Damsel Undistressed

I’ve been saving myself my whole life. I’ve been a dragon guarding all the treasure I’ve stored up (my work, my books, my writing), incinerating anyone who got too close. When everything went up in smoke, burned to the ground, and turned to ashes between my hands, there was nothing left to protect. There was nothing left for me to do.

I had lost more than a voice. I had lost all sense of purpose. I had left the dragon’s keep and landed in a dungeon. In the dungeon, I had lost all sense of time, all sense of autonomy, all sense of self-dependency. There was no saving myself without outside help. I wasn’t a princess, I was a prisoner locked in a position too tight to get myself out. Up until that point, I had orchestrated every single one of my own rescues, fought every single one of my own battles, pulled myself out from the bottom of a well on my own. I was an island, unconquerable and solitary. Nobody was ever around when I did these things. It made me proud, too proud for my own good.

Too proud to happily accept help ever after.

I don’t feel like the hero in my own story. I don’t feel like the princess in my own fairy tale. I feel like the sole survivor at the end of a horror film, and the experience has been terrifying, has left me haunted, scarred, and tortured. The saddest part is that my story isn’t anywhere near the grim tale other lives have endured. I didn’t audition to be a damsel-in-distress. I was conditioned to be otherwise.

And it exhausted me. I burned out. I fell down without a reason to get back up again. I had no desire, no strength, no will left of my own. Whatever sense of power saving myself had bestowed upon me could no longer sustain me. I had built up a tolerance to the level of adversity and resilience I reached, and I didn’t have the capacity for more.

Enough, I said. I can’t do this anymore.

All those years of playing my own hero and sidekick to someone else depleted me. It was futile and worthless. It inflated my ego, driving more people away than it convinced to stay.

Let them go, I said. I don’t need them. I’m an island. I’m a queen. I’m a warrior. I’m the storm. I’m exhausted. 

I don’t recall ever asking him for help. I think it was all the crying I was doing. He couldn’t concentrate. One day, when he had had enough, he sprung me from my cell, and I didn’t see him for a long time after that. He seemed annoyed by the entire event. I wasn’t exactly ecstatic about owing somebody something for the first time in my life. He didn’t need any favors returned. He didn’t need anything or ask for anything in return. The crying must have really bothered him. Silence was repayment enough, if I had stayed silent.

I didn’t know how to say thank you for something I didn’t ask for without sounding ungrateful. He had freed me from a dungeon, but escape hadn’t given me back my voice. Without a purpose or anything to do, I had all the time in the world to practice using all kinds of voices on him.

He never said a word.

There were no boundaries. There were no subjects off limits. There were no expectations. There were no clearly defined parameters after springing me from the cell. We were one big, giant blob of nothing, a vacuum inevitably destined to be filled. For as much as I told him (which is to say, everything), there was one thing I always left out.

The demons chasing me. The stalkers hunting me. The voices assaulting me. I left out the part where I was still, even after being saved from a lifetime imprisonment, a damsel-in-distress. Sometimes he wonders if it wouldn’t have been better to leave me in the cell, crying and all. Noise-canceling headphones would have been a wiser investment.

He eventually found out. He found out through the grapevine. To this day, I’m not sure he knew anything for certain until I told him. He sort of reminds me of how detectives ask questions in a way that makes it seem like they know more than they do, until you finally give something up. He knew I was pulling all-nighters. He knew I would disappear for days at a time. He knew I’d sleep for days at a time. He let me lie to his face over and over again, even though telling the truth wasn’t something I had agreed to do. I had agreed to nothing.

He didn’t save me in any traditional sense of the word. He didn’t say he’d catch me if I fell. He didn’t say he’d always be there. He didn’t say anything. He simply existed. If I fell, he’d just wait for me to get back up. By saying nothing at all, he became the loudest voice I heard.

This is who I am and that is who you are. Misery doesn’t need company.

The realization hit me slowly. Over months. Through near-death experiences. He never wavered. He had become the only constant in my life. The only solid ground through earthquakes. There were no stakes, but he was daylight after a life in the shadows, and I wanted to be near him. He made me uncomfortable.  He made me see myself in a new light, and he didn’t look away, even when I did. He never flinched.

He is the only one who let me know that I was, in fact, a damsel-in-distress, and also that it was okay to be one. He was signing “you need help” to me the same way my family had verbalized it to my face. The only difference is that my family wanted to pass me off to someone else, while he stood his ground. 

I’m giving you help. Take it or leave it.

I had no choice. I was beyond the point of saving myself. Circumstances threw us together, and if anyone else had handed me a rope, I might have used it to hang myself, instead of using it to climb out. If you asked him, he might tell you I saved myself. He’d be lying. If he hadn’t been there, I would have destroyed myself first. There was nothing left to save. He extended grace to an otherwise irredeemable monster.

Changing because of him saved me. By not using his voice, he gave me mine. He will always be the fairy tale in my life because I didn’t turn out to be the queen, or the princess, or the damsel-in-distress.

I get to be the storyteller.