Ceasefire Bell

One of my childhood abusers is dead.

Not from Covid. It doesn’t matter how. What matters is the finality: Deceased. Buried. Gone. Expired. Muerte. Mort. Finis.

The other half of their tag-team (enabler, co-abuser, folie à deux, whatever) is of course attempting to use this to wedge a fingernail under the defenses I painstakingly built to keep not just them but other stalkers and harassers out. I can even feel a little pity for the remaining abuser; I know they must be spinning, deprived of the narcissistic supply and pathological push-pull that gave their life meaning for decades. It must be terrifying. No wonder they’re trying like hell to find me, find my address, find my phone number, find anything so they can attempt to hurt me like they used to.

Should I feel grief? I did, in therapy a long while ago. I grieved the non-abusive relationship I wish I would’ve had with both/either of them. There’s nothing left in that well. I peer over the stone lip and whisper hello, but the only response is a dry echo. Should I feel the pain someone who had a different childhood would? Should I now pretend some kind of grief because it’s socially desirable? Why? What good would that do?

What do I feel? Relief, I suppose–even a stray dog has the sense to be happy when someone’s not kicking her. Liberation? Yes, perhaps. That person will never hurt me again. I outlasted them; I won. I am living in a safe place, with pets and people who love me. I have a career I like. I went to therapy, I worked hard, I fought and scratched and bit my way out of an abyss of self-hatred and shame in order to feel (most days) like the things they did to me when I was young and helpless and dependent are not entirely my fault. I have ways of answering their persistent voices inside my head, healthier methods of responding to events. I have (mostly) stopped hurting myself, as I was trained to since birth, for the benefit of toxic vampires.

I got away. I haven’t spoken to either abuser in over a decade. I was lucky to have support, lucky for the chance to physically remove myself from danger. It took repeated efforts (it always does), because both of them–singly or in tandem–wanted me back under the thumb, so they could have their usual victim and also because the secrets I still hold could destroy them legally or socially. They had to make sure I wouldn’t talk, and the best way of doing that was to terrify me. Or so they thought–yes, I held to my silence, but not for them.

Never for them.

You’re not supposed to wish ill on anyone. You’re not supposed to feel a great wash of relief and crazy laughter when you get the news of final karma coming home to roost. You’re not supposed to admit that you were waiting, on some level, for this to happen. You aren’t supposed to admit that when someone who hurt you over and over again, deliberately and with great vicious enjoyment, is finally in the Great Hereafter facing whatever comes next, that you hope they suffer some consequences for what they did. What they chose to do. What they knew was wrong, because you cried and told them over and over again, no, stop, you’re hurting me, please don’t do that.

The news tolls inside me like a bell. A big brass church bell, survivor of many centuries and battles, rung to ward off lightning, to celebrate miraculous rescues. Te Deum, te Deum, te Deum laudamus. Ding-dong, the jerk is dead. The shelling has stopped, a ceasefire is announced. Maybe someday soon I can go to the store without looking over my shoulder. Maybe there will come a time when I will check the mail without the persistent shadow of fear. Maybe, on some blessed day, I will know that I have outlasted not just one but both of my tormentors.

They seemed eternal when I was small and helpless. It seemed that I would never escape, never breathe free air. I endured without hope for so long. When I grow up, I would think, but without any real expectation it could happen; I knew I was trapped. I knew very well that they could easily go too far one day and kill me or worse, leave me permanently scar-twisted. The knowledge lived in my bones, tainted every breath. Even after I was physically removed, the damage was done. I jumped at shadows, I flinched before anyone could land a punch, I left before I could be hurt, I pushed everyone away before they had a chance to strike. I still do not know what it is to sleep without some part of me scanning restlessly for danger.

But one of my childhood abusers is dead.

I can work in my garden, turning over fresh black dirt. I can hug my children, who never suffered anything I did–I protected them, as I wish someone would have protected me. I can snuggle my dog. I can tell my friends I’m hurting and get a hug. I can write books, I can sing, I can dance. I can run in the mornings and my heart, over and over, will pound the two-beat tattoo I am, I am, I am. I am grown up, I got away. I can set books on my kitchen counter without fearing they will be ripped up, mutilated, thrown away. I survived. The cost was high; I paid it.

Many abused children do not survive. Many are trapped all their lives. Many find other abusers out in the world because we are trained so thoroughly to take the punch, take the blame, and who are we if we’re not being hurt? Many continue the cycle because they have been deformed out of all recognition, or because they know no better. Some figure it’s better to be the abuser than abused, and grow to like hurting others. The world teems with broken people. Should I feel guilty for that too, for my great good luck in escaping?

I don’t know. I can’t tell. All I know is this: One of my childhood abusers is dead.

And I? I am still alive.