99 Problems

Published on November 1st, 2016 | by Kezia Willingham

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Filling in the Space Between Love and Hate: KEZIA WILLINGHAM on Learning to Subvert the Cycle of Violence

As a social worker, I spend a lot of time thinking about the connections between the personal and professional. In our work, we are supposed to remain objective. Yet we are human, which means that this is not always possible.

I wanted to be a social worker in the field of education because of my own origins in domestic violence. I’ve been conscious of the effects of trauma in my life for many years, but not always clear on the ways in which my decision-making has been a direct result.

One of my earliest memories is of my mom sitting on the bed in my parent’s room, crying.

“Please let me out!” I remember her begging through the door that was open just a crack, while feeling helpless to do anything about it. I couldn’t have been more than three years old, because that’s how old I was when my mom finally escaped the domestic violence delivered by my father, a policeman.

“He always told me he’d killed before and that he would do it again,” she told me years later, when I was about nine or ten. “After he stuck the gun in my mouth while I was holding your baby brother, I had to leave.”

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Kezia and her family

I was born in 1974. My mom left my dad in 1977, before domestic violence was a something we heard about as often as “school shooting” is now.

My identity was shaped in the context of this conflict between my parents. Love and hate became synonymous. I both loved and hated the two most influential people in my life.

Discord was my norm. It was probably one of the most stable essences of my childhood. Anger, rage, and despair were feelings I was quite familiar with, particularly in my most intimate relationships.

After my mom escaped her abusive marriage, I continued to visit my dad and his new family every other weekend. While they no longer communicated directly with each other, my parents still sent messages to one another through my brother and I, which we were, at first, too young to understand.

“Your mom is a witch,” my dad would say.

“Your dad tried to kill me,” my mom told us.

As young children do, my brother and I continued to love each of our parents. Love and hate were emotions that were strongly intertwined. We tried to maneuver our actions in order to win the approval of whichever parent’s home we were at. In order to please our dad, we’d say we hated our mom. In order to make my mom happy, we’d talk about how much we hated our dad.

At school, I told my friends that I could see ghosts in the woods behind the fence. I made up elaborate stories of the women who lived there.

“That’s not true,” Angela told me at recess. “I asked my dad and he said ghosts aren’t real.”

“They are. But only if you believe in them,” I replied in defense of my fantasy life.

And, of course, anyone with a rich imagination knows that dreams can be a viable relief from reality.

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Photo by Varga Photography

My childhood was difficult, as it is for many people. I didn’t grow up wanting to have kids or get married. Family was not a happy concept for me, it wasn’t the way it looked on TV, all cheery and bright.

I turned to books for escape. In all reality, they probably saved my life. I could open a book and transport to a different time and place. I could find people who felt big feelings and dreamed big dreams and thought of big things, which I wasn’t able to openly do in the “real” world.

Unlike people who plan their initiation into parenthood, I became pregnant at the age of twenty-two a couple of weeks after I started dating a guy I met while waiting for the bus in downtown Portland in 1996. By that time I’d been living on my own for seven years, had no contact with my dad, but still visited my mom occasionally.

The father of my child, Chris, was open about being an alcoholic from the time we first met. He was living in a Salvation Army shelter for homeless addicts. He was an ex-gang member with a list of enemies who wanted him dead. We were both Pisces dreamer types who grew up in single-parent homes, naively in search of a “real” family, but too young to know how to create one.

Needless to say, our relationship crashed and burned before the birth of our daughter.

I didn’t intend to become a single parent, because I didn’t want to raise a child the way I had been raised. I wanted my baby to have all of the things I didn’t: two happy parents, an actual house, a yard, and security.

My daughter is nineteen now, a strong Aries who beautifully sports a shaved head, tattoos, and three nose piercings. She is bright, opinionated, and creative. She has an eight-year old brother from a different father, who I was married to for five years.

I am 42 and just escaped my most recent emotionally abusive relationship with a man who asked me to marry him at sunset on the warm, white sandy beach of Gulf Coast Florida last spring. Fortunately, this time I didn’t conceive a child. Getting out was easier. We didn’t have the bond of co-mingled DNA that I had with both of the fathers of my children.

I never meant to have a series of fucked up relationships over the course of my adult life. In fact, I haven’t actually even dated that much. But curiously I always pick men whose earliest years were also terrorized by domestic violence. We are somehow drawn towards one another, even from thousands of miles away. Like there’s a magnetic force in the universe that attracts the troubled to one another, re-enacting the strife of our formative years.

Except, maybe the drama does have a purpose.

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by Carlos / Creative Commons License

Maybe, just maybe, instead of a series of foolish, preventable mistakes, we are growing and learning from each of these dysfunctional relationships. Perhaps they serve some sort of higher purpose in moving through the legacy of trauma we were conceived in.

Some things are different now. I am stronger and more skilled than I was in the past. I am medicated and have a therapist and psychiatrist that I like. I am financially able to (modestly) support my kids. I own my house and minivan. I have a real job in an urban school district where I have been employed for eleven years. I have a retirement account and health insurance. All my cavities have been filled. And I no longer feel the fiery ache of inadequacy that I once felt inside.

While my most recent relationship imploded just like the other two, I realize that I am starting to turn some kind of corner. I know that, this time, I did nothing wrong. I gave love a chance—maybe with the wrong person. But at least I know I can handle the pain of opening myself to being vulnerable without feeling like it’s a terminal personality flaw.

Or maybe it was with the right person, just right to end it where we left it. Maybe I needed to go through this experience to get stronger. Maybe I can create little spaces in my heart for the good things he and I shared, while gaining greater recognition of what I need to be in a truly healthy loving relationship. Maybe it’s okay to try and fail at love.

Or maybe I can simply be grateful for the declining fertility that comes with age.

As I gain understanding of the long-term ramifications of adverse childhood experiences in my life, I can learn to maneuver them with grace rather than shame. I am learning to fill in the spaces between love and hate, to allow the magic of the mundane to settle in and soften the distance between the exhilarating extremes of passion and rage. Instead of looking at my life and love choices as a series of risks and failures, I can see it more as an evolutionary process that connects the past to the present, the personal to the professional, and endings to beginnings.

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“tuff enuf” by Mai Le / Creative Commons License

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About the Author

Kezia Willingham

Also known as the Breadwinning Laundry Queen, Kezia Willingham is a former high school dropout and single mother on welfare who now holds two college degrees and works for an urban Head Start program.  She lives with her family, which includes a pack of rescued cats and dogs, in Seattle.  Her writing has been published in the New York Times, Seattle Times, and xoJane.com.  You can follow her on Twitter @KeziaWillingham.



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