It would be easy to celebrate Maggie as the 25-year-old young professional she is, a stunning young woman with long brown hair, dedicated to her job, about to defend her Masters thesis, proud of her apartment and independent life.
(“Maggie” is a pseudonym, and some of the facts in this story have been changed to protect her anonymity.)
But I would like to celebrate the whole Maggie, and bring Maggie’s accomplished life together with her other life, the second life that she always kept secret from “good” people. Maggie would like that, too.
Maggie’s earliest memories, to age 7, are of being sexually abused by a brother who was 13 years older. After her parents’ divorce, she was neglected by a deeply troubled mother who kept a squalid house, left rotting food sitting out for Maggie (if she fed her at all), and openly engaged in sexual adventures. Then when Maggie objected to her mother’s behavior, she was kicked out of her house at 14 and afterward lived under bridges through adolescence, while she was alcoholic, anorexic, drug-addicted, and battered. She wintered in the apartment of a murderous and philandering boyfriend who was 11 years older.
Yet Maggie always went to school and always earned A’s. Her intellectual effort gave her purpose and self-esteem. Teachers were her nurturers. And Maggie measured her mental health by her ability to have at least five people in her life who didn’t know about her suffering.
And Maggie always sustained herself with an appreciation for the things in this world that are enduringly beautiful, like the flowing river beneath the bridge where she slept.
Ultimately, there were several events that helped Maggie make a significant change in her life at age 19. An intervention was scheduled at Maggie’s apartment to help her with her coke addiction, and no one showed up (not even the flighty friend who had arranged the intervention), except for Maggie’s abusive brother. Maggie’s abuser broke down that evening, beat himself bloody in a hysteria of guilt, and for the first time acknowledged what he had done. For the first time, Maggie could truly accept the reality of her hurt and feel sane.
About this time, at a vulnerable moment for Maggie, she was violently raped. Then she moved in with her father, who loved her, fed her, played cards with her, and made sure that she was always warm. Maggie completed college at this time, while she battled addiction and eating disorders.
Today, Maggie knows the legacy of her life. She is convinced that she will never have children, for example. But Maggie also doesn’t want anyone to feel sorry for her or think she is a sad person. In her intellectual way, she describes human emotions as existing along a continuum from -10 to 10. The worst pain, the -10, is felt equally by everyone. But if life pushes you, if you feel your -10 from child abuse, for example, then nothing you experience will ever be that bad again.
And when life pushes you, when you feel a -10 from child abuse, for example, then the joy that you feel, the +10, is correspondingly greater. Maggie thinks that when she runs on the beach with her dog that no one is happier than she…
I began by describing Maggie’s accomplished life today, as an independent working woman and student. But isn’t the whole Maggie, to include the life in which she suffered, an even more remarkable person?
In a future article about Maggie, I’d like to discuss the nature and consequences of secrecy in her life.
Two of Maggie’s poems are enclosed below: “Drugs” from the time her mother kicked her out when Maggie was 14, and “Petals on the Floor” from the time her brother admitted his guilt when Maggie was 19.
Maggie, age 14
Because you never taught me that I was supposed to love myself.
Because you are jealous of me, your child, for every accomplishment I’ve fought for.
Because I want to show you that I am as low as you are. Then maybe we’d have something to talk about.
Because you abuse me with no shame.
Because self-mutilation has been glorified so many times by your lips. It is the only thing worthy of your attention.
Because you never expected any more of me.
Because I am definitely your child.
Because the people that you care about are the people that are more f***ed up than you.
Because I don’t know how to heal the pain you bestowed upon me.
Because you never wanted me to amount to more than you are.
Because I am confused and young and you offer me no guidance.
Because you taught me how to.
Because I see how you don’t have to care about anything while you’re high.
Because I want to be just like you, mother—painless, soulless.
Because maybe hurting myself will hurt you too.
Because this is the way you planned it.
Because if I hit rock bottom, I don’t have to fall in panic anymore.
Because I want you to love me.
Petals On the Floor
Maggie, age 19
Tearing each petal from its origin
…He loves me, he loves me not…
shooting pain, doubt, a hitchhiker
from the back of my eyes, down.
destination: The Achilles Tendon
Anxious now. No sleep, only to feel
within my once shallow blue waters,
an unclean, terrifying depth. I sink in.
fear between his touch, my skin.
Hurt is warm, slow, blazing red.
the poisoned berry in starvation
and, I, the starving child. the juice drips
dangerously, anxiously, slowly from my lip
I’m walking now,
my left eye a clouded mirror, my right
an antiquated magnifying glass
the path, undoubtedly, unclear
He holds me then, dripping with false apology
his desperation, his relief, onto me
the weight of his burden, his hate.
…He hates me, he hates me not…
As I pull the last petal, hate
and love forgotten. I think.
this stem in my hand, naked, humiliated
the only fact undoubted:
this wildflower is in pieces on the floor.