Learning Not To Drown

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*I received the book discussed in this post free for review; all opinions are my own. Find my official review here; this post is a personal review, discussing the book’s impact on my own life.*

I read Learning Not To Drown by Anna Shinoda this past winter, killing time during dreary January half-days. I knew next to nothing about this book, as the hard cover version has only a short teaser on the back, but I’m glad I didn’t know what I was getting into. I probably wouldn’t have read it at this point in my life, had I known. But I’m glad that I did, because it turned out I needed it.

I am an abuse survivor. At thirty years old, almost a decade into a life of my own and into my healing journey, I am learning not to drown. From the memories. From the dysphoria of being the daughter of abuse and neglect, who still loves her parents. From the scars and wounds of the past that still impact my life. I think the title of the book resonated with me on a level I wasn’t aware of until I actually read it.

The following passage is taken from near the end of the book, and while it is written in a style that doesn’t give much away, it does contain spoilers for the discerning, so reader beware. I share this because it perfectly encompasses the feeling of the book, and it was by far the part that made me cry the hardest…

“Mom’s family skeleton peeks out of the upstairs hall linen closet, only its head and bony fingertips…

“I’ll never know what happened to Mom. What makes her protect Luke, even after he did awful things. What makes her mood change like someone has hit a switch. What makes her feel the need to keep her ornaments perfect. Because Mom will never tell whatever happened to her when she was growing up that causes her to need so much control. She’ll continue to weave and spin a story of a small-town  girl, growing up in a n innocent farmer family, complete with eggs for breakfast, collected fresh that morning, and milk still warm from the cow. She’ll spin and weave, blocking the closet door with her web, trying to keep her family skeleton tightly locked away.’

“But skeletons are resourceful. They don’t like to be locked up. It’ll peek out, rattle its bones, reminding her of its existence at any part of the day or night.

“My Skeleton joins me on the stairs. He taps my shoulder, his eye sockets long and sad. Even though Mom can be a complete nightmare, neither of us wants to think of her being hurt.

“Together Skeleton and I start up the steps. Slow, deliberate strides. We will not run. We walk to her family skeleton. We do not push the closet shut, do not try to lock it away.

“Skeleton extends his hand to me, and the for the first time I take it, feeling a strange gratitude. He is part of who I am. A result of experiences. He has given me sharper intuition, the ability to feel fear, love, hate, sadness, all at once. He has allowed me to see the truth about my family.”

~ Learning Not To Drown by Anna Shinoda, pg.327-8

You see…this is me. This is my family. And in reading this, I learned to take my skeleton’s hand.

My mother is a complicated woman, and for my own sanity and safety, for my children and husband, I had to walk away from her almost two years ago. For a long time, I’d have said she was a narcissist, someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, like my father was. I’m not so sure, anymore. She certainly picked up some of his ticks, but sometimes, briefly, I see something in her that makes me wonder. Like the girl in this story, Clare, I may never truly understand my mother, may never know what all contributed to the way she is. But by accepting my own family skeleton – the story I didn’t choose, but is mine anyway – perhaps I can begin to set aside my hurt a little, and accept hers as well.

I don’t know that I will ever have contact with her again. I hope so. I am scared of the thought.

But what I do know is this – it isn’t necessary for me to understand her in order to understand myself. I’m learning not to drown, one breath at a time. And there’s a lot of freedom in that.


A Story Of Growing Up

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Alena Belleque | Sunshine & Bunny Rabbits

When I was a teenager, my best friend had a saying…

“Sunshine and bunny rabbits, right? It’s all just sunshine and bunny rabbits.”

We walked a hard road, she and I. Both of our fathers were pedophiles. Both of our mothers turned a blind eye. Both of us were “out” about the abuse, but neither of us had support systems – except each other.

It wasn’t a healthy relationship. We both had our struggles, and they bled over each other, contaminating our friendship, breeding codependence and unhealthy attachment. In the end, I walked away, unable to help her, unable to help myself, unable to say no while with her, so running felt like my only option. She hated me for it, though I wasn’t the first to run, to abandon. I hated myself for being a coward and blaming God instead of telling her I couldn’t find it in me to stand up for myself anymore. We were both to blame. But were also both just little, scared, wounded girls, too.

“Sunshine and bunny rabbits, right? It’s all just sunshine and bunny rabbits.”

When you are surrounded by darkness, you have to work extra hard to find the light. She found it in flippancy and sarcasm, a dark humor that spoke volumes. I was an idealist, an optimist – and at that time in my life, extremely disillusioned. So together we found our light in hoping for redemption in apocalypse, biting humor, and books.

Did I mention we both came from cult-like backgrounds? We did. Though not the same ones; our fathers were cults unto themselves. Hers led a church. Mine led a family.

“Sunshine and bunny rabbits, right? It’s all just sunshine and bunny rabbits.”

I named this blog in memory of my friend. As far as I know she is still living, but we haven’t been friends in more than a decade, and the last time I spoke to here on social media, to see how she was doing, it was strained. But as messed up as our friendship was, as badly as it ended, and as distant as we have become even after making up, I love her. But more than that, I am thankful for the compassion and empathy I learned, being her friend. I am grateful for the lessons I learned, watching her make choices and live with the consequences before I found the courage to make them myself. And I will never forget her.

So welcome to Sunshine & Bunny Rabbits. My name is Alena, and this is a story of growing up.