Ellen Bass was the co-author of The Courage To Heal, the book that has made such a difference in the lives of so many survivors around the world. She also wrote this poem. I have it on a poster hanging in my bedroom. It helps me to feel sane some days.
This is for my friend, MW, and all the other people who may need to hear the words and feel the validation.
You are not alone. Click to see the poem after the jump.
The Courage To Heal
We were five in a plaid dress with a sash and a little white collar.
We were nine, it was after school in the garage, the smell
of motor oil and cut grass through the open window.
We were twelve, fourteen, sixteen in our own beds, in seersucker pajamas,
the rain pelting down and running through the gutters.
It was a neighbor, a priest, a stranger, our father, our mother.
It was every day. It was when he got drunk.
It was before our class trip to the state capitol. When our mother
was in the hospital giving birth. Just once.
We were left for dead.
We were barely scratched.
We were found in a coal bin, so wild they couldn’t catch us to wash, to comb our hair.
We lay at the bottom of the stairs. We found ourselves
looking down from a corner of the ceiling.
We found ourselves out in the limb of the maple tree,
in the night sky, up in the stars, where it was cool and there was so much empty space.
We found ourselves in our own beds. It was morning
and our clothes were laid out neatly on the chair,
our mothers prompting us to come for breakfast.
We told an English teacher with straight brown hair
clasped at the nape with a silver barrette.
We told our mother who slapped us once across the face and closed herself like a fist.
We told by carving our skin like a pumpkin.
We never told.
We slept clutching a plaster statue of the Virgin Mary.
By day, we couldn’t concentrate. The long division
on the blackboard smeared in our minds.
We memorized everything. Our handwriting
an exact replica of Palmer cursive, only smaller.
We ate to erect a bulwark. We wouldn’t eat.
We didn’t want bodies. We didn’t want to be part of the
food chain eater or eaten.
We took enough pills to kill a horse.
We were in coma for a month. And emerged in rage.
We smiled. We smiled. We were drunk
the first six years of our daughter’s life.
We held our son’s hand over a candle.
We somehow knew how to mother. That
gave us joy.
Deciding to heal was a choice. The first one
we ever clearly made. We didn’t decide.
The alternatives just became too painful.
We cried every day. We only cried once
but it went on for a year. We never cried.
We gave up and drove a motorcycle into a guard rail.
We threw a chair through the window.
We stood on the steps of the psychiatric unit
weeping about something we couldn’t remember.
We remembered everything it seemed, each
detail etched into the soft organ of our minds.
We blamed ourselves because he gave us a bicycle.
We blamed ourselves because we didn’t stop it.
We blamed ourselves because our bodies responded.
We stopped blaming ourselves. We beat
a hundred pillows and tore up a year’s worth of the Sunday Times.
We filled forty notebooks with writing that dug through the pages like a plow.
We said once in a quiet voice, I’m angry.
We told our stories and we were believed.
We told our stories and our families denied it. Never
were we left alone like that. It couldn’t have happened.
We told our stories and the faces that listened told theirs.
Once, we held out one fingertip to a woman with kind eyes
and she touched the pad of her finger to ours for a moment.
Once, we were rocked in a safe lap and someone smoothed
back our hair with a tenderness not even we could deny.
But that wasn’t the end of it. It went on and on
beyond what we’d imagined, beyond what we’d signed up for.
We sat in fear like in our own urine. Our hearts
aching in our hollowed-out chests and down our empty arms.
We thought we would not survive.
Like stroke patients, we had to learn everything anew.
We saw how it had seeped into the corners of our lives like smoke.
Nothing was untainted, except the tough kernel we were born with,
the seed of who we could have been, could still be.
We reclaimed our bodies, inch by precious inch.
Feeling our own skin, astonished, like touching a newborn.
We tried out trust, like experimenting with drugs.
We went back to school. We took a vacation.
We spoke the truth. We did what we wanted.
We learned to sleep. We ate when we were hungry.
We woke in the morning, willing. We wanted
to be alive. We were hungry for all we’d missed.
We took it with eager, patient, or tentative hands
but we took it. We made a cup of tea
in our own kitchen and drank it at a blue table
on which we’d set a small bouquet of daffodils.