I didn’t used to be good at saying ‘no.’
More often than not, I said ‘yes’ to an extra family or friend’s social event or to the advice of someone I thought knew more. I tended to dodge conflict or half-heartedly comply or paraphrase with ‘if that’s okay with you.’ I said ‘yes’ in direct and indirect ways.
It wasn’t that I was terrible at it but I said it much more than I truly wanted.
Then my husband of twenty years got sick. It wasn’t a physical illness, which sometimes is an acceptable answer when declining invitations. It wasn’t a mental illness, which may have garnered a tiny bit more understanding.
It was an invisible trauma injury. To make it even more indecipherable to most, it was from childhood.
But the decline in his health made it impossible for us to continue doing life the way we had known. Rather, it made it impossible for me to continue that way.
I had to say no.
So the simple word grew to become a part of my vocabulary at what some deemed an alarming rate. Disarmed by my straight-forward stance, several overtly expressed displeasure. Others backed off without explanation or further contact. But others, old acquaintances and new, embraced my monosyllabic language and joined me in expressing their own ‘no’. There was shared power as we, each in our varying circumstances, supported each other in saying ‘No.’
To describe saying ‘no’ as the best and the worst of times is putting it mildly. I suspect if you’ve had to do this and do it often, you will understand what I mean. It’s an odd and messy mix of anxiety and self-admiration, exhaustion and empowerment, self-criticism and confidence.
More than anything, saying ‘no’ is a time of grief and gratitude. There is grief when ‘no’ brings loss of relationships. There is grief when you say ‘no’ to systems of care, which often do not adequately address childhood trauma and you personally incur further cost for treatment. There is grief when ‘no’ means that, sometimes, you do things alone.
There is gratitude too.
There is gratitude when you discover your voice, your personal power, and your capacity for growth and change. There is gratitude for a new and understanding community of friends, a place where you feel at home. There is gratitude in the new found belief that, despite trauma and the lack of societal and personal understanding of it, there is still deep compassion in the world.
None of this to say, I am grateful for the terrible hurt or rejection or the stress that saying ‘no’ has caused me. Nor am I grateful for the adverse circumstances of my husband’s life.
But I do know that without these circumstances I might not be saying it. For that, I am glad my husband’s childhood trauma taught me to say ‘no.’