We need to talk about the cat food

Dear Leo,

Hopefully it goes without saying that I adore you. You are the only dog I have ever allowed to sleep in my bed, even though you often prefer the futon or the floor. I love you even though you are basically the reason I can’t have nice things, because you will chew them, stomp on them, or knock them over. But something has come up recently that I simply can’t allow to go on any longer.

We need to talk about the cat food.

I’m aware that this might have escaped your notice, but the reason I put the cat food bowl on the counter and not the floor is because that food is for the cats, not you.

I know. This is a shock. I’m blindsiding you with the information that there is food in the world that is not intended for your consumption, and I’m sorry. I only do it because you’ve left me no other choice.

For a while, making sure I put your food out before the cat food kept you from wandering over and jumping up on the counter to get to the cats’ bowl, sometimes giving one of them a gentle nip on the bum to get them out of the way. (Despite this, the cats seem to adore you, too, which I’m a little mystified about, to be perfectly honest. But I guess you are a good nap partner.)

However, for the last couple of weeks, if I leave the house while you are still eating your food, I come home to find the cats’ bowl overturned on the floor. I know cats have a reputation for knocking things over, but given that it’s a relatively heavy bowl and it often ends up on the opposite side of the room, paired with the fact that the bowl never ends up on the floor when I take you with me after I feed them, I’m gonna go out on a limb and accuse you of this one.

Here’s the thing Leo. The fact that the cats need to eat, too is only one of the problems.

The bigger issue is the farts.

The cat food does not agree with you, my friend. And when we go to bed on the nights that you’ve feasted on Meow Mix in spite of having already wolfed down a full portion of your own food, you make the room unbearable for hours. It’s downright toxic, Leo. The gas that you emit is fucking weapons-grade. The military could use you at Guantanamo. You would be far more effective than water boarding at getting prisoners to talk.

So I’m coming to you now because I’m at a loss on how to address this. If there was a higher place to put the cat food, I would use it, because you don’t seem to be able to help yourself, but I can think of no other place to put it. What suggestions do you have to resolve the problem?

Your cooperation on this matter is appreciated.

Love,

Mom

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“Is it because you don’t know him?”

I have 3 nieces (Big C, B, and Little C) who are each, to various degrees and in various ways, religious believers. Only Big C, the oldest of the three, at age 14, is really old enough to have a sophisticated and independent view on any kind of higher power. She knows that I do not share her belief. We have talked about it briefly, when she asked me about my lack of belief. I actually wouldn’t have told her that I didn’t believe – as I’ve said before, I try not to be an evangelical atheist. My sister was the one who told her. When Big C brought it up with me, I told her that I was willing to answer any questions she had, but beyond confirming that I was, in fact, an atheist, she honestly just didn’t seem interested in my reasons why, so we left it at that and we’ve never discussed it again. The younger two (ages almost-10 and 6) are still more or less, as far as I can tell, believers because they’ve been taught to believe. I have no interest in interfering with that. It isn’t my place. As far as I know, my middle niece, B, has no idea I’m an atheist. My brother and sister-in-law know, and if and when they want their daughter to know is up to them, unless it comes up organically at some point.

My youngest niece, Little C, is a different story.

My sister, Little C’s mother, has gradually become more and more radically Christian. She is reaching the point where it is almost pathological, to be honest. I genuinely believe there are some delusions going on there. But my sister’s mental health is not what I wanted to talk about here.

Little C is now attending a religious school (one that teaches creationism as a valid alternative to evolution), and she attends one of those Buddy Jesus churches with her mother every week. The kind of church where they appropriate and repurpose popular music and people in the congregation wave their arms in the air with their eyes closed because they’re so moved by the spirit of Taylor Swift covers. (My sister, once hoping to convince me of how cool this church was, told me that they had used a Dave Matthews Band song in one of the services. I was mostly just irritated that they had sullied a perfectly good secular song with religion – and a song written by a professed agnostic, no less.)

In any case, my point is that Little C is being indoctrinated hard. Which, whatever. Hopefully she doesn’t internalize her mother’s delusions, but that would frankly be fairly innocuous compared to some of the other delusional beliefs my sister could pass on to her. And, like I said, I have no desire to challenge her beliefs, especially at this young age. The world can be big and scary when you’re little. If believing there is a supernatural force protecting her makes her feel more secure, I’m all for it.

But, I discovered this morning, my sister has also told Little C that I don’t believe in a god.

I went out to breakfast with my family this morning, and it had been a while since Little C and I had last seen each other, so she was glued to my side pretty much the entire time. Mostly she chattered and wanted to put on my lip gloss and play with my phone, but then at one quiet moment, she sidled up to me and laid her head on my shoulder, looking up at me with her giant brown eyes. “Why don’t you believe in God?” she asked me in a tiny voice.

I was blindsided by the question, and had no idea how to answer. I still have no idea. But she was clearly very troubled by my non-belief.

I said that there were a lot of reasons, but at a restaurant for breakfast wasn’t the time or place to talk about it. That, at least, should buy me a little time to figure out what to say, I thought.

But Little C wasn’t quite satisfied yet.

“Is it because you don’t know him?” she asked. The hope in her voice was heartbreaking. I could see the wheels turning in her head, and it was immediately clear that she wanted this to be the reason, because she could fix it if it was. She’s been going to Sunday school for years, and now she probably has daily religion lessons. She could introduce me.

“No, sweetie,” I said gently. “That’s not why.”

And to my relief, she let it drop.

But I know it’s going to come up again. And I’ve been thinking about it all day, and I keep coming up against the same obstacles.

My reasons for not believing are, at best, complicated. At worst, they are pretty fucking dark.

How do you explain to a six-year-old that each person you worked with who was traumatized past the point of being able to live a functionally healthy life chipped away at your faith in a benevolent higher power? How do you explain to her the impossibility of reconciling a loving god with the knowledge that there are children born every day who will only know poverty and hunger and sickness and war for the entirety of their short and painful lives?

How do you explain to her how many nights you laid awake crying and begging a god who never answered for relief from the bewildering pain that took over your own body?

How do you explain to her that at a certain point, you had to accept the reality that either there was no one listening to your prayers, or that whoever was listening was indifferent to your pain, and if it’s the latter, then fuck him?

No, it isn’t because I don’t know God. It’s because life has led me to decide he’s not worth knowing.

I honestly hope her life never leads her to those conclusions.

So how could I ever be the one to point her in that direction?

What if.

What if the problems aren’t temporary?

What if there is no cure?

What if it’s never going to get better?

What if the best you can hope for is more of the same, indefinitely, but the far more likely scenario is that it’s just going to keep getting worse?

What if you will never be able to put down the burden you’re carrying, and it’s just going to keep getting heavier and heavier while you keep watching it strip away every dream you ever had?

What if there really is no other way out?

How long do you have to keep holding the pain to avoid spreading it?

How much of a masochist am I supposed to be?

The God of Pain

I try not to be an evangelical atheist. Both because it’s behavior that annoys me among the religious, and because I don’t want to be one of those Christopher Hitchens douchebags. I generally want to respect others’ beliefs, and don’t seek out to challenge them. But every once in awhile, something from the religious believers pushes me too far, and I snap.

Recently, I read a news story about a little girl whose inoperable brain tumor inexplicably disappeared. She went from a certain death sentence to miraculously healed, confounding her doctors. To an extent, it’s only natural that her family would credit divine intervention for her sudden recovery. I get it. It defies explanation, and we humans don’t like things we can’t explain.

And to be clear, I don’t begrudge this child her miracle. I am thrilled for her. To know that a child is healthy is always reason for joy.

But after the fifteenth or sixteenth “God is great!” social media comment on the story, I began to get frustrated.

How many hundreds or even thousands of children are lying in hospital beds right now who will never get such a miracle? Are they less worthy of it somehow? Are the beloved mothers and fathers and grandparents and aunts and uncles who will not recover undeserving of divine intervention? The babies starving to death in Yemen and Syria? The kids mowed down by gunfire in Sandy Hook? The families being slaughtered by gang violence in Guatemala and Honduras, or facing separation, incarceration, trauma, and abuse at our own borders if they attempt to escape in order to survive?

I bet I had you right up until that last one, didn’t I?

And that’s my point. This kind of narrative, even if it is inadvertent, ends up creating a system where good luck, or lack thereof, becomes a kind of virtue signaling. Those who are healthy, who live in peace, who receive the miracle recoveries, come to believe that they deserve their fate, and that those who are sick, or who were born into war and violence and trauma or abject poverty, or who will never get their miracle ending, are equally deserving or even responsible for their own fate.

This toxic attitude is what allows people who call themselves Christians to demonize the poor and the sick and the refugees, and ignore their plights, while supposedly following the teachings of a man who allegedly told them to treat their neighbors as they want to be treated.

I was raised, for most of my childhood, attending church. I had twelve years of religious education. Admittedly, we were more Christmas and Easter Catholics for the first few years of my life and we did not start going to church weekly until after my sister was born, when I was 7. And I never liked church. Even for the two years I sang in the children’s choir, mass was always just something to get through, and I was relieved every week when it was over. Thank goodness we were only Catholics, not Baptists. One hour a week was hard enough to endure. But I still learned it all. And what we were taught (despite all the biblical and, you know, observable evidence to the contrary) was that God was an all-powerful loving parent, always accepting and ready to embrace us and wanting to do what was best for us. When our prayers seemed to go unanswered, it was because God had a better plan for us.

It’s a nice idea. Honestly, even in spite of my relatively late indoctrination, and natural capacity for cynicism and skepticism and generalized impatience with organized religion, the reason it took me so long to completely stop believing was that it was a comforting thought. It was appealing to believe there was some cosmic father figure who would ultimately make everything okay. (You would think the fact that it’s also an unbelievably privileged viewpoint could go without saying, but the sheer number of believers would suggest otherwise.)

But I’m essentially a scientist at heart. Even when I resist it, eventually I have to give in to the evidence. Eventually I couldn’t comfortably reconcile a loving omnipotent deity with the horrors of the world. The small, insignificant horrors I’ve lived through, but more importantly, horrors that I’ve witnessed, up close and personal, as a social worker and counselor. Horrors that I watch every day on the news.

What kind of loving parent would let his children suffer the way so many in this world do, if he had the power to stop it?

Perhaps there is some kind of creative force that is not omnipotent. I’m open to the possibility. At best, a loving being who has limited power to intervene that is used when possible. At worst, an indifferent being who intervenes at random for its own whims. In neither case, in my opinion, a being worthy of praise or worship.

I personally find it easier to believe in a cruel, capricious, amoral creator who toys with us for its own amusement, torturing many at random and rewarding a few equally at random. (This, for the record, is actually the God that the bible depicts. One who drowns everyone but a select, supposedly righteous few, who orders his faithful follower to murder his child, who sends his own son into the world to be tortured to death in one of the most painful and horrific ways known to humanity. “For he so loved the world” is, frankly, a rather interesting spin on that.)

But at the end of the day, I really think it is all just random chance. It would be nice to live in a world where good people get the miracles, and evil people get cancer, but we live in a world where some good people live easy lives, and some get cancer and AIDS and go bankrupt and get raped and abused, and a lot of bad people never have to face any kind of real justice. Personally, I’ve never known anyone who faced significant hardships who deserved them.

Personally, I think most of us deserve the miracles. But it just doesn’t work that way.

So whatever you believe, just stop fucking equating luck with virtue and misfortune with just desserts, okay? There but for the grace of God, right?

Smash it with a hammer

CW: violence and mentions of self-harm

This morning, at breakfast with my family, I asked my father if he had a sledgehammer I could borrow. He had two questions in response. The first was, “Is this going to be like the jumper cables, or are you going to give it back?”

“You’ve told me to keep the jumper cables, like, five times, because you’re going to buy new ones!” I replied.

“Right, but I keep forgetting to buy new ones.” His second question was, “What size sledgehammer do you want?”

“One that I can swing easily but will still do a lot of damage,” I said.

“I think I can manage that,” my dad told me.

My mother, sitting beside him, listened to this exchange with clearly mounting concern, mixed with unabashed curiosity, turned to my father. “Um. Maybe you should ask her why she wants it.”

My father looked at me. “Why do you want it?” he asked obediently.

“I need to smash something,” I replied.

This answer did not alleviate my mother’s concern or curiosity. “Is this something you should maybe run by your brother?”

My brother, the cop, snapped to attention. “Run what by me?”

I sighed. “It’s nothing illegal. There is an object that I own, in my house, that I need to get rid of. Violently.”

My brother nodded sagely. “You’re going to go Office Space on it.”

“Exactly. See? He gets it,” I said to my mother.

She looked unconvinced, but she said okay and dropped the subject.

I’ll go into a little more detail now, though.

Seven years and four months ago, I decided I was going to have a baby.

Two weeks later, that plan was put on indefinite hold when my immune system went haywire and coordinated an unprovoked assault on all of the connective tissue in my body, plus my skin. Within weeks, I was in constant, excruciating pain, unable to walk from my bed to the bathroom without weeping because every step felt like knives slashing into the soles of my feet.

I have a high pain tolerance. I once walked from an apartment building to my car after falling down two flights of stairs with my foot twisted beneath me, and then operated the gas and brake pedals with a broken foot through three towns without tears. I once went to a work meeting minutes after an elevator door closed on my hand, and did not even mention the incident until someone asked me a question and I had to admit that I hadn’t heard what they said because I was a little distracted by the pain. And then there was also the time I practically had to be forced to go to the hospital with the kidney infection that could have killed me this past summer.

But this pain was absolutely bewildering.

At first, I convinced myself that this pain was a temporary setback.

Even after I was finally diagnosed with a chronic, degenerative disease, I still convinced myself that my life would get back on track once it was treated, and I could get back to my plan of having a baby.

In retrospect, I don’t think I had a clear understanding of what “chronic” and “degenerative” meant. Or how fully they would disrupt my life.

Almost exactly seven years ago, I attended a fundraiser flea market for the Catholic school where my best friend taught. One of the items that had been donated for sale was a white Jenny Lind changing table, in reasonably good condition. It was marked $10. Brand new Jenny Lind changing tables sell for over a hundred dollars.

At the time, I thought it would be a year, tops, before I would be able to go back to my plan of getting pregnant.

I went back and forth about buying it. On one hand, it seemed like jumping the gun. On the other hand, it was a really good deal. My friend’s co-teacher, a sweet old nun, saw me waffling, and my friend explained, “She’s planning to have a baby, but she’s not pregnant yet.”

The nun smiled at me. “Well maybe buying it will be how you can let God know you’re ready.”

Seven years ago, I still believed in God.

I bought the changing table. I put it in the back bedroom. I didn’t rearrange the room to make space for it. I figured I would do that when I actually had to put together a full nursery. The only “open” space for it was against the closet door. It’s pretty lightweight. Easy enough to move it out of the way when I needed to.

A couple years ago, I moved my bed into the back bedroom, too, because it’s closer to the bathroom and the stairs. Anything that cut down on the number of steps I need to take makes life easier.

The changing table is still there.

In the last seven years, much has changed. Nothing has gotten easier. A lot has gotten harder. My back hurts pretty much constantly. I can only be on my feet for 10-20 minutes at a time before I need to sit down. Showering exhausts me. Going up the stairs to my bedroom is excruciating. I need to sit down and rest after I feed my dogs. And the medication I take to keep the pain tolerable leaves me vulnerable to serious infections.

In the past month, I lost my job because of absenteeism related to my health, was diagnosed with diabetes, and had a pretty serious scare with a spot on my liver. I started several new medications, on top of all the heavy duty medications I was already taking. I am probably going to be filing for disability.

Throughout the last seven years, that changing table has sat in the back bedroom, a tangible symbol of the dream I kept clinging to, as I creep ever closer to my 40th birthday. It’s just over 4 months away now. The changing table is still there, taking up space, gathering dust, and accumulating junk, as unused furniture tends to do.

That dream has kept me anchored. It is everything I wanted for my entire life. At the end of the day, the one thing that mattered to me; the one thing I have ever really wanted, was to be a mother. Everything else – career, family, hobbies, whatever – was just details.

Three weeks ago, I realized that it was time to let that dream go. Even if I could still get pregnant, the risks have increased with every new diagnosis and new medication. I don’t have enough energy to take care of myself and my pets and my house on my own. How could I possibly add a child to that mix? I don’t know if I would even be able to carry a baby up and down the stairs – sometimes I literally have to pull myself up the stairs with both hands on the bannister to keep my knees and back from giving out.

And in any case, at this point, I think it’s pretty much a given that my genes need to die out with me for the sake of humanity.

So I will never carry a child inside my body. I will never have a second blue line on a home pregnancy test. I will never feel those first fluttering movements inside of me. No sonogram pictures, or first time hearing a heartbeat, or first cry. No feeding a tiny human that I created from my breast.

I am anchorless now. The only things holding me here right now are my nieces, my animals, and wanting to know what’s going to happen next season on Santa Clarita Diet. I can’t really think too hard about the future right now, because the idea of another 30 or 40 years feels pointless to me. I don’t want to give up on living, but the future that is available to me is not a future that I want. People say that when things don’t work out the way you want, it’s because there’s something better out there for you. I don’t buy it. I think sometimes things just suck. Sometimes the best you can hope for is the outcome that will suck the least.

I mostly manage to hide my grief and rage over being denied this simple desire that most people take for granted. I only cry and scream and bang on the walls when I’m alone.

And sometimes journaling and meditating and lighting candles are insufficient for dealing with emotions this huge. Sometimes violence is the answer. Very few times, granted. But this hurt and anger needs to be expressed.

If I could separate my self from the body I inhabit, I would take a sledgehammer to its bones. I would rip apart the joints that don’t function properly. I would stab and slice through the worthless uterus and ovaries and misfiring glands. I would exact revenge on this defective vessel for every way it has failed me. But I am inextricably bound to this corroded, rusted POS, and any pain I inflict on it, I will feel.

Meanwhile, that damned changing table is still there. There is not enough space for it in my house. It is too close to my bed; I have to squeeze past it to get to the bathroom, or go down the stairs.

It literally blocks me from going where I need to go.

I’ve thought really hard about what to do with this last symbol of the hope I once had for a future that is lost to me. And maybe I should give it away or sell it. But that’s not what I’m going to do.

I’m going to smash it with a hammer.

(PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: Any comments asking if I have considered adoption will be deleted. I PROMISE YOU THAT LITERALLY EVERY PERSON WHO HAS EVER EXPERIENCED INFERTILITY HAS CONSIDERED ADOPTION. There are many reasons why it may not be a feasible option for them, or they might not be ready to move in that direction, and no one owes you any explanation for that. And for fuck’s sake, do not ever, ever tell someone who has opened up to you about their struggles with infertility that they could “just adopt.” In the best possible case scenario, adoption is a lengthy, invasive, complicated, and sometimes expensive process, and it does not fix or erase the grief that comes with not being able to have a biological child, and they are allowed to feel that grief. If someone who is experiencing infertility wants to talk about adoption, they will bring it up.)

The Dog Who Rescued Me

This is Leo.

He’s an American bulldog mix, ostensibly, although there are moments that I suspect he is actually a very large cat. Such as the times he is indifferent to my arrival home, or how he always manages to be underfoot in the most inconvenient places when I am trying to do something, or how he gets irritated with me when we’re in bed and he’s trying to sleep and I won’t stop petting him because he’s so cute, and he’ll give me a dirty look before he jumps off the bed to sleep on the floor.

All in all, these are honestly points in his favor. Although I’ve loved every dog I’ve ever had before Leo, and I adore my sweet pomeranian mix, Daisy, the truth is I’ve always been more of a cat person. Dogs tend to be a lot higher maintenance, emotionally. Very in-your-face in pushy, slobbery, smelly ways. I admire a dog who is a little more independent. And the reality is (sorry, Daisy), I’ve honestly never fallen quite so in love with any other dog as I have with Leo.

In the meantime, the past few days have been awful.

The kind of awful that has had me asking myself hard, dark existential questions, and not being able to come up with any answers that give me comfort.

I’ve been through enough tunnels to know that there’s always a light at the end, but right at this moment, it’s pretty pitch black where I’m at, and I’m honestly not sure that what’s waiting for me in the light is anything I’ll want to see.

I’ve been trying to manage the dark with beer and ice cream and zombie comedies on Netflix for the time being. Don’t judge. The other option right now is ruminating in the dark. If I gave into that completely, I don’t know if I’d ever find my way out. But every so often, the questions still creep in.

It happened just a little while ago, and I suddenly found myself sobbing over my tablet.

And then this good boy, you guys.

Usually when he gets into bed with me he keeps a little distance. He’ll lay back to back with me, or, after he’s checked in and let me scratch his ears, he’ll stretch out with his head by my feet.

But while I was lying here shaking with sobs a little while ago, I felt him climb onto the bed, and then suddenly, a cold nose pushed its way under my arm. He crawled up so his head was next to mine on my pillow. And he stayed there while I cried. Sometimes he watched me, and sometimes he laid his head down and closed his eyes, until I took a shuddery breath and he would look up and just watch my face for a minute. Checking in.

I’ve always agreed with the statement that we don’t deserve dogs, but I’ve never felt it like this before.

I still don’t have any answers. I still am lost and aimless in a way I’ve never been before. But I’ve taken a lot of hits over the last couple of decades, and nothing has kept me down yet. I’ll figure it out.

And while I do, I have this good boy by my side.

Why Kids Don’t Tell

Though I started formal piano lessons in first grade, I had already loved the instrument throughout my childhood, and my father had already taught me to play Chopsticks and the chords of Heart and Soul. Despite my small hands and short, stubby fingers, I displayed an aptitude for music, and picked it up quickly under the tutelage of the sweet music teacher nun at my Catholic school.

At the end of second grade, though, Sister decided that she had too much on her plate and would only retain a handful of private piano students. I was one of the students jettisoned to take lessons instead from the young, pretty Miss D.

Initially I was excited about this, largely because Miss D gave little gifts to her students, dropping off little bags of candy for them at Halloween and Christmas. When I watched my classmates accept these small tokens with envy, I was grimly informed that the bags of candy were basically bribes to buy their silence for how mean Miss D actually was behind closed doors.

This did not worry me as much as it should have.

I will add here that I was one of Miss D’s favorite students. I say that not to brag or pump myself up. It’s simply the truth. I was chosen for various music themed outings with her. I was entered into multiple music competitions, and have an assortment of ribbons and trophies to show for my efforts. I don’t even think it’s an exaggeration to say that Miss D loved me, in her own self-serving way, to the degree that my ribbons and trophies were a reflection of her teaching.

Which makes the way she treated me all the more horrifying, and makes me wonder how awful it was for the students who didn’t have my Teacher’s Pet standing.

From third through eighth grades, I continued to take weekly lessons from Miss D. And I lived those years in a constant state of anxiety about the verbal beat-down I would get during those thirty minutes each week. I didn’t even get a break during the summers – she continued to offer summer lessons with her star pupils.

It’s been over 25 years since I last saw her, and I couldn’t tell you anymore what she said when the yelling and berating began, but I can tell you exactly how it felt. How my fingers would shake and go cold in fear of hitting a wrong note. How dread would settle in the pit of my stomach. How the inevitable mistake would make it that much more impossible to play correctly.

How my knees went weak with relief and I felt like a boulder had been lifted from my shoulders when my 30 minutes of torture ended each week.

The real kicker, though, is that I did have that Teacher’s Pet status, so it wasn’t like that every moment that I spent with her. I also had effusive praise heaped upon me. Both directed at me, and, at competitions and recitals, directed at my family, who were told in ebullient detail about my natural ear for music.

This made it worse, for two reasons.

The first was that the praise naturally made me crave Miss D’s approval, but the threat of her ire was ever present underneath it. She only got upset with me because she knew I could do better. It was for my own good. It was not unlike being a battered spouse, hoping that this time I would make a good enough dinner to avoid a beating, never understanding that the quality of the dinner was never what the beating was actually about.

The second was that the praise that my parents heard ultimately made it impossible for me to ever tell them what those lessons were actually like. By then, I knew that what my classmates had told me about Miss D back in first and second grade – classmates who, incidentally, had long since quit piano lessons – was horribly true, but who would believe it of someone so outwardly sweet and generous who obviously thought so highly of my talent and skill?

As far as I can remember, I tried, once, to tell my father, in about fifth grade. I had to work my courage up to initiate the conversation, and when I did, I lacked the adequate vocabulary to describe what really went on in those lessons. Miss D is mean, I told him. She yells at me. I hate the lessons, and I want to quit.

My dad was patient and kind, and he listened, and then he told me gently how he wished he hadn’t quit guitar lessons, and he didn’t want me to give up on something I was so good at – and wasn’t it true that I could probably stand to practice a little more?

In saying this, my father was not being cruel negligent of my emotional health. He was genuinely trying to do the right thing, and he did not have the information he needed to know how bad it really was.

It confirmed my worst fears, though. I would not be believed.

I never tried again to quit.

If I’d had the vocabulary then that I have now, I would have told him that Miss D was verbally and emotionally abusive. That she was cruel and vindictive in her words. That her gifts were grooming, and her praise was gaslighting. I would have told him that I spent the night before my lesson lying awake in fear of those 30 minutes, and her verbal barbs were as painful as being slapped.

I didn’t know how to say all of this to him. And after the first time he didn’t believe me, I stopped trying.

The end of eighth grade finally provided a welcome separation point. I was going on to a different high school, and my parents agreed that I could try out a different teacher. The only caveat was that I had to tell Miss D myself. The final lesson when I told Miss D I would no longer be her student was fraught with stress. I have always been conflict-averse, and I spent the entire conversation on pins and needles. She tried to manipulate me into staying under her thumb, telling me that the music teacher at my new school wouldn’t be entering me into the competitions and recitals that she always had. I think it was the first time I actually realized that those events were far more important to her than they were to me. I just wanted to play music. I don’t remember how the conversation ended, but I do remember the relief of finally walking away from her for the last time.

And here’s the thing: she was a piano teacher.

Not my parent. Not a family member. Not someone I depended on for food and shelter and love. Not someone I loved and needed to love me back.

I was an adult before I ever revealed to my parents how bad it actually was with Miss D. That it was, in fact, abuse. And clearly I was not alone in this. (In fact, I ended up attending high school with Miss D’s niece. When I mentioned that I’d taken lessons with Miss D for years, my classmate’s response was, “Oh, God, I’m sorry.”) She was teaching before I started lessons with her, and she continued to teach after. No one ever fired her. No one ever investigated her. Some kids were at least able to convince their parents to let them quit lessons, but to my knowledge, no parent ever called the school to complain about her methods.

In the meantime, I had a family that loved me, parents who supported me and were proud of my accomplishments and who, while as imperfect as any other parents out there, were warm and kind and never let me doubt my value. I was able to emerge from the experience relatively unscathed.

Imagine what it must be like for children who have someone like Miss D as a parent. Or a grandparent. Or a family friend who everybody likes.

If it was as hard as it was for me to talk about the abuse of my piano teacher for fear of not being believed, how hard do you think it must be for a child to tell anyone that their parent is hurting them? Or that mommy’s boyfriend is touching them in ways he shouldn’t, even though he makes mommy so happy?

How hard must it be to tell when telling might have one of two outcomes: either you won’t be believed and you’ll get in trouble for telling, or you will be believed, and everything you know will be torn apart?

And how hard must it be to tell on someone you love?

Look.

I don’t want to be alarmist here.

But my general philosophy is that when a kid says a grownup is hurting them, or is making them afraid, it is imperative to believe them. And then take action.

You might be the only person who does.