If you walked with me into Laleska’s apartment in Somerville, MA, you would find a petite, seemingly quiet 19-year-old holding the door. Actually, back up. You would first see a blur of white and gray fur flying at you, giving you a visual of what you heard as soon as you knocked — the unmistakably shrill bark of a Schnoodle. Remember this dog, called “Ali,” because she will be important later on.
Once you made it to the couch to sit across from Ali’s owner, you would notice my friend’s eyes. Laleska’s brown eyes command attention. Not in a harsh way, but in a “quiet strength” way. Give her a couple more minutes, and you will scratch the “quiet” part. Her blond hair almost reach her shoulders. You can tell it’s dyed due to the dark roots. Her clothing style clearly says, “That’s not the point,” so you obey and focus on her face, on her words.
After the small-talk, I ask a basic question. (With survivors, “small talk” means asking if the other one’s ever attempted suicide and other pleasantries.) “Why are you still alive?” Between terrible traumas, abuse, bullying, and major mental illnesses, staying alive has never been a given for Laleska. And yet, here she is. And here’s the reasons Laleska says she’s still alive.
- Snails come out when it rains to say hello and enjoy the weather. “My caseworker and I were walking along a sidewalk recently, noticing the rainy weather,” Laleska explains. “Most people get fidgety about rain. Oh my hair, oh my clothes, oh I’ll look like a wet rat. But me? I try to notice and appreciate the little things, such as cute snails coming out when it rains because the air is nice and moist, just like their underground home. I told my caseworker they’ve come out to say ‘hello,’ and then I gently moved them safely off the sidewalk.” Laleska’s found the importance of giving into her innocent, child-like impulses. It’s the unlikely secret to coping with a difficult life, she says — enjoying the small things…or creatures, in this case. She sees it as a way to combat the oppressive, perfectionistic bent that focuses not on where we are going, but how we are failing the standards we’ve set for ourselves. Laleska’s noticed that enjoying the small wonders of life pushes back against the fear-based, threat-detecting lens that once served her well when she was surviving her abuse.
- There are people you bump into on the street who giggle and say “oops!” Laleska has “social anxiety,” so getting out in public and around strangers is an unnerving, out-of-her-comfort-zone experience for her. “Any random person could be ready to rage at me,” she explains. This point hit home for me as I thought back to a few minutes earlier, when a very unhappy woman aggressively confronted me as I approached a Starbucks entrance. Apparently, I had taken the parking spot into which she was getting ready to back her large pick-up truck. Let’s just say she let me have it, mocking my short-lived attempt to explain that I hadn’t purposefully crossed her. It’s because of people like this woman, and her past abusers, that Laleska is passionate about being the kind of person who giggles and says “oops!” when she bumps into other bodies. Fortunately, she’s run into – no pun intended – other people like this in public, too, and they’ve kept her going.
- Your body renews all of its cells every seven years, so you will have a body one day that the people who hurt you have never touched. Laleska hasn’t yet fact-checked this claim, but it’s none-the-less given her hope as a survivor of abuse. Lest I assumed she was referring only to physical or sexual abuse, Laleska emphasized how abusive words leave their own, biological imprint on the brain, which is a key organ in our bodies. Laleska can feel hurtful words in a physical, bodily way that most of us can’t, such as a tangible stinging in her skin. Her point, though, is that our bodies will replace themselves in a sense, which frees us from the need to try to cleanse ourselves of the dirty, shameful feeling we abuse survivors often carry around in our bodies and minds. “Abusers may have touched us, but they don’t get to keep what they’ve taken!” Laleska proclaims. “It’s like the Rapunzel story, if you’ve seen the movie, Tangled. The step-mother could cut off Rapunzel’s hair, but it would instantly die, separated from it’s magical power.” So Leleska assures her 18-year-old friend, whose uncle sexually abused her from the age of 5 – 11 years, that her body is NOT dirty or ruined. Laleska softens and tears up because child abuse angers and breaks her heart like nothing else. I assure her she’s in good company.
- The pet of your dream is waiting for you to adopt him/her. Like so many of us, Laleska has found animals to be uniquely healing due to their boundless supply of unconditional love and affection. Ali has been Laleska’s sidekick for the last 6 years and is currently her emotional support animal. Laleska told me about a time she engaged in self-harm that extended across her entire body. By wearing long sleeves and leggings that day, she was able to hide the injuries from people. Ali figured it out, however, and faithfully licked the scars, right through the layers of clothing. Due to experiences like this, Laleska looks forward to adopting a pet someday. “When asked what I’m looking for,” she told me, “I’ll simply say, I’m looking for a cat or dog who needs and wants to be loved.” This dream helps keep Laleska alive. For now, her “dirty cotton ball” of a dog is her ideal pet.
- Dancing around outside during a rainstorm can be renewing. This one ties right in
with Laleska’s strong beliefs about saying hi back to the rain-happy snails! She finds victory in doing what others avoid, such as by going OUT instead of loafing on the couch when it’s raining. Laleska agrees with those who believe in the healing power of water and of being outdoors, and points out that you get both when you splash though rain puddles! And sing while you are at it, she says — “the worse the better!” One of Laleska’s childhood teachers taught her that April and May are not made for people’s ease and comfort, but for the re-birthing of the grass and trees. Laleska adds, “You don’t get to the lotus without the mud!”
- There is still good in you. No one can take that from you. Laleska described a journey of emerging from deep, deep layers of shame, piled on her by her abusers, and by the consequences of surviving this hardship. She is emerging from this shame by discovering that there is something left inside her that no one can rob. “Mental illness is mental illness, and there’s nothing inherently pretty about it,” she tells me. “But beautiful things can come from it, and my illness allows me to see colors within myself and in others that most people can’t see. I’ve already felt like the world ended, so now I’m ready to live.” And because Laleska loves good quotes, she throws out one from the book, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden: “Measure the hate you feel now, and the shame. That quantity is your capacity also to love and to feel joy and to have compassion.” So even as she wishes that all the horror in her life hadn’t happened, Laleska is also struck by the positive benefits she now enjoys as a trauma-survivor. Namely, the ability to feel compassion for others, to bring awareness to mental health issues, and to help other sufferers no longer feel alone.
As we wrapped up our conversation, Ali violently shook her poor, cloth lion-toy like it was a mouse to be stunned to death, and I asked for any last words. “As my tattoo says, be brave,” she says. “Being strong AND courageous is what’s important. Strong means taking what comes at you, and courage means choosing to fight back, fight for yourself, fight for others.”
I smile. “Thanks, friend!” I say. “Hell, yeah,” Laleska Santos answers.