Yesterday I went to speak to my third and final High School of the week before beginning rehearsals for Pagliacci tomorrow. This was a combination of a theater class and a choir class, and included about 80 students...my biggest class yet. To be honest, I thought that talking to High School students might be scary or intimidating, but I found the students at all three schools to be so respectful of me and of each other, open to the information, and wonderful at having this really serious group conversation.
Now some real talk: I went back and forth for a long time about how much of my own experience to talk about with the students and on the internet. I have purposefully left things a bit vague in order to protect myself, and so that my story will empower others, but not overshadow the material and the tools that I’m teaching them. Another factor is that many details about my own experience still feel intensely personal and embarrassing to admit, even after all this time.
While I am so proud of the work that I’ve done this week and so motivated to keep doing it, the aftermath of these school presentations was something I really didn’t expect from myself. I’ve spent a lot of time working through these experiences, both on my own and with my therapist, and I (naively) thought I was kind of fixed and over it. However, after visiting the second school on Wednesday, I burst into tears on my drive home and spent the rest of the day with a terrible headache. I had a really hard time sleeping that night and woke up from terrible dreams with my heart racing. Over the past couple days, I’ve experienced waves of that same low-grade anxiety, embarrassment, and shame.
During that unhealthy relationship, I lived in a 24/7 state of low grade anxiety, constantly walking on eggshells to avoid conflict, and not knowing which of my words or actions would trigger my ex’s anger and volatility. But I was also an expert on hiding the less than perfect aspects of the relationship. To the outside world, we looked like a perfect couple. I wanted to show the world a perfect image of our relationship and didn’t want people to see how I allowed myself to be treated. I was deeply embarrassed for myself, because I, a strong woman, was being belittled and degraded, controlled and manipulated, and I was staying. I felt a deep sense of loyalty to him and a need to protect him (and our relationship) from judgement. This lead me to isolate myself from many of my own family members and friends as the relationship continued. There were friends and family members of whom he approved, and it was ok to spend time with them because I knew that he would not embarrass me in front of those people or sabotage my relationship with them. But there were others, like my parents or certain close friends with whom I had to limit time for fear that my cover would be blown and they would see what my relationship really was. I even manipulated the truth when I spoke to my therapist, something that still fills me intense shame. Instead of saying “my husband keeps yelling at me and because I’ve put on some weight,” I would say something like “I’ve been feeling really anxious lately and I know my anxiety would improve if I exercised more often, but I just can’t find the motivation to do it.” Instead of saying “I can’t take this audition because I’m not allowed to be away from home for too long”, I would say “well, I really don’t want to be away from home for too long, so I’m only considering opportunities that are shorter or close by, but I do worry about how that will affect my career.” I was embarrassed to talk to my own therapist about my relationship! Ultimately, I knew that if I were honest with myself or anyone else about what I was actually experiencing, I would have to face the truth and I would have to leave. It’s so embarrassing to admit that wasn’t ready to do that. I felt a deep connection and sense of responsibility for this person who treated me so badly. I felt that I had taken a vow to be with this person who needed me, and that this person might one day treat me better if I could just do a better job of being the wife he wanted me to be.
After speaking to the students on Wednesday, I felt anxious for all the students who raised their hands or came up to me after the presentation with questions about how they or their friends could get out of unhealthy relationships. I know that the information, tools, and resources that I provided them with will help them, but I still worry about them and feel so sad for what they are experiencing. I know intellectually that I can’t make anyone leave, but I worry that it will take them as long as it took me to do so. I also feel anxious that I will be contacted and asked to stop talking about my own experience in such a public way. My intention is not to get revenge or to damage anyone’s reputation; it is simply to create something positive and productive out of my experience, and empower the next generation to be better to their partners and to themselves.
Yesterday, I felt A LOT better after returning from the presentation. I felt so much more comfortable and confident after doing it a few times, and I was better prepared for the emotions that might arise. I had also planned to have a fun and relaxing afternoon and I was looking forward to it! Clay listened while I talked about the presentation and my feelings about it, and then we went on a really cool cavern tour and watched a lot of very funny TV. I made sure that I was gentle with myself and focused on the positive things that I had taught the students, instead of worrying about them or feeling sad for them. Continuing this project is extremely important to me, and I know that I need to protect myself and practice compassionate detachment if I want to be able to do the most good for others.
I am currently in the process of formulating two free workshops for opera professionals (performers, creative staff, educators, and administrators) which I will hold this fall and winter in Chicago and New York. I want to teach and empower others to do this kind of work and bring this informantion and compassion to their companies and productions, as well as to their own relationships! If you are interested in learning more and being contacted with details about these workshops, please follow this link and fill out this google form.
I look forward to continuing this conversation with all of you!