writing to survive
. . . only the retelling counts

Where's the quick fix?

I go to therapy every other week now. It’s an insurance (or in this case, a no longer covered by insurance) thing. Sometimes life intervenes and a month passes between appointments. Over the lackadaisical summer, with its vacations and breaks, the appointments became episodic catch-up sessions. Between those and my general stability, I considered stopping therapy altogether. As long as I didn’t trip on the loose ends -- and I am a good little dodger -- my life felt functional.

Then school started. The loose ends became more frayed, my ability to dodge them hampered. Graduate counseling programs often force you to deal with your own shit, even if you’ve been dealing with that shit for a very long time. Things come up. Anxiety forms and grows. Most weeks I don’t get out of my family therapy class without swallowing down the tinny taste of suppressed sadness or using a wadded-up tissue to dab away tears at least once. This is hours after my group counseling class, where we spend half our time in an actual process group, anxiety occupying a place in the circle, often dogging me (and others) in anticipation the day before.

Groups bring up stuff. Being asked about one’s family of origin does, too. What do you do when it won’t fit back into the box you packed it up in?

In my case, I carry that overflowing box with me for a couple of days, wandering around in an enervated haze. I feel the reverberations of my mine-laden Monday, attempt to integrate new knowledge, try like hell to accept the messy process of change and recognize what counts for healing. Not that it’s really so conscious. It’s mainly an amorphous, irritating, funky feeling, where it seems like I have no reason for being so slow and preoccupied. And then I remember: I’m carrying this (*^$# box around. How can I repack it so that it never pops open again?

So everything is on the surface right now, accessible with a memory, with an in-class exercise, with a question that inadvertently hits a sore point. I so want a quick fix. Somatic psychotherapy. EMDR. A visit with an intuitive. I want to tape that box shut and store it away. I want to feel everything and then be done with it, have my body reunite with my mind in a shotgun wedding, till death do they part. Failing that, I want to grieve what I can never get back and move forward from there, knowing that my feelings are legitimate, signs of life, lines of connection to myself and other people.

It’s all a process, with long lulls and sudden lumbering lurches forward. I’m strong enough. I’ve got the stamina to handle it. But I wish it were easier.

Image from Intentional Workplace.

Do . . . or not do

4:30 p.m.
Sitting in the office, gray cat beside me, printer humming, light dimming, hair drying, after a day spent reading, note- and take home test-taking, with some weeding and clothes-washing/ drying/folding tossed into the mix. Soon, dinner-making. Another day has slipped away, already gone from my consciousness. What will I tell the family about when we sit around the table?

I live in my head. Always have. The connection between mind and body may be broken, but such is the price for soul protection. How to explain another small, thoughtful day in my contained world, waves of thought crashing against the breakers that hold in and protect my mind? I spend most of my time in quietude. Almost every one of those days has been well spent. But quietude doesn’t necessarily make for good conversation. Slow and thoughtful don’t fit into this to and fro world, with its relentless fluidity, its currents pulling people under and spitting them out again. Slow and thoughtful can be solipsistic at times, self-referential, another closed system, but at least I can float in the warm and fecund shallows, in this nursery of ideas.

6:00 a.m.
Sitting in the office, white cat attacking a box on the floor, heat humming, sky lightening, head echoing after a night of so-so sleep, my apple crumble breakfast settling nicely. Soon, boy-waking. Another day lies in front of me, waiting to be filled with work and thoughts, maybe some power yoga. How can I be satisfied with so limited, so constrained a circle? Perhaps I am satisfied. If so, why wonder?

I can’t tell if I am here or there, happy or sad, content or malcontent. The line between
should and who cares is a fine one. Is my life meaningful to me? If not, how do I make it so? Do I need to elude myself, toss this contained mind into the larger sea of interaction?

Questions without concrete answers bring anxiety. I think too much. I want someone to make the decisions for me. The clarity you carried, the surety of self, the assurance of action: I miss it. When I go looking for that again, wandering and wondering, it is a sign I have lost my way and must sharpen my wits, bring who I am back to the fore. My path is my responsibility. Sometimes that responsibility requires action, an insertion of self into the world, the repeated mantra that who I am is fine, that I deserve a place at the table.

So I will go for a walk on the October sun-streamed streets, that tenuous connection between sensation and thought briefly brought back to life, my mind’s slate cleaned by a cool breeze and the light sound of leaves crunching under my feet. One step at a time.

Image from Fourth Lake.

The tangled web's legacy

It’s easy for me to come here for the quick fix, for access to the lightheaded swoon, or, if not the swoon, to the emotional plummet. Writing about my past or emotions that overwhelm provides a safety valve, a way to maintain homeostasis. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It serves a purpose. But there are times when my emotions are profound. To express them here too lightly cheapens them, waters down them down. Unless I find the right words.

I handed in my
genogram yesterday. I was the arbiter, the decider of who counted as family, who was an influence, who mattered enough to make it. My biological grandmother and her other daughter, my mother’s half-sister (who doesn’t know we exist), made the cut, as did the trifecta of J’s, John, Jim, and Jared. Kevin was there, and Aunt Mary, the foundling. And I included the boy who emerged almost 29 years ago, the one whose birth was also a death, with a dotted line connecting me to the shadowy form, the submerged body, of the other responsible party. This bit player in my life, this game changer, only comes as a set of initials, “RD,” his anonymity preserved forever. He even remains anonymous to himself, perpetually clueless.

I have a lot of feelings about that time. I used to feel like a criminal, marked by my negligence and the resultant death. I was ashamed. That has faded, though I can’t say it will ever fully go away. But I also feel angry. Forsaken. Ready to claim the trauma, to own it, and feel it and know in my bones that I did not deserve to be left unsupported. And Sunday, crying in the kitchen, my husband there to hold me, was as close as I have gotten in a long time to really feeling it. Already that emotion is fading, going underground. The facts rearrange themselves into a story again, the occasionally trotted-out tale of my lonely youth. But the story has such depth. It formed me. It showed me what to expect of others and what to think of myself.

I was young and in pain. No one helped me, even after I gave birth to a stillborn child in the unheated cottage I called home. I was profoundly alone and left profoundly alone. The event itself was traumatic. Being left holding all the emotion, all the responsibility, being abandoned as an already-wounded 16-year old just was further trauma. And that’s really what it was. Trauma.

Instead of just writing about it here, I want to talk about it with the ones with whom talking about it scares me the most. What if they say I deserved it? That I was a bad person, impossible to take in? That I was
too much? What if they are threatened by the talk, feel guilty, and in their guilt lash out? It’s happened before. Perhaps I need to gather support. To rehearse. Because I don’t think I can keep it in any longer. That’s a good thing, ultimately. Potentially healing. But scary as fucking hell.

So that’s where my brain’s been, its tentacles wrapped round the event that will never die, thinking again about the people who turned away, not knowing the effects of their non-action, never knowing the power they abdicated to a child. The fear that I brought it all upon myself has frozen me in place, trapped me in blame. But a thaw may be on the horizon.

Image: The genogram (with some information blurred out, though it’s impossible to read anyway).


Loose connection

When you put together a genogram (essentially a family tree with bonus information), things come up. Who had addiction problems? How many divorces were there or teenage parents or only children? Who do you include that isn’t related to you through blood, marriage, or adoption?

Several years ago, I wrote about a man with whom my mother and I once lived, who, while working in a somewhat nebulous capacity as an undercover police officer, shot and killed a man, a month after shooting and injuring someone else. Calvin Trillin wrote about this case in his
New Yorker “U.S. Journal” series. The article was later reproduced in his book Killings, perhaps chosen for the way it symbolized the tension between the drug culture of the late 1960s and early 1970s and small-town America.

John met my mother in mid-1973, when I was three. It was after he was acquitted of the 1969 murder, but before his trial for perjury. We lived with him for less than a year. My memories of the relationship are from its bookends: feeling proud of myself for being very quiet when he visited our apartment on an early date and feeling frightened when he plucked me out of daycare post-breakup to buy a stuffed animal. He was a scary man who did some bad things to both my mother and me. I don’t have strong memories of these things, but I know the stories. And the stories may be incomplete. I was sometimes left alone with him, though my mother put an end to that after he spanked me with a spatula, leaving marks.

I had to decide whether to include him in the genogram. So I did, this man who wielded a dark influence, this man we assumed for years was dead, taken by drink to an early grave.

He turns out to have a sales job in PA. I could connect to him on LinkedIn if I wanted to.

I could. But I won’t. What a strange, strange world we live in.

Image of some Hell’s Angels from autoevolution. John was in the Warlocks motorcycle “club” when he was recruited to be an undercover officer.
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