Very few of you are, or ever really have been, a part of my life. I mean, at least not materially. In fact, I live, and have lived, a pretty solitary, hermit-like life. There are no lunch dates with girlfriends. There are, and have never been, no parties. There are no dates. If I tried really hard, I could list every date I’ve ever been in with just one sheet of paper. My one-on-one times with most of you have been limited to your office at a hospital or work meetings, perhaps an occasional e-mail from you if you happen to have read a book. Some of the most life-altering words have been ones you’ve said: you’re pregnant, Ms. Johnson was the most joyous, but there have been heartstopping others, too. Since some of the words you’ve said to me have been so impactful to my life, I wouldn’t necessarily say that our encounters have been superficial, but they have been temporary.

For the most part, you’ve been kind to me. Mr. Herzog was my first male teacher: he taught P.E., which I hated. He never forced me to participate. Instead, he allowed me to sit beside him while the other students ran around. I thought he was kind. Then there was Mr. Daniels, the 7th grade, Mickey Mouse tie wearing Bible teacher I adored. He called me out to read in class, then told me I was a good reader. He read one of the books I was writing. He called me to say congratulations when I graduated high school. There was Stackhouse, the 11th grade English teacher who meant more to me than I will ever be able to say. He wrote me a letter when we moved that was sincere and kind. When I came back to visit, and surprised him in the school library, he turned and his softly whispered, “wow” upon seeing me did something almost none of you have been able to do: it convinced me he was genuinely happy to see me. There was a homeless man who showed me what genuine joy looks like. The pastor who refused to let me be alone. A mentor who took me under his wing and made sure I felt supported. There was the first love who carved our names in a tree and made me believe that maybe I wasn’t quite as broken as I had always thought I was. And then there was the one long relationship, the one that led to an engagement. The thing about heartbreak is that—it hurts because it’s the loss not only of a person, but of a piece of hope. With one or two exceptions , these men have been in the perphipheral of my life, but have made such valuable contributions that the impact on who I am can’t be overstated.

You’ve uplifted. You’ve encouraged. You’ve challenged. You’ve inspired. More than any of that, a few of you helped me dream. The smallest communication with these few could make my whole day. I’d walk away believing, if only for a minute, that maybe the way I viewed myself was vastly different than the way you saw me. It was a man who angrily told me that he was done listening to me sell myself short. It was a man whose slightest touch made me see that touch is not always degrading or painful. It was a man who took my books and, when I didn’t think it was possible, literally helped me sell thousands of them.

So… you see… men in my world have been kind. Mostly. But, also, a man was the source of inexplicable trauma. While I craved your protection, I feared your strength. It had held me down. It had created bruises on my skin. It had trapped me, and the thing about being trapped is that, when you are trapped, the resulting panic makes you think you’re dying. While I couldn’t deny being drawn to your wittiness or charm, my father is a world class master manipulator. My great-aunt once said, “No one can meet him and not like him.” She was right. So, while I couldn’t keep my aching heart from responding to tenderness, playfulness or humor—I told myself it wasn’t real: it was only because you wanted something from me or, if you were an authority figure, it was just because you were nice. This was how the wall was built that kept me from internalizing everything you tried to tell me.

Trauma at the hands of a man from whom I should have learned trust ultimately birthed two indescribable fears that were reinforced with every, single hurtful incident. Later, some of you reinforced the fears, until being alone with you or even engaging in conversation that’s not superfluous is frightening.

Fear: Nothing is free. After rape, he gave gifts. Then someone who said he loved me became angry if I couldn’t respond to a kiss. He taught me to believe that there was a balance scale. If he did something romantic for me or something kind, he expected physical compensation. When tragedy struck, I told him I was struggling and he promised nothing would happen…. When it did anyway, and I cried, he ignored the tears. My father would often say, “I can do anything.” He wasn’t opposed to giving very elaborate gifts…. with the understanding that secrets were kept. I’m very good at keeping secrets.

The thing is, and here’s the kicker: if nothing is free, then I’m not really wanted. What I can give you is wanted, but you could get that from anyone, right? I know that’s cynical and unfair. I also know it’s not true of everyone. But the only time I truly believed a man was really happy to see me, and had no expectations for me to live up to, was when my teacher, Stackhouse, was surprised to see me. At various times, I may have felt needed or desired or, even, liked. But that’s not the same as being wanted. In my heart, I don’t think that’s the fault of any of the men I’ve known. I think it was a lesson of abuse that I haven’t been able to shake and that perfectly legitimate actions—like leaving because you’re not feeling the same way—reinforced this belief: Nobody will ever like me enough to stay. I didn’t consciously tell myself this. It wasn’t something I dwelled on or even would have admitted to believing. And, today, I can acknowledge it and write about it without feeling my heart shatter.

For the record, I don’t blame you. I don’t blame you for any of it. I don’t even blame you for wanting something different, someone easier to know, someone more giving, perhaps. I don’t blame you. The thing is: I know it’s me. That’s the real downside to abuse: it nails home that, ultimately, the only one responsible is me. If I got out more, they say. If I tried harder, they say. If I just relaxed, they say. If I let go of the past, they say. Only there’s not exactly a handbook on how to do any of that. Getting out surrounds me with people who are successful at relationships, at work, at parenting and so, from all sides, I sit amongst you, confronted with how much of a failure I am. Would you stay in that room if you felt that scrutiny? So-getting out might as well be telling me to jump off a cliff.

The real fear is one I don’t name much but… the one that keeps me from edging over that cliff is that I am, and will always be, a mother first. There are thousands of women who are very good mothers and completely unaware that their partners are hurting their little girls. I am not naive enough to believe I would know. Spending time with you and feeling like something more than a mom simply isn’t worth that risk, it never has been. I see these beautiful stories of you raising daughters that aren’t biologically yours. I’ve watched videos where little girls break down in joyous tears and hug you because you’ve presented her with papers to change her last name to yours. Heartwarming stories that are enough to make me melt. Except, for every third of those stories, is another where the little girl is simply not safe.

To trust you with them, I’d have to first trust you with me. But, to do that, I risk re-traumatizing the little girl I used to be. A man claimed he loved me enough to marry me but admitted to using my past against me to deliberately retaliate when I didn’t do what he thought I should have. It took me years to see that he was doing it on purpose, longer for him to admit it; years to understand why, no matter how much I wanted to, I couldn’t trust him. Those years broke me in ways I don’t think I’ve fully ever acknowledged. So, now, it’s really hard for me to let you in. Since it’s hard for me to let you in, I can’t trust you with me. Since I can’t do that, I can’t trust you with my daughters.

So, instead, I look to build as many platonic, safe relationships as I can with you. And I work really, really hard to make sure I give you 110% of myself. If you’re a mentor, I’m going to do everything I can to make sure your day is as easy as it can be. If you are my pastor, I’ll volunteer every service. If you don’t have any authority over me, but are just a friend, I’ll go way out of my way to make sure you know how grateful I am. I will be cheerful and playful; I will work hard to make sure you are happy. I can be outgoing and I will apologize if I have an emotional day. In the end, though, I’m gregarious and relaxed because I know you don’t want anything from me.

I’m writing this letter, really, to say thank you. Thank you for the hugs that made me feel protected. Thank you for indulging in heart-to-heart conversations. Thank you for caring when I cried. Thank you for laughing with me. Thank you for reading stories. Thank you for asking about my daughters. Thank you for holding the door open for me because it made me believe that kindness was still real and it also made me believe I was seen. Those of you I’ve seen on the playgrounds running after kids, throwing the ball to them or pushing them on the swings—thank you for that. Mostly, thank you for helping me believe, in some small part of my mostly well-guarded heart that there are good men.

I don’t even mind if the fears I have of never being enough are true: it’s not important that you stay for me. It’s more important to know that there are good ones of you for my teenage daughters to find. I want them to see you and trust you and so have a part of their lives someone with all the protective strength, the witty charm and the compassion of a true life man who will want to know them.

I am thankful to every man who has touched my life in a positive way, every one who tried to break down the walls, every one who challenged my fears with acts of compassion and care. Those small acts you likely took for granted—holding open doors, telling me you weren’t going to let me give up, sleeping in the room beside my bed, taking the time for a much needed telephone call, paying for a meal without telling me, sending flowers—they were more meaningful than you know. They revitalized a traumatized woman’s hope for something far more important than romance. They sparked enough warmth and joy for her to imagine that she wasn’t as dirty or broken as she thought she was. They nurtured a belief in kindness and resulted in her staunch defense of you even while violent memories hindered her from being who she might have otherwise been. I am thankful to you for allowing me to dream of a world where Andy Griffith dads, real friends and true loves are all real. I wouldn’t be me without you.