listening to the roaring, or coming to self-awareness
For about three years now I’ve been paying lawyers to help me fight to end a relationship that was all about fighting.
I’m not much of a fighter. My default responses to real or perceived aggression include feeling trapped (essentially sitting in a corner in tears) or ending an exchange or even a relationship with frozen silence. If I have to engage in real fighting, I feel afraid, and sometimes I have to get detached to get through it. If I can’t fully detach, the roaring starts in my head, like a sound machine people use to sleep, an uninvited layer of protective cotton that gives me a buffer but makes rational, analytical thinking difficult.
The last in-person fight I had with him had ended with police taking him away, and then there was the fight with lawyers, but with the legal end of the marriage, I thought the end of the fighting would come as well. Then he died. And new lawyers came in, to clean up what the first round of lawyers had left undone.
Last Wednesday, more than two and a half years after his death, we went to mediation in hopes of avoiding going to court.
It was set to start at 930, but when we walked into the conference room at 9, there was already an Au Bon Pain coffee cup on the table, already big black briefcases and file boxes on carts stacked against the wall. We were early, but not as early as others. Apparently no one wanted to be late.
People returned to their coffee. Introductions were made, but no one smiled. I was the only woman in the room of twelve people.
The mediator sat at the head of the table. Across from me sat the Personal Representative for the estate, his two lawyers, and a lawyer for another person who had a claim. On my side, one lawyer for me, two for my business partners, and my father and brother. Mr. Z, a retired lawyer, was there next to me. Everyone on my side was there to protect me. To list the kindnesses and love expressed to me by the members of my side of the table would make this an even longer post than it will be already. To say that I am grateful to my team is an understatement.
Someone on our side joked across the table, Are you worried about being outnumbered? The other side said, Of course not. Our guy said, Well, you’ll be worried in the brawl in the parking garage later. Everyone laughed. But this early joking was not far off from how everything about the day felt to me. The roaring in my head had started even in the practice fighting of our preparations.
The stakes were high for me. My financial goose could be cooked. I understood the case as well as anyone, and if it hadn’t been for the roaring, I would have been an able advocate for myself. I could be an able advocate on another day in another room for someone else in my peep-toe wedges.
The mediator explained the rules of the fight.
One of their lawyers talked, then two of our lawyers talked, then the other team left to deliberate alone in a smaller conference room. My team spread out around the table.
The mediator left the room to talk to them, then came back to tell us what they were thinking, then left us to consider our response, then took our response back to them, and back and forth, all day. There is a lot of waiting time in mediation.
When considering our responses, we argued among ourselves, or more accurately, they argued among themselves, as only men, particularly men who are lawyers, can do, no one taking offense at the arguing, rams slamming their racks against one another, crash, crash, crash, backing off and going back in again.
No one meant for me to feel unsafe. No one meant anything else than to do his best to protect me. But the arguing, and the feeling of being trapped in a situation of tension, reminded me of too many other arguments and conflicts and unsafe nights for me to argue along with them without the roaring in my head increasing.
There was no way to escape the tension but to go to the bathroom, so I drank glass after glass of water, and when the pitcher was empty, I switched to little plastic bottles, always happy to have a reason to leave the room, walk through the reception area, past the elevators, left down the hall to the first door on the left, and into the relative sanctuary of a stall, where I could take deep breaths to try to slow my heart rate and regain my composure.
My attorney went out into the lobby and asked the receptionist, Is there a goddamn tv in this office? Does it have cable? And the tv appeared, in the closet in our conference room, so we could watch the World Cup. Switzerland upset Spain. The South African goalkeeper got a red card. Unheard of. The mediator came in and out, talking to us, talking to the other side.
Around noon I thought we were near an agreement, and we were, and I wondered if we would finish soon, but no one else thought so, and sandwiches were delivered, sliced turkey stacked high, egg salad sliding off the rolls, potato salad in a formed plastic container. I ate half a turkey sandwich.
We started again at 12:30. I picked up paper clips from the carpet at my feet under the large conference table. I looked down at a tangle of computer cables, a large power supply. I wondered who would use it.
When it was all too much, when even picking up the paperclips or going to the ladies room couldn’t distract me, I walked to the window. Sometimes I looked out at a beautiful view of Biscayne Bay and the Port of Miami, turning my back to the men, and sometimes I turned my back on the bay, surveying the room, listening to what they were saying, trying to engage my left brain.
Sometimes the roar in my head drowned them out for a few seconds, and around two o’clock I was afraid that the roar would become so loud that I wouldn’t be able to hear them, follow their reasoned and documented arguments at all.
I took the paper clips I had amassed from the floor and placed them on a counter at the end of the room.
At one point, following the soccer theme, I made the Time Out sign with my hands and said, since my neck is on the line here, let’s do such-and-such. That was probably my last substantive comment of the day.
The junior lawyer of my team asked me if I was okay. He had stayed out of the fray and was able to sit back and see that I was struggling. Maybe he could hear the roaring, too.
Finally it was over, we reached an agreement, and the junior lawyer began to draft a hand-written version for everyone to sign. While he wrote, everyone sat around, chatting. When the draft was finally circulated for signatures, I could barely read it. Fortunately my lawyers wrote it and read it.
We left the building without incident in the parking garage, and Mr. Z and I went to a restaurant where I drank two martinis (exceeding my one-drink maximum). Late the following day I began to ask, Why the roaring?
I realized that the fighting in a closed conference room, regardless of the fact that people were often fighting for the way to best help me, brought up a lot of old fears of conflict and being trapped. My body knew it, responding with a racing heart and shortness of breath, wrapping me in a wall of sound.
I was able to recognize this as a stress response, but instead of tracing it to other instances of detachment or frozen-ness, I tried to fight it. I would have been better off acknowledging it to someone (the best candidate would have been Mr. Z) but I was so frozen in fear or panic, unable to fly or fight, that I tried to overcome it, and as the day went on, my protective self grew stronger, trying to get my attention.
Only talking to Mr. Z at three a.m. Friday morning did either of us realize that I had been frozen, panicked, by the arguing against the other side and among my own side. I was trapped in the past, in my reactions to the present that weren’t based on a room full of men debating the best way to legally protect my interests, but on the past room with one man who wanted to berate me or hit me until I disappeared.
But it’s over now. No more fighting him in the bedroom or the living room or the conference room.
It’s time to fight in new arenas: on the manuscript page, on the web page, on the tweet, over tea with another woman who is where I’ve been. And time to listen to the roar, if it starts again, and ask it what it’s trying to tell me.
This post is partly in response to the writing and yoga challenge by Bindu Wiles, 21.5.800, and Dian Reid’s Self-Evidence + Authenticity theme of Self-Awareness.