Turning Paper Into Diamonds

Or, “I Bet You Look Cute in that Emotional Tool Belt”

After my divorce, I spent some time working with an abuse counsellor named Alanna. She was one of the last stops on my roundabout tour of finding caring, knowledgeable support when I was at my lowest point and needed help getting up from rock-bottom. The partner abuse program she facilitated ended up moving to a different agency and she ended up moving elsewhere as well, but the months I spent attending sessions with her had a profound effect on my daily life.

The biggest take-away from my time with her has been a single piece of paper that I keep taped up above my writing desk. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked at this flimsy, white sheet and felt stronger because of it.

Good counsellors offer a wealth of helpful and insightful information, but great counsellors listen closely to their clients and offer little gems of wisdom that hit just the right note at just the right time and give the people they work with exactly what they need in that moment.

I bet you most of the time my counsellors do this and then giggle to themselves as they watch me unfold my understanding, thinking that I’ve come to some great realization all by myself, when really it’s because of their sly influence.

Damn they’re good!

Alright, I won’t keep you on tenterhooks (how’s that for a word of the day, eh?) any longer. Obviously you’re all dying to know what the hell is on this glorious, life-changing piece of paper.

Shit…now I’ve built it up too much! Ugh. Okay, it doesn’t matter, because even if you think it’s lame, it was/is totally the exact right thing I needed from this counsellor and she fucking nailed it.

Here it is, in all it’s simple glory:

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Pretty fucking awesome, right?

Okay, fine. It’s just a piece of paper with a some lines and a few very important words that suggest one simple idea: think about what your stupid, anxiety-ridden/depressed brain is telling you and then call yourself out on that bullshit and use objective proof to throw it the fuck out the window!

Or in different terms: figure out your self-critical belief, use that to identify what’s really true (your new, positive belief), and then prove to yourself that the new/positive belief is real by coming up with examples that support it.

It’s gotten to the point where I can just glance at this paper and be reminded that I’m not crazy. It reminds me that I can handle my shit. That what my abusers have told me isn’t the divine truth. That my mental illness doesn’t have to stop me from living well. That I can fucking DO THIS.

Feel free to borrow it.

Print it out, or draw your own fancy version, or scrawl the words onto a Post It and stick that shit up somewhere you’ll see it.

You’ll find that you’ll catch yourself glancing at it and thinking about its message, whether you have anxiety, or depression, or not. Whether you’re an abuse survivor or not. No matter your circumstance, you can use this tool to improve your life.

I like to think about techniques like this as tools that I keep in an emotional tool belt (a metaphor gifted to me by my other kick-ass counsellor, Daniel). My emotional tool belt used to be filled with rusty, dented, useless objects that caused me more pain and confusion than I ever needed in my life. I’ve been slowly scrapping those old, dysfunctional tools and refilling my tool belt with useful shit like this worksheet. I keep it next to my #2 Robbie (screw you Phillips screwdrivers!), a copy of Rupi Kaur’s “milk and honey”, my “DIVORCED AF” tank top, and the same stainless steel water bottle I’ve been slurping from for years (gotta stay hydrated!). I keep it with my dearest, most important possessions, but I know it’s better to share, so it’s yours to borrow now.

Use it to remember: you are more than your mental health diagnosis.

You are more than what your abusers say you are.

You are capable and smart and strong and brilliant.

You can change and you can get better tools to put in that cute-ass emotional tool belt of yours.

This paper may as well be made out of diamonds, because it’s become completely priceless to me. And I’ll keep it on my wall until it yellows and fades. I’ll keep it until I don’t need a daily reminder to re-frame my thinking, because I’ve got practices like this to grab from my cute-ass tool belt at any moment.

xxJ

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This is also usually found near my writing desk. It doesn’t fit well into my tool belt though…

What We Need to Hear

“I believe you.”

Once I started speaking up about my experience of abuse, those three words became a crucial message I needed to hear.

“I believe you.”

It was even better if they were followed by the words, “What do you need right now?” or, “What’s his address? My fists would like to meet him.”

Just kidding.

Sort of.

Not really…people did say things like that to me and I kind of loved it #sorrynotsorry

Violence is not the answer, friends! But dear god did it feel good to know that someone else felt as upset as I did!

I needed to know that the people I cared about understood what I was telling them.  In sharing my story with my trusted friends and family, I was able to gather support around myself. Even those tongue-in-cheek threats to go rough-up the people who messed with me helped me feel safe enough to ask for help and to open up about my experience. Overwhelmingly, the people I told treated me like my experience was valid and they stood by me as I disentangled myself from my past and started to recognize and deal with what had happened. 

Emotional abuse is most insidious when it’s subtle; it is difficult for outsiders to see and virtually impossible for its perpetrators to recognize (and tbh, even if they could recognize it, chances are they’d be disinclined to change their behaviour!). I didn’t have bruises or scars. I had, however, endured years of being controlled and manipulated through gaslighting, neglect, put downs, and blame…none of which were obvious and none of which left marks on my body. For a long time I yearned for my abusers to recognize what they had done to me. I wanted them to look at me and identify as abusers. Maybe they’d go to rehab, or AA, or therapy, or have an epiphany, break down, and beg me for forgiveness in front of all my friends and family…

Kidding again.

Sort of…

Eventually, my healing journey brought me to a point where I no longer craved that affirmation, but it wasn’t easy to reach that level of self-assuredness. I had to accept both my victim-hood and that fact that I would have to continue standing up for the legitimacy of my experience with outsiders to my community and with my abusers. I realized, too, that the weight of my truth came only from the consistency of my story, so I kept telling it! And I keep talking about it, because it’s real and others need to understand that! The more I spoke up, the more I wanted to speak up, and the more I understood about my experience. Now, I want to help other survivors feel like they can speak up and be believed and I want perpetrators of abuse to be held accountable. Because of the support of those around me, I can now share my story more widely and hopefully help more people understand emotional abuse. 

I often think about how our society has become incredibly adept at downplaying uncomfortable truths. We don’t want to hear the “bad” stuff, even if it’s true! I know my experiences could be dismissed by people because “nothing bad happened” (i.e. I didn’t end up in the hospital, or dead, or my partner/s didn’t go to jail). But even when faced with irrefutable evidence that abuse of any kind has taken place, people tend to dispel its authenticity, ignore its credibility, and treat its victims as though they are snotty, selfish whistle-blowers trying to slander the “good” name of the accused.

It pisses me off that at this point I feel compelled to point out that yes, a very, very, very small number of people claim abuse in order to stick it to another person out of spite or anger or selfishness. Because that does happen. It does, I know. But overwhelmingly, abuse victims who speak up do so from a place of honesty and authenticity and at great personal cost, so can we just move on from this technicality and support the people who have struggled to speak up in spite of the trauma they’ve experienced?

Mmkay thanks!

Imagine standing up in front of the people you care about the most and admitting your deepest, darkest secret to them. Imagine looking out at them and forcing yourself to share the part of you that brings you the most shame. Imagine that feeling of intense discomfort, the feeling of letting them down, of embarrassment, of anger, of sadness, of guilt… Then imagine doing this completely naked. In the winter. Outside. With all your neighbours looking at you. While your dog takes a dump and your children start to bicker about who got the bigger piece of cake for dessert while also complaining that they’re cold and tired and can we just go inside now pleeeeeeeeeeease???

Okay, okay, I’m being a bit facetious… forgive me for trying to add some humour here!

What I’m trying to express is that it comes at great cost to an abuse survivor to speak up. It is fucking terrifying to utter the words “I’ve been abused” or whatever other version of that you say. It feels like an admission of personal failure, regardless of how understanding your audience is. Chances are, your abuser taught you that everything is your fault (mine did!) so admitting to the abuse is admitting to being wrong—they weren’t who you thought they were, you aren’t actually happy, you stayed for way too long, you couldn’t “fix” them, you couldn’t make it better.

I tell myself everyday that what happened to me wasn’t my fault. That it was real and that the time I need to heal and recover is necessary and reasonable. I‘ve been very fortunate: my community has always believed me, even when I didn’t have the language I do now to describe my experiences. Even when I was a blubbering, suicidal, manic mess! Even though I pretended for a very long time that nothing was wrong.

They believed me.

And I believe me.

And if you speak up, I’ll believe you too.

And then we can have a conversation and I’ll listen and together we can unpack the experiences and struggles that caused you to speak up because I know how fucking hard it is to do that.

“I believe you.”

xxJ

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We, as abuse survivors, may feel scratched and broken, but solidarity from others can help heal our hearts and make us stronger.

Everything Needs to Be Perfect

Because that’s not too much to ask, right?

I live with a dual mental health diagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Of the two, anxiety is the stronger beast and tends to take first billing in the screenplay of my life. One of the core contributors to my anxiety is an ever-present and absolutely fervent desire to be perfect. I try to come off as cool and calm and relaxed—ha! The vicious truth is that the effort I put into seeming nonchalant about things is actually a symptom of my perfectionism.

Oh, cruel irony!

Anxiety produces hyper-vigilance in me so habitual that it pervades all of my life. Everything ends up being calculated and controlled and set up so that I have the absolute best chance of not failing or embarrassing myself, even if the threat of failure or embarrassment isn’t actually real.

It’s kinda messed up, right?

These are the levels of thinking that Generalized Anxiety Disorder bequeaths upon me! I have the gift/curse of being so so so SO aware of every goddamn thing I’m doing all the time. And if I perceive a risk of failure or humiliation, no matter how small, it’s always a full-stop.

Okay, there are probably times when I can’t avoid risky situations (okay, there are definitely times when I can’t avoid risky situations…), but that doesn’t stop me from doing everything I can to mitigate the chances that I won’t be successful.

I’m not exaggerating: perfectionism rules my world, friends.

In some ways, my perfectionism is good; it pushes me to strive for success, which can be very motivating and, in certain contexts like school, perfectionism helps me succeed at a high level. It makes me an attentive mother/friend/lover/daughter/sister/person and it ensures that I give my full effort to whatever I take on.

But here’s the other edge of the sword; perfectionism is my enemy too. When its hyper-vigilant voice takes control, it debilitates me and vilifies me with feelings of unworthiness, failure, guilt, and shame. Sometimes I can’t do something because I’m too afraid that I will fail. Sometimes, unexpected challenges or variations pop up and my carefully-crafted perfectionist plan gets thrown out the window, which triggers major anxiety in me. A lot of the time, perfectionism makes things take waaaaaaaaaay longer than they need to, because I have to lay out and follow a prescribed set of steps to accomplish whatever level of success my perfectionism has determined for me.

I can’t even send a fucking text message without re-reading it eight times and checking for typos. And heaven forbid if I edit my text, send it, and then find a latent typo! The shame I feel on those occasions is akin to when you accidentally call your grade 4 teacher “Daddy” instead of Mr. Snair (not that I ever did that!). Or when you’re 12 years old and you catch your toe on an uneven patch of sidewalk and stumble awkwardly while sauntering past your current crush AKA the love of your life AKA THE ONLY PERSON WHO MATTERS IN THE ENTIRE WORLD

Writing this blog is a test of patience and mental fortitude for me. I will admit, I re-read everything I write, including unpublished drafts and the bits and bobs I keep around as potential writing topics in the future, at least 800,000,000 times before I hit “publish.” Then I look them over another bajillion times after publishing to affirm (and reaffirm, and re-reaffirm, and re-re-reaffirm…) that my writing is worthy of being looked at by other people.

In my past relationships, perfectionism fed my codependent behaviour and my abusers benefited greatly from my desire to make things perfect (i.e. the work I put into making them happy, keeping our lives together, making it look like everything was okay to others, etc…). They used this to encourage me into putting more and more effort into fulfilling their desires, instead of addressing my own needs. Emotional abusers don’t care about the amount of effort their victim puts forth, they only care about getting what they want. I was the perfect candidate for the job of codependent and perfectionism was a big contributor to helping me get hired.

I know that perfectionism isn’t a healthy habit. I also know that it’s something I’ll have to keep working on, probably for the rest of my life. In fact, one thing I’ve come to understand about a diagnosis of something like Generalized Anxiety Disorder, is that it’s a lifelong diagnosis and that the effects of this disease can be managed, but never eliminated.

Perfectionism is a part of me that will never go away, but I do practice relieving myself of the pressure to be perfect as often as possible. I try to allow myself to fail. I try to allow myself to make mistakes. I attempt to allow myself to not know something every once in awhile. I also let myself ask for help (well I try to, at least!).

I may have to force myself to do these things, but I do them because I know that putting myself in these situations prepares me for when it’s not a choice to have things change. Maybe the funny part of this is that in choosing to allow myself these transgressions, I’m still allowing my perfectionism and anxiety to hold the reins, but this way they remain at a distance. I’m electing to put myself into “risky” situations so that I can be better prepared for when truly risky moments occur.

So I’m still being perfectionist—I’m still plotting out the course I will take every single day. It’s just nuanced so that outwardly, it doesn’t appear that I’m controlling things and so that inwardly, I still get peace of mind and maintain a sense of control, which helps me manage my anxiety and makes me feel successful.

Does perfectionism rule your life too? Maybe we should start a support group… How about, “Life Will Never Be Perfect So Let’s Get Real About That And Figure Shit Out Anonymous”?

xxJ

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Every sunset is perfect, yet every sunset is different. So does that mean that none of them are perfect? Or is it all just a matter of perspective?

Au revoir!

When I left my husband, I realized that I had lost much more than a marriage.

Now I understand that successful relationships involve people growing together as they work through their issues, face difficulties, celebrate successes, and find a shared identity as a couple while maintaining autonomy as individuals. But when you are in a codependent relationship, things are very different and when I walked away from my marriage, I was struck by a deep sense of not knowing myself.

In my relationship with the man who became my ex-husband, I molded myself entirely to how he wanted, or how I thought he wanted, me to be. I stopped doing the things I enjoyed doing. I stopped saying how I felt about things. I questioned my intuition. I lost faith in my ability to do anything. I became exhausted by the effort of trying to maintain the status quo (i.e. keep the peace and/or keep my husband happy). I had done this in previous relationships and friendships before (had I ever!), and at the time of my separation, the only thing that felt true about my identity was that I had become an expert at being passively codependent.

Yay. 

I was so lost when I was left on my own. I didn’t know what I liked to do anymore or what I was capable of. I felt dumb and useless and tired. The overwhelming sense I experienced was of being a complete stranger to myself, and I spent more time feeling triggered or completely drained than anything else.

I’ve always had a high level of self-awareness. In fact, even in the worst periods of my life, when I was shrouded in intense depression and anxiety, when I was beholden to my abusers, when I was contemplating suicide, I still had the knowledge that something was wrong and that I needed something to change. But since I framed my identity using the parameters my boyfriend/husband/parents/friends gave me, I couldn’t determine what was true and what wasn’t.

After many years of counselling, an amazing mental health day program, a consistent treatment plan, incredible support from some of the quality people in my life, and an unwavering sense that I absolutely could NOT give up, I began to unpack my experiences and rediscover myself.

And I realized a few key things…

  1. I could recognize that there were parts of me from my past that were still true, but that my experiences had fundamentally changed me. The core parts of me were still there, but they had to be rediscovered and given a new, healthy framework to exist in.
  2. There were things I had considered “core” parts of myself that I needed to throw out and replace with other things that came from a place of authenticity.
  3. I couldn’t continue trying to be the person I felt other people thought I should be.
  4. I had the capacity to discover my identity again, if I chose to work at it.

So I began to work diligently at figuring out who the hell I was now and who I wanted to be post-separation, post-abuse, post-youth, post “Life 1.0.”

It started with identifying how I had allowed myself to be defined in the unhealthy relationships I had before. What, if anything, was true about me based on those parameters? I started trying to throw out old, bad habits… goodbye passivity! See ya later mandatory politeness! Au revoir overextending myself!

I also grabbed some of my “bad” traits that had been misused and misinterpreted, and created new, healthier frameworks for them. For example, I had bought into the belief that being sensitive and empathetic was a bad thing. It led me to be overly emotional, hot headed, and too accommodating. Not true! Being emotionally sensitive and highly empathetic is a gift! I just had to learn how to use it well! I renegotiated a new understanding of that quality in myself and have set to practicing this new way of thinking.

The second (or third?) step was to unearth good qualities that I wanted to embrace. This wasn’t an extensive list…more like, an exclusive one! I prioritized things and made sure I was focusing on a few, core traits that I felt were latent in my being, but which were also underrepresented or misunderstood. Basically, I dug up the good qualities in myself, like independence and determination, dusted them off, and put them back in my emotional tool-belt so that I could grab them instead when I went for one of my old, unhealthy, codependent habits.

And I realized that there were some skills I really wanted to have that I would need to work at embodying. I had to learn how to be assertive. I had to learn how to be alone. I had to learn to be angry in healthy ways. I’ve put time into teaching myself these new things, folding them into my identity as they become more and more familiar.

Leaving my emotional abuser was the catalyst in finding a new and healthy identity for myself. I am in no way complete, nor am I an expert in self-discovery. And I don’t expect myself to stay exactly as I am right now, but I do expect myself to keep working on living in a healthy way that supports a healthy sense of self.

It’s possible for you to do this too, no matter your relationship status, your history, or your future plans. Abused or not, we can all love and accept ourselves while striving to improve.

Your identity is not something that should be handed to you.

It may seem easier or more familiar to continue existing in the frameworks other people craft for you, but over the long term, you’ll do yourself a disservice in allowing others to define you.

So take a moment, envision yourself as you wish to be, and start taking steps, small or big, towards your a truer, more vivacious self!

xxJ

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The flowers in my garden, like this Teddy Bear Sunflower, remind me that I’m always growing and that sunshine can always be found if you look for it.

looks like/sounds like/feels like

People have a hard time understanding what emotional abuse is. In fact, I’m going to confidently state that most people really don’t get it.

Like, at all.

Because to most people domestic abuse = physical violence. To most people, domestic abuse is loud and nasty and BIG and leaves bruises and cigarette burns, broken lamps and smashed dishes and holes in walls.

And yes, sometimes (too often) domestic abuse is vociferous and physically violent. But what if I told you that domestic violence isn’t always physical? What if domestic abuse can be subtler? What if it’s relatively inconspicuous? What if the victim is so good at compensating and pretending that EVERYTHING IS OKAY ALRIGHT?! that no one has any idea what’s going on? (Not that I’ve ever done that before…)

I think emotional abuse is usually misunderstood because most people don’t realize that neglect or silence can be just as vicious as a punch in the face.

I  want to try to explain more about what emotional abuse is and how people may experience it, so I’ve drawn upon my past as a teacher and what follows is basically going to be like a kindergarten circle time where we all gather together to talk about what something “looks like/sounds like/feels like”. Except instead of discussing “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” or how a bean seed grows, we’re going to tackle emotional abuse. Decidedly not a kindergarten-appropriate topic (Or maybe it is? I mean, kids are never too young to learn about consent and showing respect!) but I’m hoping you’ll find it insightful.

So, come join me on the carpet. Please sit criss-cross applesauce with your hands in your lap, eyes up, and mouth closed…Ms. J is going to start the lesson…

Emotional abuse looks like:

  • Absence
  • Stifling
  • Codependence
  • Intense control
  • Financial control
  • Manipulation
  • Vindictiveness
  • Pettiness
  • Insecurity
  • Narcissism
  • Lack of intimacy
  • Withholding (affection, money, time, etc.)
  • Lack of consent
  • Isolation
  • Patterns of negative behaviour
  • Idealization
  • Chronic forgetfulness
  • Posturing
  • Grandiose gestures that are out of context or used as leverage
  • Forced affection
  • Saving face
  • Hypervigilance
  • Disdain
  • Perpetual indifference or apathy

Emotional abuse sounds like:

  • Shouting
  • Silence
  • Harsh words
  • Lies
  • Backhanded compliments
  • Gaslighting
  • Indignation
  • Name calling
  • Threats
  • Put downs
  • Reprimands or punishing
  • Criticisms
  • Punitive statements
  • Questioning
  • Comebacks
  • Rationalization of unhealthy things/ideas/behaviours
  • Scapegoating

Emotional abuse feels like:

  • Loneliness
  • Despair
  • Confusion
  • Anger
  • Craziness
  • Self-loathing
  • Low self-worth
  • Lack of purpose
  • Rigidity
  • Fear
  • Shame
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Mood swings
  • Self-harm
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Needing to be in control
  • Surreal
  • Duress
  • Pain
  • Exhaustion
  • Stress
  • Being overwhelmed
  • Worry

People who exhibit these behaviours (or other similar ones) chronically are perpetrators of abuse. Those who struggle continually because of these feelings and behaviours, are victims of abuse.

My own experience of abuse was insidious and cumulative and I’m tired of feeling like I have to prove that my experience was real.

Emotional abuse looks/feels/sounds real.

Abuse = abuse.

And accepting that helps people like me by letting us know that what we’re going through, or what we’ve been through, is just as real as a punch, kick, or slap.

You can now un-cross your legs and go have free-play time. Just don’t hog the Lego table and remember to use kind words with your friends.

xx J

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Feels like belly rub time for my pup, Kara.


Do you have anything you could add to the lists above? I’m sure there’s more that I’ve missed. Comment below and share your thoughts!

A Bundle of Sticks

I’m fortunate to live a very privileged life. Saying that makes me want to throw up a little bit BUT I’m leaning into my discomfort and admitting that as an upper-middle class white person living in the western world, I’ve been afforded an existence of material comfort and relative luxury. I’ve never had to question where my next meal was coming from, whether I’d have a roof over my head, if I could afford to go to university, or if my parents could help me out when I got into trouble financially or otherwise.

Materially speaking, my life is fantastic and because of this, I often feel guilty talking about my problems. When looking at what’s happening with things like the Black Lives Matter movement, LGBTQ2+ rights, the wars across the world, victims of natural disasters, the mistreatment of Indigenous Peoples, and so many other massive and terrible issues, my struggles seem like nothing. I mean, what right do I have to complain when I’m sitting on top amidst the current socio-economic and political climate around the world? What right do I have to talk about my problems when there is someone else who has it worse? How dare I not finish my asparagus when there are starving children in Africa? Amiright???

In the last two years, I’ve come out as a person who survived domestic abuse. In the last two years, I’ve practiced saying those words and owning them, adopting at first the persona of a victim, and now one of a survivor.

But…

Even as I’m writing this part of me wants to erase the whole damn thing and stop talking because I continue to be afraid that I will be called out as a liar or a phony or a drama queen.

Many people take their problems and sensationalize them. Or maybe I should say, many people in a position of privilege take their problems and sensationalize them. Real problems are not something you post on Instagram #firstworldproblems Real problems are ones that affect your life at its core; they undermine your sense of stability and your sense of self-worth. They may be violent and they may include trauma. They reveal your capacity to handle yourself in times of crisis, or they make you fall completely apart.

In my life, I experienced emotional abuse at the hands of a number of my romantic partners. Like I said, it’s hard for me to admit that, but I’m putting it here because I’ve realized that what I experienced, although it may seem subtle or questionable to outsiders, is part of a much bigger societal problem and therefore worthy of attention.

For example, the fact that my ex-husband can’t and won’t recognize that his behaviour was and remains abusive, speaks to the fact that he exists in a position of even greater privilege than my own. It’s a testament to the fact that no matter what financial threshold you exist in, our society as a whole is continuing to fail at addressing its systemic problem with misogyny. While the law where I live identifies emotional (“mental”) abuse as legitimate, my experience with the law showed me that many lawyers and judges and bureaucrats really don’t understand it or know how to handle it.

It’s not just that I need to talk about this for my own sense of catharsis; it’s not just about my story and my journey and my experience. This is about having more voices speaking up and talking about emotional abuse. It’s about engaging in meaningful conversations about all abuse. It’s about changing the landscape of our lives so that we feel more empowered to fight for change and help others. It’s about helping perpetrators of abuse, no matter what their status or rank in the world, learn how to behave differently. It’s about writing this all anyway, not just because I need to write it, but also because I can use my privilege to help others. It comes down to owning my story, knowing that it’s different from anyone else’s and recognizing that it’s still valid and still meaningful.

There’s an Aesop’s Fable called “The Bundle of Sticks” which tells the story of a father who, laying on his deathbed, hands his fours sons a bundle of sticks and asks them each to try breaking it apart. When none of the sons are able to break any sticks, the father unties the bundle and gives each son a single stick to break, which they do easily. The point of the story is to show that we are stronger united than we are apart. We can imagine that we’re each one little twig, snapped easily on our own, but bundled together, our twigs become much stronger. Lending my voice to the conversation about domestic abuse can only strengthen the bundle that so many in our society are trying to break, and I’m not going to let my stick get broken, even if I’m afraid to put it into the pile.

xxJ