feel so overwhelmingly dark and shameful. There is strength and courage to be found in speaking the truth, even in the tiniest, shakiest of tear-filled voices. I can’t help but be reminded of listening to the stories of alcoholics when I attended an AA meeting as a guest of my best friend. I told him over dinner afterwards that I’d seen more of real church in that church basement than I’d ever seen in any church on any given Sunday. And as I listened to the gospel story this morning of the shepherd leaving the 99 sheep to seek out the one who was lost, then returning with that formerly lost sheep on his shoulders, I couldn’t help but think that that lost sheep probably had one hell of a story to tell when she got back. I have to wonder: did she tell the other 99? I hope she did. I really, really hope she did.