He is coming, down the hall, through the door, and for me.
My bedside lamp is not enough to pierce the darkness coming. I will see him when he comes. I don’t fight. I don’t flee. I freeze, like many other times, as if waiting with open arms. I freeze, and, when he comes, I am slack, pliable, and wordless. I shrink inside myself, the screams, “Make it stop! Make it go away!”, echo in my head until I am as empty as a doll.
“That was then. This is now,” I think over and over again, a mantra or prayer to believe it back to the past. I feel a little foolish every time I mantra or ground. The more I need it, the less foolish I feel. Part of me knows I am in bed, forty-one years of age, and half a lifetime away from living with my parents. This horror isn’t happening, but I believe it is. I don’t know why I dread his coming—why memory triumphs over the immediate.
This time is different. No matter how much I mantra it doesn’t make it so. Mantras protect me, like a sword, cutting thoughts and feelings down, but, this time, it is a children’s toy. I try to ground myself by feeling my weight on the bed and the sheet’s smooth texture. My mind knows none of that.
I feel certifiably crazy as everything distorts and something not there moves out of the corner of my eye. I never suffered motion sickness, but this must be that nausea. I am pulled apart like a roller-coaster suddenly dropping, leaving my stomach behind. I am hypnotized by the surreal distortion. It is moving curtains overlaid by another dimension of the same moving curtains and pictures that telescope out and back again like optical illusions you see in books.
My hold on reality is tenuous at times. That night, I can’t “ground” out what is happening, so I tightly roll up in my sheets, comforter, and pillow, wrapping my arms around me. I don’t remember anything else. I don’t know how I fell asleep—fearful of his coming, down the hall, through the door, and for me.
I ground. I hear the fan rhythmically thump the air and see it reflect the light. The blue and gold curtains are open to the day, competing with the lights of my living room. I feel the Edwardian, gracefully wood-framed, blue sofa I love. My journal is pages of lines—some blank and others scrambling with words. I stop writing, suddenly and strangely at loss for words. I am alone, yet am I? Even now, I feel it. I feel the painful dread of daddy coming down the hall, through the door, and for me.
Not today though. Not ever again.
I write “afraid,” crossing it out to write “horrified.” I practice knowing my feelings from a list of emotions my therapist gave me. I practiced not knowing my feelings so long, I don’t understand them. It was easier. I didn’t get to pick boxing up only bad feelings, so joy, peace, and contentment are boxed up, too. I wonder, not for the first time, if emotions are as many shades of meaning as the list holds. I don’t have a grasp of my feelings, so, sometimes, I am frustrated when my therapist asks how I feel. I think I am frustrated, too, because during my life, keeping a lid on my emotions protected me from heartache—from moments like last night.
I wrote “afraid,” meaning filled with fear or apprehension. Fear is redundancy rather than explanation. Apprehension. That sounds fear-lite. “Viewing the future with anxiety or alarm” doesn’t sound fear-lite at all. It is where I was.
I wrote “horrified,” though. Why is the difference meaningful? Horror reminds me of Edvard Munch’s painting, The Scream—hands protecting myself, head shrieking but throat strangled, eyes wide with terror, and surroundings distorted. The person in the painting and I in my bed are silent with horror. It looks how I feel— “horror” sketched as “painful and intense fear, dread, or dismay.” Journaling is space to think about these things.
My therapist often tells me about flashbacks, because abuse is a feeding ground for them. I can’t quite believe I have flashbacks. I think they are seeing trauma as a movie or photographs. My therapist will tell me, again, I had a flashback of my father raping me in the darkness and silence of night. I don’t have to see it for the flashback to be real, and mine are rarely film. This time my flashback is a painful dread painted like The Scream.
My new friend is speechless as, talking across the gap between our beds, we relate eerily alike processes, programs, and products. We should be asleep, but we compare the exact schedules we usually go through every night for sleep as elusive as a feather on the wind. We had a long day, conferencing and presenting, and we have a long day, traveling. Instead of sleep, I share ways to save and earn money, trickling down through percentage earning credit cards, discounted gift cards, email and text discounts and freebies, and loyalty program rewards. Like me, it excites my friend, not only because we are cash-strapped grad students, but because she appreciates method.
She is wrapped in downy, white comforters and pillows, waist-length hair wrapped in a fluffy, white towel. (She surprises me when she says she always wished to trade her beautiful, silky, black hair for blonde.) I don’t think she knows I saw her turn down the thermostat, so I can sleep. Last night, I tossed and turned, too warm for even a sheet and too warm for sleep. I didn’t take control of the thermostat for her sake, though it is part of my way of controlling the elements to grasp sleep.
I don’t know why my friend is keen for stratagem. Lists, schedules, processes, stratagem, organizing, and problem-solving give me some semblance of control—control over the devilments of depression, such as waking sleep, decapacitating emotions, and flagging motivation and energy. I relish opening my calendar app, creating, adapting, and adding the green boxes that represent activity, productivity, and achievement. (During the conference, my friend and I mirror each other, plugging in plans.) Controlling my calendar, my calendar controls me. Those green boxes are a call to arms. Move, soldier! Get off your ass, soldier! Move, move, move, the day is a wastin’, soldier!
Soldiers, though, become tired and depressed, fighting wars and carrying packs, and I am no different. They get wastin’ sometimes as they down beer after beer, allowing the demons out. Sometimes, when I am wastin’, downing beer after beer of self-consciousness, the guards of therapists, medications, psychiatrists, and therapies leave their post long enough for this soldier to forget about the green boxes of responsibility, allowing the demons out.
I am caught off-guard, one day, when I read a line by Phillip Lopate in The Art of the Personal Essay,
A writer fascinated with the boundary between life and death, whose aim was to capture “a very vivid idea” of any subject, Virginia Woolf chose to drown herself rather than go on being incapacitated by severe depression.
This soldier stopped. Feeling the full weight of my depression I laid my head on the page. I felt Virginia, I felt myself, letting go, drifting away from the madness of life. By writing so beautifully and dying so tragically, she unknowingly captured “’a very vivid idea’ of [a] subject.”
The writer in me tries to make sense of Virginia’s life and death parred down to one sentence. Who am I kidding? It isn’t a fairytale tragedy. I felt sad, deeply sad. In that moment, I felt a connection with Virginia that I still don’t understand. I know the weight that took Virginia down in that water.
It is a horrible way to die, drowning yourself. I have planned ways to die, but never struggling with the water, pressing in, closing over me, and suffocating my lungs. I have not ‘chosen’ death yet, so I have no choice–Move, soldier! Get off your ass, soldier!, getting back up and pressing forward that day and this.
I remember who I am trying to kid, turning my tragedy into a dark fairytale, when things are much better than at other times, when I had no friends, solace, or help. I write on, considering my “boundary between life and death.”
I soldier on for control I didn’t have in an abusive home. That is what my therapist and books say. It sounds true, but maybe it’s true that I am a perfectionist, if a somewhat flawed one. Perfectionism is just another way to control and deal with trauma. Even when my parents seemed to relinquish their hold, I was not in control. My control was policing myself, staying within where I learned my parents’ electric fences were. This is death.
Today, I am just another person, talking with a friend, who like me, uses plans and processes to organize the day. Today, I don’t think about soldiering. I am on leave. Today, my penchant for green boxes is chummy, not maladaptive. This is life.
I learned so much too young. My therapist says I am both wise beyond my years and a child before my years. I often comprehend and fear as a five-year old child. At five, I was shocked to learn taking control was a price I couldn’t pay. Trauma creates blackouts where memories should or might be. I subconsciously blacked out parts of this memory, but enough remains consciously and subconsciously that its tendrils choke my life.
“No,” I quietly say. I feel just. I am not angry.
Suddenly, mommy grabs my arm, as she and daddy say,
“So you think you can take care of yourself,”
“So you can make it out in the world on your own,”
“You don’t need us, do you,” and,
“Let us just see you try it.”
She pulls me to the door and shoves me outside. The door slams.
They didn’t really mean it. The door is unlocked. I can open it.
I twist the door knob, my hand uselessly slipping.
They mean it.
Suddenly, I turn—back to the door. I have never felt so alone and helpless or that the world is so large and scary. For the first time, I see this huge world beyond my family. It isn’t safe.
The rain drips off the overhang and near my face. The mist chills me. I worry about floors of rusty red doors and dirty-white blind-covered windows, facing me around a central pool and green. I don’t know anyone behind any door. I am afraid and ashamed of myself. Any moment now, a door or window may open and someone see me in my pajama gown and bare feet. I am afraid of them and ashamed of myself.
I did this. I shouldn’t have said no. I won’t ever say no again. This is all my fault. What do I do? What happens next? I didn’t know that saying “no” meant this would happen. I can’t take care of myself.
Trauma blacks out the rest of the memory. At some point, they let me back in, but the damage was done—the tendrils stretched and wrapped around every aspect of the rest of my life—shame of self, distrust in relationships, difficulty seeking help, and fear of authority, among other things.
I said, “No.” I said “no” because I felt they were weren’t right. Even at age five, I sensed what was just. In years to come, I fiercely defend others, but not myself. I don’t stand up for myself again until about ten years later as a teenager. Plenty is done to me that more than merits, saying “no”–wrong by law and right, but my brain won’t defy my child’s memory.
I am not yet past that memory. Writing, I stop to consider what I want to tell you about that time. One of the most damaging aspects of the experience is always feeling alone. I feel alone now. I feel alone when by myself, and I feel alone in a crowded room. Sure, it was a huge help to think this way, starting out on my own, not needing to follow anyone, not caring if I had anyone to follow, problem-solving everyday life activities, and so on.
No, it isn’t the same as loneliness. As an introvert, I am just normally more at ease alone. It is hard to explain to anyone not this way. As a child, standing with my back to the door, I didn’t realize I felt a sudden disconnect from the world—from people.
No, it isn’t fearless. Emotionally, a five-year-old, I still fear facing the world, ashamed of myself and afraid of what is before me. The older, wiser me knows my insecurities easily become other people’s burdens when I give into them. (And truthfully, giving into them, I drag myself down into a useless, depressing pit.) I know what you think. I have heard it before. I should “be myself,” allowing people to help me, but I am “myself” also a five-year-old. I can be a weight, dragging them down with neediness. My five-year-old neediness always asks questions, wants approval, throws tantrums, and says childish, hurtful things when I feel hurt. Sigh. I sadly think of relationships I played a part in destroying by “being myself.”
After many inadequate or bad therapists, I have one who is pretty much perfect in her blend of compassion, personal experience, psychology education, and spiritual grace. I am better at interacting with people—being adult about it. She shows me I have good traits, blooming from the same tendrils that try to choke my life. From a tender age, I learn what many don’t learn until later in life, if at all. I learned, from being part of a highly dysfunctional family, to think and act independently, problem-solve, attend carefully to rule or detail, and respect just authority, among other abilities—good things, not maladaptive, that help me be an adult handling being alone, needing too much control, wanting death, and haunting flashbacks of my father who is not coming, down the hall, through the door, and for me ever again.