From Sunflower Soul: a Letter to You.
One day in January 2016, I decided to change my life.
Standing in the fading afternoon sunlight that filtered through the oversized colonial windows in the corner penthouse apartment, overlooking the waterfall and woods, private dog park and manicured grounds, I stared at the designer diamond ring gleaming in my hand, only one thought in mind: take it or leave it?
Instantly, my mind flashed to the night before. “Without me, you’d be nothing but a stupid, white trash party bitch,” my darling fiancé, Sean (not his real name), sneered. He didn’t like that I was getting my social life back, finally starting to feel confident enough to go out with girlfriends and dress like a normal twenty-four-year old. I didn’t like that he cheated with the married woman in the next department at our company. “Look at your dumb ass parents. Is that what you want to be like? Living in some dump by the side of the highway, wasting your life away? That’s where I saved you from. You wouldn’t be successful if it weren’t for me.”
His last words echoed in my head as I looked at the ring. It was a stunner of an engagement ring that could fetch a few thousand dollars in a private sale. But, as the dying sunlight cast shadows around the apartment, I couldn’t help comparing the Colonial windows to prison bars and the designer ring to a fancy shackle. Once the image was there, it couldn’t be unseen; the penthouse suddenly felt like Alcatraz.
No one – especially you – will ever claim responsibility for my success, I thought, before bringing the heavy ring back with me to the master bedroom, past the office and oversize bath, to the bookcase beside the walk-in closet, where I carefully replaced it in its black velvet box. As soon as the small lid snapped shut, it felt like someone put the key in my cuffs and cut me loose. I was free. Almost.
My getaway car, a humorously tiny, shiny blue Fiat, idled outside. It was 4:15 p.m. Sean clocked out exactly at 5 p.m. each workday, taking between 6 to 8 minutes to reach his car and another 8 to 10 minutes to drive home, maybe 2 minutes to get from the parking lot to the apartment, and then he’d be here. I shuddered at the thought. Less than an hour, time to hustle, let’s go.
Wordlessly, I worked to carry clothing and smaller items down to the car, before sprinting back upstairs to the apartment for the next bunch. Each time, my heart ached as I saw my dog Tucker, a 5-year old miniature pinscher, watching me with sad eyes. He knew I was leaving. Unfortunately, the room I’d found on Craigslist was in a shared apartment with three others (re: total strangers, super safe) and they didn’t allow dogs. Besides, I reasoned, Tucker would be better off with Sean. I was sure my boy would prefer the pampered life of private dog parks and family farms to the scrappy stage of life I was about to embrace. Wouldn’t he?
I’d had Tucker since he was a flop-eared, 14-week old puppy, when I scooped from a sawdust-covered plywood box and kept him on my lap for the 4-hour drive home from Maine. He earned his name for how “tuckered out” he was on the trip. That first night in the original loft apartment, Tucker howled from the crate Sean insisted he sleep in, alone in the darkened living room below. “He’s fine,” Sean had snapped at me, but I didn’t care. I couldn’t bear the thought of a poor little puppy going through a total life change, and then being left alone in the dark. Tucker whimpered as I approached, but quickly began to wag his tiny stump tail and lick my cheek as I picked him up from the crate, cradling him in my arms like a baby and whispering that it was all okay, he was safe. He slept curled up beside me every night, from that night onward.For the first time that day I cried, looking at my grown-up boy. He’d gotten me through the worst of the last 4 years of my life, and it crushed me to feel like I was leaving him behind. I blocked the thought. After another few trips, though, the only thing left to do was say goodbye.
In the quiet of the apartment I held Tucker one more time, telling him I loved him and promising I’d get him back one day, as soon as I possibly could. I switched the hallway light on before leaving, staring at the red front door for a moment before turning toward the back stairwell. Tucker started barking and I steeled myself as each bark threatened to rip my resolve and heart apart. This was my one chance and I couldn’t waste it, even if it killed me. Within moments I was on the road, car loaded with random bits of a life that quickly faded in the rearview mirror, headed toward a vision I wasn’t quite sure was real. I pictured a woman who followed her dreams, embarked on adventures and led an exciting career, surrounded by people who returned the love she gave. And, even more importantly, she loved herself. She glowed with inner joy. She was worth starting over to find.
The digital dashboard clock reminded me that I had limited time to withdraw cash from the joint checking account before Sean surely put a freeze on all assets. The second I made the withdrawal he would get a text alert and all alarms would start sounding. Rent for the small, furnished room was $450 per month, with a $300 security deposit. I decided to take $360, leaving myself enough cash for a full tank of gas and some food. It wasn’t much, but what was a true getaway without a heist? Driving off from the ATM, I glanced at the balance. There was still more than $10,000 in checking, and we had another $30,000 in savings. Sean always liked to say I only made a third of what he did, and most of our savings was gifted from his parents as the down payment on a to-be-built house, so I decided that I’d eventually only take just $3,000 for myself, leaving all other assets, including the furniture I'd carefully chosen. While any attorney would’ve sputtered and begged me to push for more, I would’ve bathed in battery acid before I let Sean think he owned any piece of my new life. I needed to succeed on my own.
So I did.
Five years and a hell of a lot of adventures later, I found the woman I envisioned that day in the penthouse prison. She was – is – real. I am writing this letter to you from my home office, in the renovated cottage, built in 1900, that I purchased in August 2020, two months after starting my dream job as a communication specialist for an international technology company. Tucker is sleeping on my lap, while my rescued American Bulldog, Shadow, snores from her bed behind me. The French doors to my left and large windows in front of me open to a back patio, overlooking a hillside yard that could easily fit my ‘white trash’ childhood home. Soon there will be more trees and flowers, a waterfall and small koi pond, a modern “Secret Garden” all my own. Well, not just my own – even as I type this, I can hear the rest of my family in the rooms beyond; my loving partner, Eric, is cooking breakfast, while his beautiful daughter, Evangeline, laughs about a show. Later, we’re all having art and movie time together, after I go to the gym for my leg day workout. Since losing 50 pounds, riding a 1,000-mile cycling challenge, running a 5K or more for 30 days in a row and having my writing featured by USA Cycling in the last year, I feel inspired to reach my next fitness goals. At 29, I am in the best shape of my life, and this momentum carries into all other aspects of my life. Nothing feels impossible anymore, and I now receive a lot of joy from volunteering with local nonprofits that share this message with others in need.
Was it easy? Absolutely not. It wasn’t always pretty, either. There were some weeks where I had less than $10 in the bank, plenty of days where I hated who I saw in the mirror, tons of nights I scrolled social media and felt miserable about myself. I lost the woman who raised me to Stage 4 leukemia within months of breaking off my engagement, overcame another abusive relationship, changed my entire career, learned the fear of going without a paycheck for months, moved five different times, gained and lost friends, lost my adopted dad to an unexpected heart attack in March 2019, helped my partner through a bitter custody battle, dealt with a lot of grief, made peace with a difficult, rediscovered past, received a furlough notice at the start of the pandemic and earned a few injuries while I worked my ass off to lose weight and get healthy again. Let me be clear: nothing in my life happened overnight, but I made it all happen. I chose a different path for myself, starting from the moment someone told me how much I mattered and the little voice in my mind spoke up to say I mattered more.
Dear one, let this letter be my gift to you, the sum of all the support that strong sunflower souls gave me, the miles between who I was and who I am today, the little voice speaking up to say you matter more. May you read these words as proof that your own dreams are possible, whatever they be. You are a survivor, darling, and you deserve to live, wild and free.
So light the match and let it all burn. Ditch the shackles and make your escape. Hop in the car, get in the left lane, drop a gear and disappear into the sunset. Find your light in the darkness and let it shine. Breathe deep and believe in the beauty of your unspoken dreams. Time to hustle, time to live.