The Simplest Stories We Tell

It took me a long time to realise how much shame I hold in my body. So many other emotions, behaviours, actions I take are mislabeled as other things without me taking the time to look the real feeling in the eye. Noticing, being aware of my own shame has a sort of triumph in it. Aha! I see what is happening, now! It sounds odd, to be triumphant about shame. For me the repair is in the knowledge, because without being able to see my feeling and the story I am telling around it, I can’t untangle it. Without feeling it I can’t heal it.

As a child, my parents often rejected me. My mother especially. Not because of me, but because she was overwhelmed. Preoccupied. With a violent marriage to a man she loved, and a mother telling her never to give up on commitment, she lost her power and hope, lost herself in her own despair. It culminated in her trying to take her own life, and I will never forget the moment she stood right next to me and swept our telephone to the ground, ripping the cord from the wall so my Dad couldn’t call an ambulance. I barely remember the rest: did an ambulance come? (I guess so, since she’s not dead). Did I run away? (I don’t know). Did she get better? (Sort of). When I realised as an adult that she had tried to leave us so permanently, the sense of abandonment and fear I felt was unreal. Were we not worth sticking around for? Did she not love us? How could she look right into my 7-year-old face, less than 1 metre away from her, and fight being saved?

These adult musings are just a fraction of the story my young self began to tell, without the words to describe the terror, no outlet to talk to, nobody to mend the pain. I withdrew, became angry and anxious, and the photographs of me from that age are nothing more than haunting, light gone from my eyes. She was out of control, chaotic, cold, and the shame I internalised in response to this behaviour has torn the good parts of me apart for the longest time. The stories children tell are simple ones, because we do not understand the nuances or complexities of human behaviour or abuse. We are totally dependent, and require a steady and stable caregiver who we are biologically primed to attach to. I was torn between the need for closeness, the fear of danger, and a lack of understanding what was going on. With constant rejection and chaos the stories I told were: This is my fault. I am not good enough. I am “too much” for her. I make her crazy. I’m bad, disgusting, no good.

I’m lucky that I had enough in me to make it through that, as well as everything that came after. When I look back at my life and see all this chaos, with this little girl wading her way through the swamp without giving up, I realise I told the wrong story. The story is not that I’m worthless, or bad, or someone causing problems. I’m brave. I’m resilient. I have so much love in me, and I have enough strength in me to feel the feelings, untangle the narrative, and mend it all. Of course I don’t do it all alone. I have many people standing by my side. I asked my mother for some photos of her as a teenager and as a young woman, and I looked at this 19 year old in her wedding dress, love and compassion just pouring out of me towards her. It’s so heartbreaking to realise that she was in so much pain that she didn’t want to stay anymore. And I know from experience that being that chaotic, being in so much pain, makes you believe that you are a burden, that you are damaging everyone around you. She wasn’t trying to harm us. She was trying to save us, along with herself.

I look at all this toxic shame I carry and think about pulling it off my body, out of my skin, out of my heart and ribs and the soles of my feet. It doesn’t belong to me, nor her. I don’t want to keep it inside anymore, so I take it out and release it into the air and the sunshine one bit at a time.

Island

I know something is wrong with me. I don’t know how to explain it other than that this can’t be normal, this can’t be how life is supposed to be and how people are supposed to feel. Every time I’ve gone to therapy in the past, as soon as they start questioning me about my childhood and my parents and everything, I stop going. I haven’t been able to process it. I’ve been hesitant to call it trauma but increasingly I realise that it is. It was traumatic. I was just a child. I felt so grown up at times but I was a child, and everyone around me who was supposed to keep me safe, didn’t.

I went to Naples on holiday and had to wear my headphones for most of the time because all the city noise triggered my anxiety. I felt like I might have a panic attack, so I shut it all out so I could enjoy the city. I felt somehow weak or strange, that this was how I had to experience somewhere as fantastic and lively as Italy. I was slow to leave the house in the mornings, I found it hard to experience real joy. I’ve wanted to go to Italy since I was a kid. What happened?

When I search for what’s wrong with me, there are too many things that kind of fit and don’t fit at the same time. I keep trying to diagnose myself and find something to hang my hat on, but the more I look the more nervous and confused I get. I used to have hallucinations and I didn’t even realise at the time that’s what was happening, I knew that I heard voices and saw things that weren’t there. But it stopped. Was it just stress induced? It stopped when I moved away from him, away from them. I realised how much it affected me when I went to Edinburgh and saw all the same street names. It felt like home, well… what everybody calls home. My home was a house of pain and disappointment. I only started seeing it when I saw other people’s reactions, when I tell people how I was treated. I told A. just one tiny piece of the story at a dinner the other night, just one small thing, and she cried. What’s going to happen when I tell her all of it? I feel so alone.

The Other Me

I guess it’s that time again, that time I start to feel like something isn’t quite right. It feels like something inside my head is being carried away in a swag over someone’s shoulder, someone shadowy and fast and mischievous, someone who I’ve known for far too long. It’s always a “he”, and he’s there with a baseball bat to beat me into submission when I least expect it.

Sometimes it’s okay, everything seems okay, and then suddenly it’s happening and I feel as if I got grabbed from behind in some dark alleyway and all the breath is gone from my lungs. Other times it’s like he flies in and out of my consciousness, flitting about like some kind of Tinkerbell in rags and with sharp teeth, and all I can do is try to push him away, run faster, take a left turn and then a right, trying to get away.

Eventually he always catches up, and then the damage begins. It’s always just a matter of how much damage, not if, but how much. When he’s with me it’s like my brain is trying to breathe and it can’t, like someone took two of those paddles they use to jump-start a heart, and they put them on my brain – suddenly I’m falling like Alice down the rabbit hole, gasping and motionless.

“RUN”, she says, the old me, the real me, “If you stay healthy it’ll be okay. Do social stuff. Eat well. Read books. Run as fast as you can. Get some sunshine, hug someone.” And then before I know it it’s been 3 beautiful days of sunshine outside while I sit inside and lie in bed and eat and eat and eat. I don’t get dressed, I don’t brush my teeth, I start panicking. I check my phone for messages, turn it off, turn it on, turn it off, throw it at the ground, turn it on, cry and then force myself into something like a bike ride or reading a book or doing something, anything productive that might have a chance of saving me. It feels so naive having this hope that maybe if I just do something, if I just keep moving, that maybe this time it’ll be okay.

But when it’s not enough, it’s not enough.

Once he starts pushing all those tiny black seeds into my brain, they sprout into nails and push out all the good things. Every single time I have to take a deep breath and uproot this horrible garden one nail-plant at a time, using all my strength, whispering to myself “It will be okay, keep going, keep going, keep going”, bleeding and bleeding all the while. I try not to let anyone else around me see that I walk this nailbed and that I’m hurting so much, I could bleed out through the floor and nobody would know why.

But no matter how much the real me fights, the other one is always there, the boy one, though boy makes him sound as if he has some aspect of sweetness, of innocence, but he is not that. He is a man, a rapist, a murderer, a thief, he takes everything from me. The real me is so small, and she always gets up, so bruised, sometimes bleeding, sometimes tying the knots around my own throat and just waiting for someone to shout “no”. Every time I crawl out of that pit again I’m dragging the ropes behind me like chains, old marks lingering in the places where he knows to tie them again when I make a mistake.

Right now it feels as if I climbed up so high, I felt invincible, maybe that time was over, maybe I would be able to be myself for once and that I could just live my fucking life. And then I see him out of the corner of my eye, and I realise that somehow I walked into some street that I didn’t know was a dead-end and he’s there and he’s there and he’s everywhere I turn.

The worst part is that it feels like he’s laughing, I’m his hostage and we both know it, we both know that he is me and I am him and that the person inside my head that desperately wants to live cannot escape no matter what she does. He knows exactly what will bring me down, exactly what will make things worse: alcohol, not enough sleep, isolation, and makes me crave those things with an intensity so strong I feel as if I cannot control it. The insomnia is the worst, and I cry so deep into my soul, just knowing that every single second I lie awake is him tightening the ropes around me, the small but strong me who is so, so scared.

He holds up a baseball bat, and I crouch down on the ground.  I wait for the beating to begin, one eye always looking to the side for a way out. Other eye to the ground, knowing that maybe, maybe, if I just stay very still, I’ll still be alive at the end of it.

What I Need

For the first time in ages I have told someone what I need. Not what I want, what I need. A girl that I’ve been sleeping with keeps wanting to meet up, but I lost all my energy to socialise and have sex and it all just fell away before I even noticed it was gone. I told her that it’s nothing to do with her, but that I can’t meet up with her and I just need to focus on myself for a little while.

Even though my mood feels okay, I’ve been spending the last month in bed, at home, not venturing out much other than places that I have to go to. I take the kids out, I go to the supermarket, but I actively avoid everything else unless it’s with a close friend. These are the little blinking orange lights that show me “Hey, look out, things could get a lot worse from here if you’re not careful.”

5 years ago I didn’t notice this was happening until it was too late. I sat in my bedroom every evening, ignoring M. and refusing to interact with anyone unless I was drunk; I would wait for that blurry feeling to wash over me until I could show affection and say what I thought and crack jokes and then as soon as it was over I was back into my bed and thinking some of the darkest thoughts I’ve ever thought in my life.

We did go on holiday to Edinburgh; it felt familiar — the city is laid out like Dunedin; the street names are all the same and even some of the buildings felt so much like New Zealand. Everyone was speaking English instead of German and I could just breathe for a moment. It also felt like as soon as I caught my breath, I was suffocating all over again in everything that came with those home-feelings: memories, people, damage, the small-city-ness of it all. I missed Berlin and the trains, I missed the queerness, I didn’t feel as secure walking around just being me, even though visibly I look like some boring 30-year-old Mum. I don’t look like anything strange or weird or like I push any boundaries in my life ever, but I do feel inside myself like I just don’t fit in some places. A woman I met at a rooftop bar the other week told me that in Berlin she feels like she can really be herself and relax and everyone just accepts her. She said:

In Berlin, everybody cares about who you are. But nobody minds.

And she was so right, this is true for me at least.

My fuck-buddy replied quickly when I messaged her, she was kind and told me that she understands. If I want to message her again one day, I can, she said. I told her what I need and everything was fine. I’m not used to this.

I need to focus on myself for a little while, I need to gain back some idea of what I’m doing and where I’m going. The emotional responses I’m having to M. and my friends and my kids is something that I didn’t expect – I’m not feeling so grumpy or angry or short-tempered as usual, instead it’s openness and love and this good feeling for them, mixed in with this bad self-feeling, this lack of motivation and quiet fear of venturing out into the world. But why do I feel this confused bundle of emotions, why do I feel so simultaneously buoyed and flat? That’s what I need to figure out.