Spinning Away From Control

We passed the turn we were supposed to make. My fault. I was the navigator.

“We missed the turn,” I said out loud, my voice shaking slightly. “We have to turn around. I’m really sorry.”

My body froze. I braced myself for the backlash, the anger, the screaming. I was surprised when he only laughed, found a place to turn around and then found the right exit. I gathered the courage to look up. He was singing the words to a country song playing on the radio. “Thanks,” I said quietly. “Thanks for not getting mad.”

“What ever for?” he asked me, truly perplexed. He turned to look at me sensing my unease, his foot coming off the gas pedal. “Why would I?”

“I don’t know,” I answered. “Because he did. They all did.”

I’m not used to a man who doesn’t go from zero to angry at the slightest inconvenience, the slightest frustration, the slightest annoyance.

I’m used to fingers pointing in my chest, faces contorting into fury and hatred, mean words, and blame. So much blame.

I’ve been programmed to stop, drop and roll, to not add to the anger. Don’t make it worse. Don’t question, don’t solve. Just sit there quietly, disappear, and let it blow over. Or if it escalates, soothe. Take the blame. Use that soft voice.

I’ve been a work-in-progress for a few years, healing from past years of emotional abuse, but took a major step backwards last year when I reopened all the old wounds by again choosing an angry, controlling man.

My opinions made him angry. My tattoos made him angry. My past made him angry. My refusal to wear more makeup or go to church made him angry. My disabled son’s priority in my life made him furious. No one will put up with your lifestyle he told me in a voice way too loud and threatening for my quiet house. No one will accept your situation. No one will listen to Damon’s loud music or his inappropriate videos and deal with any of it. No one will ever want to take on your baggage.

And then, when I felt sorry for myself based on those hideous words now pounding in my head, he spewed out that people have gone through far worse in life and how dare I think I had it so bad with Damon’s situation.

When I finally reached the end of my feeling-not-enough rope, when I finally mustered up that mama bear strength, I looked at this angry man and said in a quiet voice. I am not afraid of you. Get out.

Before my body’s involuntary reaction to my navigation flop, I thought I had totally healed. I thought I had finally moved through all the triggers which caused me to walk on eggshells, to always want to please, to not allow me to be me. But emotional abuse doesn’t shed just because the abuser is gone. It remains until each trigger is faced head on. Not avoided; navigated through. Navigated through by saying That was then and this is now, and I was never to blame for anyone else’s inner demons, feelings of worthlessness, or insecurities. By saying, Threats, emotional blackmail, control, and anger are the workings of a little man and have nothing to do with me.

Most importantly, healing from emotional abuse requires breaking molds. Changing gears. Choosing someone different. And then understanding this different guy is not the other guys.

I’ve had that bad habit of choosing the wrong guy. Of repeating the pattern, over and over again. “You need to understand control doesn’t equal love,” my daughter told me time and time again, knowing that I had a very controlling mother and then husband, and that for my first 50 years of my life I honestly didn’t know that I could have love without control. That I could be loved without anger. That I could be accepted without someone trying to change or mold me.

When this right guy finally stepped in front of me, I said to my girlfriend, “I don’t know…he’s not my usual personality type.”

And my friend said to me, “Seriously? Look where your usual personality type has gotten you.”

He is unusual because he truly accepts me as is, unconditionally, and has no desire to change me, control me, or make himself feel like a big man by making me less-than or causing me to squirm. He trusts who I am, respects who I am, respects himself, and has the confidence in himself to put me on a pedestal without any fear whatsoever that by doing so he may lower himself. Rather, he elevates us both.

He is not afraid of the priority Damon requires in my life and unequivocally accepts him as a huge part of me, saying you are who you are because of everything you’ve endured. A lesser man would be threatened. Lesser men were threatened.

I feel him holding the end of the tape while I slowly spin to unravel….that tape which has wrapped me up and held me inside of me, like a mummy. And with each unraveling, each full rotation, I expose more and more of my real self….the self I’ve hidden away for so long. I hear his words now: Please do not ever change even one ounce of who you are, instead of the other words: You need to change your hair or your outlook or your plans or wear some lipstick or what were you possibly thinking or just grow the fuck up.

I should never have had to try so hard to please anyone, ever, in order to keep the peace, to make someone else feel important at the expense of me feeling so small. I should never have accepted being made to be anyone other than me.

I should never have been made to feel like a child in an adult relationship, by a man-child pretending to be an adult.

I know this now. But I cant go back and change it, then.

Instead of an onslaught of condescension or reprimands when I screw up or merely stumble, today, I’m met with laughter….the belly aching kind, gentle teasing, but also encouragement. I’m met on an equal plane, a level playing field. With a partner and not a prison guard. How it should be. How it never was.

I know I’m still in the healing phase. But I’m truly getting better. I seldom walk on those eggshells anymore. And when those triggers appear, I try to no longer look down; I slowly glance up and look into the eyes of this wonderful guy I’m with and breathe deeply and stay in the present, and know I’m ok. I’m safe from the past, from myself, from all the boxes I’ve ever lived in.

I know I can be loved without control. And I know I can love without fear.

I’m finally on my way to free.

Boys don’t have to be Boys


When my daughter was in middle school, in 8th grade, a picture of her and her best friend dressed in their Halloween costumes found its way into the hands of some of the 8th grade boys.  The boys wrote inappropriate words and comments on the pictures, disgusting words and comments, and passed the picture from one to another to another until the principal got wind of the happenings and demanded to see and confiscate the picture.

My daughter came home and told me, and I waited for the call from the principal.  The call that would say this happened and those boys were punished appropriately.  The call never came.  So instead, I made the call to the principal.  Tell me about the picture, I asked.  Tell me what happened.  Tell me how you handled it.

I don’t remember every word.  But what I do remember is hearing, “Mrs. Szatkowski, boys will be boys.”

Nothing has been done?  I asked incredulously. They can pass a picture of my daughter around the school and write awful things and nothing has been done?

If I punish the boys he said, the ramifications against the girls will be worse.  You know how middle school is.  The boys will make it worse for the girls if the boys are punished.

Something has to be done I said back to him.  This is not right.

Let me talk to the girls, he answered me.

He talked to the girls.  He sat the two of them down and he said to them, “I will leave it up to you to tell me if I should punish the boys.  If you say I should, I will.  If not, I won’t.  I will leave it in your hands.”

The girls were afraid to ask for the boys’ punishment.  They did not want this on their shoulders.  They were afraid that the principal would tell the boys that the girls asked for punishment and then be excluded, shunned, not invited anywhere the cool kids went.  They said no.  Don’t punish.

The principal called me back and told me that he asked the girls if they wanted the boys punished.  And the girls said no.  So he wasn’t going to punish.

You asked the girls?  You asked them what you as principal should do?  You left this up to them, in their hands?

The matter was dropped.  I didn’t pursue it, my daughter begged me not to, although now, today, I wish I had.  What kind of punishment was I looking for?  Maybe a stay after school.  Maybe a missed football practice.  Maybe something to send the message that what these boys did was wrong.

Two years later, my son was the subject of bullying by a middle school boy, a year older.  The other boy and his posse were out to get him, going so far and being so stupid as to send a threatening and degrading voice mail to my son.  The boy sent the message on school grounds, after school, but at school soccer practice.  The boy came from a very privileged background.  One that I’m sure impressed the principal.

My son was threatened and told in the voicemail not to go to the next dance, because he would be taken down, beaten up.  I called the school.  I called the principal.  I had the voicemail.  It was after school, I was told.  It was at soccer practice, I replied.  I will send you the voicemail, I said. Please, just listen to it and you’ll have the proof you need.   No, he said to me.  He did offer to call the boy’s father and mention the altercation and have the boy’s father call me.  The boy’s father did call me to tell me his son would never.  I asked him if I could send him the voicemail.  I did.  After listening to the voicemail, thankfully to me, the boy’s father called the principal and said, I want my son punished.  No more dances for this year.  Only then did the principal lay out an appropriate punishment for the boy, after permission from the rich boy’s father.

Two incidences.  Just in my family.  Just in our middle school.  One, where boys would be boys and the other where privilege mattered over bullying.

I saw it again in our high school where the male athletes, especially the football players, had their own brand of privilege.  I saw punishments doled out differently for the same infractions, depending on male and female and which sports were played.  My National Honor Society, 95+ average daughter received a 3 day in-school suspension because she ran out to her car for her forgotten lunch bag, sneaking out the side door and back in just as quickly, without permission.  Yes, she needed reprimanding, but 3 days, in school suspension?  The next week, one of the football team had Dominoes delivered to the parking lot, and ran out to get it.  No punishment.  Grins. A slap on the wrist.  Don’t do that again.

Boys.  Money.  Sports.  All three, shields of privilege that build up and up from a young age, protecting so many of our boys from consequence for their behaviors, teaching them that they are above the rules that they are above their female counterparts, creating a climate of fear and danger for our women.

Look what they were wearing in the picture, the principal had said to me.  What does it matter, I had answered. Their clothes were tight, the typical costumes for teenage girls, but not revealing.  But what if they were?  What did it matter?  I was appalled merely at words written on a paper, degrading my daughter.  I’m not sure how I would have handled worse, then or now.

How many professional athletes are accused of rape?  How many times is it swept under the rug?  Boys will be boys.  These men are professional athletes, making more money in a year than most of us will see in a lifetime, probably having their pick of dates lined up at the door.  What has society done to allow such men to think breaking the law, hurting a physically weaker human, exerting the most degrading form of control is perfectly fine?  What has society done that these incidences can be just swept away?

A few weeks ago, before the Stanford rape case and letters from the victim, the father, and others made headlines, before the gorilla, the news was all about protecting women in bathrooms.  Protecting them from men.   Protecting them from the men society has created.  The men who as boys were told boys will be boys.  The society where the girls will feel the ramifications if the boys are punished.

It is not up to women to dress differently, to drink less, to cast our eyes elsewhere.  It is not up to women to avoid certain places, certain parties, certain venues.  It is up to all of us to raise boys to know respect, to know consequence, to take responsibility. It is up to us as parents, as principals, as society to stop overlooking actions at a young age by dismissing it with boys will be boys.  It is up to parents to teach boys from a young age; it is up to our schools to have a zero tolerance policy.  It is up to society to stop looking away and stop blaming women for the actions of men.

Boys will always be boys.  Just as girls will always be girls.  But it is up to all of us to make them better boys.  And then turn them into men who respect women, who respect the law, who respect themselves.