As a child, my paternal grandmother, Rosalie, was always reading books to me. Cuddling on the couch nestled safely under the support of her arm, I felt like she was a mother eagle protecting me in the nest. This experience of being nurtured by my grandmother—the pure anticipation of the story, the message that was encoded in the text, and the time we shared together side-by-side—left a permanent mark on my heart. We shared a bond that no one could replace.
Reflecting back to those times with her, I realized they provided me with countless lessons, along with a strong foundation and belief that every story has a meaning and purpose whether it is written or spoken. Indeed, I have always felt a special closeness to all the storytellers in my life. I was forever touched by the vulnerability of the person who wanted to share a part of their life with me.
I also felt it was my duty to protect our shared experience, while absorbing the hidden lessons that could apply to my own life. It allowed me to experience a type of healing by beginning to understand that someone else had walked this path before me. This knowledge established a tangible support system for me. A personal confidant then emerged, someone who shared my same storyline, but with a different cast of characters and backdrop in their tale.
Lastly, I recognized the overarching themes that presented themselves across generational lines, and how history has a way of repeating itself. I was convinced it was my duty to learn from my foremothers’ and forefathers’ mistakes, not repeat them. This can only happen if the story is shared.
Consequently, as I matured and moved on into my life, I started to understand that the most important step to overcoming any self-inflicted burden was disclosure. The only way I could release myself from my emotional struggles was to allow others to witness the most complicated and hidden parts of myself. When I peeled back my layers, I noticed others were emboldened to do the same. As a result of that intimate connection, we generated a safe haven for each other through revealing an aspect of our deeper selves. This mutual openness created a “narrative medicine,” something I had been searching for my whole life.
My desire to empower myself and other women was certainly rooted in watching my mother live her life from what I assumed was a position of weakness. I became passionate, sometimes overly so, about liberating her and others like her, from a habitual, imprisoned way of thinking.
Eventually, I was ready to start asking my mother tough questions. Her authentic answers brought serenity to the tired, forlorn and hurt child within me. Our time together also offered a window of freedom from a truth she had repressed for almost a lifetime.
As she slowly revealed her untold stories, I began to understand that this woman was not weak, which was how I had always perceived her, but primarily a victim of social circumstance. She constantly walked on eggshells, living in fear of saying or doing something that might trigger an aggressive response from my father. I became aware then, that the fact that she did not have the strength or courage to remove herself from the relationship had to be extremely difficult.
I was aware when I was growing up there was tension between my father and mother. Upon hearing her life story, I learned for the first time just how intense it had been for her. She had done everything she could to conceal his alcoholic outbursts and the physical abuse that she unfairly endured over the course of their twelve-year marriage. I often still wonder if other family members saw her struggles, and why they didn’t intervene or try to help. No one ever talked about the abusive man my father became when alcohol was in his veins. I have come to learn that abuse doesn’t always happen overtly, and it isn’t always easy to recognize. Destructive relationships are can be quite covert and insidious.
Over time, and with more than a couple of therapy sessions, I realized not everyone is ready to be vulnerable at a moment’s notice. I understand that more now than ever. That is one of the reasons why I wrote this book: I want to whisper quietly in your ear that you are not alone. When you are ready, you will find innumerable women to draw closer to, be in relationship with, and confide in.
I frequently asked myself how my mother could be honest without tarnishing the loving memories I had of my adored father during our conversations. I deeply respect her selflessness in keeping my remembrances pure. Yet it still pains my heart to realize she became an expert in silent suffering for the sake of other people, especially my sister and me.
I sensed that my probing gave her an opportunity to use her voice again after being silent for so long. It did. Allowing my mother to free herself, find resolution within, and step forward with a newfound strength makes me extraordinarily happy. My mother’s incredible courage inspired me to want to share, heal and empower.
The S.H.E. book was my opportunity to do that.
What the twenty-four women featured here, as well as many others, have taught me is that we are all wounded, we all worry, and we are all weighed down by feelings of unworthiness. For me, the bedrock of love, friendship and community is vulnerability. Heartfelt exchanges can provide us with connection and consolation, since we all long to be loved, touched and heard.
I recognize parts of myself in each of these women, who courageously reached within themselves to overcome extraordinary obstacles. While writing this book, I’ve personally experienced a profound healing through telling each of their stories. Bravely, these women offer a glimpse into the rawness of their hearts so the rest of us can gain comfort and insight. My wish is that they understand how their stories have a restorative power, passing on wisdom and reassurance to everyone who reads them. We have all become experts at our own struggles, which means we all have valuable lessons to share.
I am excited knowing there are many more women who are ready to be courageous and vulnerable in conversations with me. I look forward to connecting with unimaginably brave women who are ready to expose their lives through words, if someone will listen. There was no selection bias involved in the making of this book. Every story matters, including yours!
Thank you imperfectly perfect women, near and far, for your trust in me. These narratives resonate deeply, giving us permission to liberate ourselves from suffering silently and alone. Let us no longer pretend that we can do everything without help, and pretend that we have it all together. Perhaps then we can even admit that we actually do hurt. At that moment, we can decide to embrace the fact that no one has her life completely under control. We cannot choose what happens to us, but we can choose how to respond.
The woman I am, and continue to become is the result of Sharing, Healing and Empowering.
©Shannon Hogan Cohen published through Deckle Way Press – June 2018