Without a doubt, the best lesson I have learned through this life is a simple, yet powerful, truth: "People will do to you in life what you allow them to do." I see it every day with my clients. They ask, "How did this happen to me?" If I am painfully honest with myself, most of the really bad stuff that has happened to me was due to my allowing it. At 46, with 20 years of practicing law, comes a clarity and a peace, or you burn out from the intensity of it all. There is a desire to help others to avoid pain or find strength, to make the process not just bearable, but an opportunity. I think one of the most important things that makes me a good lawyer is I have been through it. I do not ask people to do things I haven't done myself. I can say with experience to share your child, spend less money, do the right thing (even when the other party does not), be strong, forgive, and perhaps most importantly, own your piece of this situation so you don't make the same mistakes twice. I can say with conviction, this will not kill you. What I have discovered is that sometimes to really help people they need to know your struggle. There is strength in knowing you are not alone. It's not easy to share, but to be truly authentic about who we are, it is essential. By sharing our truths, even the ugly ones, it changes some of the most awful, painful moments into a gift. We gain perspective for ourselves and give perspective to others. We can really move on. These difficult experiences can then take their place as part of who we are without defining us, but we first have to own them as ours. This lesson hit home for me many years later.
I recently sat in a domestic violence hearing awaiting another hearing scheduled in the same courtroom. I made a decision long ago not to participate in domestic violence cases, but most people do not know the reason why. As I listened to the parties, the familiar wave of nausea rolled over me. How incredibly sad. The personality of the alleged perpetrator of these awful acts was so painfully clear to those of us in the gallery. It begged the question, how did this woman allow this person into her life? They had a little one, now a child would be forever caught in this dynamic too. I returned to the office, shaking and sick, an all too familiar feeing. I knew exactly how. I realized all these years later that abuse was still a part of my story. Only a few people know what really happened to me. I told my family, my husband, and a few of my very close friends. Occasionally, I would share with someone I knew who needed to hear that it really can happen to anyone. Still, for the most part, it was a secret -- something I didn't share for fear of being judged as someone who simply should have known better. I would own it as part of me, and maybe, once and for all, take away its power and put it squarely in its place.
People who describe me as a lawyer have said I am strong, tough, tenacious and sometimes even use a four or five letter word that describes someone you really don't want to mess with. In writing this, I asked a few friends who really know me well to describe me. What I received were many kind superlatives: direct, assertive, intelligent, empathetic, witty, and caring (and someone with nice friends). No one has ever described me as insecure, weak, or likely to be the victim of domestic violence. In fact, most people would never imagine I would allow someone to hurt me physically and emotionally, time and time again. People would imagine I would have left, immediately after the ambulance driver looked at my injuries and said, "If you stay, there is something very wrong with you". They would assume I would have left at the first clear indication of even the potential for violence. I knew the signs, I knew the answers, and I knew what I would have told a client. But, I stayed for more. I allowed this behavior and as a result, I condoned it. It was not until I felt my child was in danger that I left. I own my piece. He only did to me what I allowed him to do, by continuing a relationship with someone when I knew what he was capable of, and then staying for even one minute longer. Sometimes, all people need to own is the fact that they picked the wrong person for them.
I do not regret ending my relationship, or the actual physical scars that remain. The scars are now an infrequent reminder of my past I have a job where I am now able to teach people to expect to be treated well, and to believe in themselves the way others do with authenticity. I am able to tell clients there is nothing they can't handle, that it will be okay, and someday, better than okay. They will be happy, truly loved and really, really, strong, with a voice that is able to articulate they will not "allow" anything but the best. They will be examples to their own children to expect the best for themselves and believe they are worthy. Owning your piece of the divorce or the ending of a relationship, gives you power. There is power to forgive yourself, the power to not make the same mistake twice, and the power to help others through their difficulties.
I would do it all again, if it gets me where I am today, in this moment. It is a life I never believed I deserved and maybe that was part of the problem. I am a better lawyer, wife, mother, and friend because of the abuse. I am more compassionate. I have more empathy. I have a voice that allows me to clearly communicate what is not okay if you want to be in my life. I can say with authority, "People will do to you in life what you allow them to do, so set the bar high." My little daughter recently said, "I love my mommy, my daddy, everyone in the whole wide world, and I love myself!" Amen, sister. I guess I am doing something right. That bar is really high now.