Back in 1993, when Marianne Williamson told her girlfriends she was working on a book about women, their response took her by surprise. "For us?" they asked her. "For women who have been to hell and back?"
In a version of Williamson's book, "A Woman's Worth," the first paragraph read, "How strange that this should be the club we belong to: Women who have been to hell and back. But we all understand what this means. It's a membership badge we wear with knowing looks and lines on our foreheads. such has been our womanquest. The relationships, careers, children, dreams, betrayals, hopes, wins, losses our feelings have blended our stories converged."
More than 20 years later, as I thought about what I would write for this column, I heard my girlfriends asking the same questions. I realized that "The Club" is still alive, and we continue our "womanquest."
As I pulled out my own "membership badge," memories overwhelmed me of nights filled with painful, hopeless, lonely tears. Days filled with constant struggle, afraid to tell anyone what was happening behind the clown's face I had drawn so I could hide behind it. I'd stumble and fall to what felt like the lowest point in my life and once again somehow I would get back up, literally, and start all over.
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Violence and abuse were commonplace in the first 25 years of my life. My most vivid memory was at the age of 20 when my new "husband" punched me in the face so hard it knocked me to my knees. I got up and he hit me again. I got back up and he hit me, this time screaming, "Stay down, you're going to make me kill you!" As I got back up oh so slowly, just before I passed out, I whispered, "If this is the only dignity I have left, I'll keep getting up until you kill me."
I escaped a year later, finally more afraid of staying than I was of leaving with my 3-year-old son.
Women who have been to hell and back have more in common than just our pain and suffering. Our journeys have taught us that we possess this incredible ability to be resilient. In the midst of our pain, we are capable of not only coping with our lives, but we are able to find something left in the ashes that can be transformed into something good. We've learned that no matter how hard things get out
there, we can and will survive, because we have to.
I have been to hell and back so many times I have frequent flyer miles. I have callouses so thick that life can't hurt me as badly any more. I am convinced that difficulties in life cannot be avoided, but those lessons need to be shared with other women. We learn from each other's journeys -- the pain, the struggle, how we survived and, ultimately, got out, got back up.
Elizabeth Gilbert, author of "Eat, Pray, Love," shares her story and asks us to share ours so that the pain will not be in vain. Our experiences make it possible for us to be our own heroes by facing our own fears, surviving our pasts and letting go by sharing it with other women so they can learn from our journey.
I've learned so many lessons: that my life is my own; that I don't need permission to honor myself; that I must share my "Heroes Journey" (coined by Joseph Campbell) and teach, encourage, provide space for women to empower themselves to share theirs. I've learned that a broken person can become whole, that we can do nothing about our past, but we certainly can choose to take the lead in our own story and choose how the story will end.
Borrowing a well-known Oprah phrase, "one thing I know for sure": There will always be one person I can count on to be there for me, and that is me. I have never let me down, so I no longer fear falling down and getting back up.
Besides, I have frequent flyer miles and callouses now. I have surrounded myself with great women who know and continue discovering their worth. And that's what helps me keep faith and hope alive.
"The secret of life is to fall seven times and get up eight times." -- Paulo Coelho, "The Alchemist"
Maria V. Zavala, president of Latinas of the Women's Resource Center, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
COMING NEXT SUNDAY: Barbara Zdravecky, president/CEO of Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida, sweats it out every Saturday morning to fight fat -- and to fight for sanity.