Exclusive: Kelly Sundberg gets real about the healing power of storytelling

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Author Kelly Sundberg’s GoodbyeSweet Girl: A Story of Domestic Violence and Survival explores how she overcame her personal trauma. Here, she explains why story telling has been so important. 

A few years ago, at a make-up counter in Columbus, Ohio, I told the woman working there that I was looking for some kind of tinted moisturiser that was nearly invisible. She looked at me and said, “I can tell that you’re afraid of make-up, but it’s OK because you have beautiful skin.”

She found a moisturiser for me – one that made my skin look flawless but natural – and smoothed it onto my face. I said, “Do you have something for brows? Something natural-looking?” She grabbed a pencil. She filled in one brow and it looked perfect. “Could you do the other brow?” I asked. “I’m going to a friend’s book launch after this, and I don’t want to show up with only one brow done.” She laughed and said, “Of course! I wasn’t thinking.”

As she filled in the next brow, we talked about my friend’s book, and I told her that I had a book coming out too. She asked if she could read some of my book online, and I said that she could find parts of it, but she should know that it was a sad book because it was about surviving and escaping an abusive marriage. She kept filling in my brow and said, quietly, “I had one of those marriages too.” She looked to be—maybe—25. She said, “I married him when I was only 18.” Then, she said, “Do you mind if I put some eye shadow on you?”

“Sure,” I said.

She put a light, glittery eye shadow on me, and told me about how her abuser had been 24. He had come from money, and she did not. He was graduating from pharmaceutical school at the time. He had tried to get her pregnant right away, but her body didn’t cooperate.

She said, “Can I put some blush on you?” “Sure,” I said. “Was your abuse physical or emotional?” she asked. “Both,” I said. “First, it was emotional, then it was physical. I don’t think you can have one without the other.” She agreed. “They have to get you turned all upside-down,” she said.

She grabbed some lip gloss. “Honey,” she said. “I’m going to do your entire face because you have something to go to tonight, and you deserve it.” When she finished, I looked like myself, but sparklier. In that moment, I saw myself the way she saw me. As someone worthy of care. As someone worthy of a little sparkle. I hope she saw herself the way that I saw her, too. As kind and beautiful and so very strong. I never saw her again, but we’re forever connected. Soon, my memoir came out, and many others shared their stories with me. I became a keeper of stories like my own. 

For too long, I couldn’t tell my story because I didn’t know how to make sense of a reality where the person I loved deliberately hurt me. What happened to me is not about physical violence, it’s about how “they get you turned all upside down”. It’s about how emotional abuse warps the weave of your narrative, making you think you deserve what’s happening to you.

My ex-husband convinced me that I was weak, that I couldn’t survive without him. The day that I left him, I called a friend and told her my story. I asked her if my son and I could stay with her for a while. She treated my story with care. She became its keeper until I could tell it myself. Once I started telling my story, I couldn’t stop. In the process, I gained control of my own narrative; I was finally rightside-up. It was then I knew I was strong. My strength was in my ability to survive. 

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I never wanted to be in this club of story-keepers, but I am, and I treat the stories of others with care so they, too, may become their own storytellers in time. There is power in storytelling, and I’m so grateful for all the tenderness and beauty this club has brought me. I am never alone. I am surrounded by the strength of other women.

I miss the girl I was before. She was a bit softer, her light undimmed. I’ve had to grieve and say goodbye to her, but I have made myself into someone new. Someone whose light shines even brighter. Someone like myself, but sparklier.

Goodbye, Sweet Girl: A Story Of Domestic Violence And Survival by Kelly Sundberg (£8.99, HarperCollins) is out now.

Roxane says:

Kelly Sundberg writes brilliantly about trauma, domestic violence and how she overcame those things.

Photography: Provided

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