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.

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Tomorrow is the 9 year anniversary of my brother’s death. Discussing it is still so hard for me, and yet I’m increasingly realising that I must find better ways of dealing with it and talking about it. When I recount how he died, when I explain everything, I somehow feel like I have to give people a disclaimer.

It’s a pretty morbid story. I don’t know if you want to hear it.

I tend to avoid talking about it. But when someone starts asking about the scars on my arms, or about my depression, or about being a teenager, inevitably the topic of my stepdad comes up. And then through talking about my stepdad, I talk about my brother, and the whole dark and twisted story comes out. There’s no good way to talk about it all, there’s no simple way to say it. When I push the words out of my mouth it’s like I’m shoving them through a barrier of cotton wool, as if by uttering them, the person I’m speaking to will be so horrified that they will disappear in a puff of smoke.

He drowned, okay? He had a seizure and drowned in the bathtub.

If he was alive he would be 18 years old now. I can’t even imagine what he would be like, what his life would be like, what any of our lives would be like. When I think about him my chest feels tight and heavy, and I feel as if my mother must be consumed by this sorrow so large that she cannot even begin to climb it.

I remember stroking his hair in the hospital when he was in the paediatric ICU. His hair was flattened into a Johnny-Bravo-style peak, from everyone stroking his hair in the same way. It was so soft.

The doctors had to test if he had any brain activity remaining, so my parents could decide if they wanted to switch off the life support or not. The doctor shone a torch into his eyes, and I stared so hard at his pupils just hoping and screaming inside my head: “React! MOVE! JUST DO SOMETHING”. But nothing happened, they turned off the life support, and that was it.

I hated his hugs, because he was always sticky and slimy and he was so skinny that his hugs were bony and painful. He would hug me and say “I love you, Leah”; he’d wake me up at 3am, standing by my bed, wanting me to play with him; my boyfriend and I would babysit him and take him places and look after him as if we were our own little family. But then he was dead and the hugs were gone and I wished with every piece of my body that I could go back in time and love him better, pay him more attention, spend more time with him, make sure he knew in his bones that I adored him even though he drove me crazy.

Four brothers seems like a lot to most people. But to me it seems like such a tiny number, just four.