God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
Even though I’ve never had a problem with alcoholism per se (although I do concede that I enjoy liquor on occasion), the Serenity Prayer has been a fairly constant fixture in my life. First off, the Serenity Prayer and 12-step programs in general have a broad cultural presence. Multiple therapists I’ve seen in the past have had it in their office paired with some inspirational photo like a waterfall or a kitten clinging to a branch like those old “Hang in There!” posters sold through the Scholastic Book Club. I’ve spent a lot of time staring at the thing only to never fully understand that the real crux, the real magic of the Serenity Prayer lies in the final phrase, “the wisdom to know the difference.”
The thing is, you really can’t change other people. They only change if they want to. True, you can help motivate them by being a factor in their decision whether or not to change. You can encourage them, reward them. Even punish them if you decide to go that route (though punishment is really a poor agent of change; mostly, it just makes the target avoid and resent you and practice forms of deception). But that doesn’t mean that you can’t change your relationship with them. If someone is abusing or neglecting you and refuses to change, you can walk away. You do not have to accept anyone’s abuse. It is only in truly extraordinary circumstances (such as abduction and extended imprisonment) that you cannot effectively change the situation.
Now, that’s not to say that you get the change you were hoping for, but let me repeat. You do not have to accept anyone’s abuse. You do not have to accept neglect.
It is obvious to me now but a hard fought belief, speaking historically of my life and relationships. I wish I had known this sooner.
It’s curious to me that a lot of distasteful, disrespectful, demoralizing behavior had been passed off by my ex as “the way all men are,” as if that excused it, ended the conversation. Conveyed to me like a fact, like I should know better, it knocked me off my guard and put me on the defensive instead. I was being too sensitive, too naïve if I thought that men could act any differently. “If they do,” my ex insisted, “They’re pretending. They’re lying to you. They’re trying to be something they’re not.” Most of it encompassed your typical cultural gender stereotypes, i.e., no man could be satisfied with one woman, romance was something only women liked and no man was naturally romantic, marriage was beneficial to the woman more than the man because it gave her security for when her looks faded and the marriage became “old hat,” etc, giving his words a certain weight and certainly giving me pause. It didn’t help that I was combatting memory loss or at least good old-fashioned cognitive fuzziness as a result of PTSD from an inpatient stay on a psychiatric addiction and recovery ward a mere handful of months before we started dating. What I knew to be reality had a way of shimmering when confronted with someone else’s beliefs. I was used to being the least reliable person in the room after what I’d been through.
As time wore on, however, and the years passed, and I rebuilt my life from the ground up, going to community college, working in allied health and making quite a name for myself as skilled in my profession, I started to realize that I wasn’t as unreliable as I once thought or had once been, but instead of breaking free immediately, I was relegated to a sort of emotional and cognitive purgatory, and it’s taken me years to break free to where I am now.
It helps tremendously that Skyspook exists. With me. In the flesh. Living in complete opposition to the beliefs my ex-husband Seth insisted were incontrovertible facts. “If it helps, treat me as though I’m a woman,” Skyspook offers. And it does and has been the best way in the short term of navigating him and the myriad ways he defies the expectations of male partners Seth set up for me over the years we were together.
But it’s short-sighted, and I want to move deeper. I need to move deeper.
I am ready to trust myself. I don’t quite yet. But I feel it coming up over the horizon, and now that all the groundwork has been laid, it will happen soon. And when it does, I will be ready for it.