The following submission was made as an entry to win a OC1 from an amazingly generous donor, who wanted to see the canoe truly enjoyed, rather than turn a profit. Entrants were asked to submit an essay answering the following:
- Part 1: “Describe how paddling has changed your life.”
- Part 2: “How do you plan to use this canoe, and perhaps someday pass it along?”
Christine Culver, Virginia
After 26 years together, and four years looking for an escape hatch, I finally left, driving a busted minivan filled with clothes, photographs, crappy coping mechanisms and not much else. He swore he’d never grant me a divorce.
The guys at work, the combat veterans, said I had PTSD. They knew, because they’d seen it in their fellow Soldiers. The family advocate in the courthouse said the same, and so did my doctor, my OB/GYN, my dentist. Sometimes, when people see damage, they have to find the right way to tell you that your determination and bravery and grit, no matter how useful they were in the worst nights of your life, aren’t always helpful when things calm down. Constant High Alert will get you through, but it’s no way to live. Not forever.
By the time I moved out, I had learned to ignore my body completely. I didn’t notice pain. I didn’t notice exhaustion. I sprained my ankles so many times that they just stayed sprained. I couldn’t really taste my food. Sleep didn’t bring rest. I read about the physical toll of emotional stress. I lived the physical toll of emotional stress.
I shied away from most people. I couldn’t handle being complimented or cared for or touched, usually. I always sat facing the door, just in case.
A weightlifting injury finally sidelined me. Standing, walking, driving - all of it was excruciating. A trip to the grocery store had me crumpled and panting by the time I got back to the car.
I rested, and worked, and went to counseling. I went back to school. I built a new life.
Sometimes, I try things and I don’t know why. Usually, it turns out to be the best thing to do. A few months ago, I joined the DC Dragon Boat Club. I am the only new person on the team, this season.
And I am really new. I’ve never done this before. But with every catch, with every paddle, with every ounce of leg drive, I hear the drumbeat inside my own head: MY boat. MY boat. MY boat. I am going to learn this, because I already love it.
The first few practices, all I did was try to pay attention, and be present in the moment, in my own body. Know where my arms were, in relation to the boat. Know where my hands were on the paddle. Listen to the coach. Watch the paddlers in front of me. Try to keep up. Try not to jump out of my skin if anyone said my name. Push aside my deep conviction that any minute now, they were going to tell me to quit.
I’m still the newest person on the boat. I don’t know what I’m doing. But a few practices ago, the coach walked up to me and moved my arm. “Like this,” he said. Gently, kindly, without a speck of malice, he showed me how to improve my technique. “You’ll get this,” he said. “It just takes time.”
Every practice, I’m learning where my body is, how it’s moving. Afterward, I sit on the dock and review what I heard and saw, and what it felt like. I’m getting better. This month, I’m competing in a beginners race
I wrote this essay because I want more time on the water, reintegrating my body and my mind again. I want to share that calm, physical moment with other survivors of domestic abuse, to reach back and help women who’ve had to shut down their bodies to escape terror at home.
Chris Culver is a technical editor and writer in Northern Virginia, where she lives with her boyfriend. She loves to garden, walk the city streets, help women find their future, and plan her next international trip (See you soon, South Africa!). She’s the least coordinated member of the DC Dragon Boat Club. But, you know, not for long, because deep down, it’s her boat.