CHAPTER 2: EIGHT

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Dad died and chaos ruled.

One night I woke in the dark, scared. A shadow at the end of the bed moved towards me. Breathing halted. I had night terrors before, but Daddy wasn’t there anymore to carry me around in his warm arms, calming me as I slept. Was I dreaming or awake? The specter slunk around the bed, creeping closer silently. It was black, quiet, crouched and coming for me. Iced with fear and still half-asleep, I couldn’t even scream for my mother.

When it slipped gently onto the edge of the bed, my terror immediately abated; air once again filled my lungs. I knew who it was: not a phantom but Danny, a brother I loved and trusted. He sat lightly next to me, his face hidden in the dark. I had known his voice for my entire young life: familiar, soothing, very kind, and the last thing I remember.

Softly, so tenderly, the words dripped out of his mouth like warm syrup and melted butter, “We’re going to play house,” he whispered. “You’re the mommy, I’m the daddy.”

During my next bath I began screaming as if stabbed and dying; that’s how much it hurt. The soap seared my vagina as if a sharp hot blade pierced me, though I didn’t know the name of that part of me yet. Danny’s twin Don, the ‘good one,’ came running, his eyes wild with fright for what he might find. When I told him through my tears that the soap hurt, he seemed disgusted and left the bathroom as quickly as he had arrived.

Though the pain ebbed along with the suds trailing down the drain, the terror of living in that house did not. The next day, Seth walked by my bedroom.

“Danny fucked me,” I said.

Seth said nothing, but his eyes glazed through me as if I were stabbed with an arrow. His nonchalance quickly disappeared, immediately replaced by a laser of revulsion. My bravado and confidence in telling big brother, who I knew would save me from the nighttime monster, vanished in an instant.

The look in his eyes became etched on the slate of who I was to become. Those eyes emptied me, devastated me. That moment shaped my core, shame the bedrock I grew from. I don’t know how I knew the word “fuck.” I don’t remember Danny saying it, but I know that he did. The memory of the attack still hasn’t surfaced. I am not ready for it, and may never be.

Once I had been a child who spoke the truth; it was part of the canvas that was me. I was born with it. I am not that woman today, though I look for her. Seth told Mom what I said. That was the first time she became aware of my vulnerability, but not the last. I didn’t go to a doctor. I was left on my own after attacks to my body, like a dinghy cut loose from the main ship. I have felt alone ever since.

The fat that accumulated immediately after Danny’s attack became a permanent addition to my skinny kid frame. Mom loved to cook. She fed me, I ate. She didn’t keep him off me, nor her other sons, but she loved me with food. Once a slim child who ate only when hungry, I transformed into an eating machine who devoured food for other reasons. Waking in the night, sick from the day’s eating, I went to Mommy for help.

As she lay there sleeping, I laid my hand tentatively on the cool sheet over her shoulder. “Mommy,” I whispered. I’m going to throw up.”

Half-asleep, she rasped, “What do you want me to do, spit straw?”

I went to the toilet and threw up. I kept eating and throwing up, my little tummy unable to contain all the food needed to numb out the nightly attacks, to feel loved, to survive. Some part of me believed a fat body was an ugly body, so safer, anything that would keep him away. It didn’t work. And maybe, as who I was slipped away, growing a bigger body kept me from disappearing altogether.

 

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CHAPTER 1: DADDY

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Dad died in the winter of ’62, just before he was to take office as District Attorney. Mom was playing Bridge with friends at the Country Chicken restaurant, but some of us eight kids were home with him: Stevie, only five, and Seth, six years older than me. At eight, I didn’t understand Daddy’s unusually short temper, restless as he paced between the living room and his office in the small adjoining room. I lay on the scratchy couch, its tiny bumps of fabric sticking into my skin. Stevie played with trucks on the floor.

“Daddy, can we go outside?” I dared ask.

I knew even at that young age that this wasn’t the same Daddy who would smile happily at me when I followed him around the yard like a shadow on his days off.

“No,” he snapped back. “Turn down the TV.”

He went back into his office, this time closing the door behind him. Quieted by his anger, wondering why he seemed so mad at me, I combed my dolly’s blond, silken hair while Seth turned the volume down. We heard a terrible thud behind the office door. Seth ran to the door and yanked it open. Daddy lay very still on his back. Seth went quickly to him, kneeled, and placed his own mouth over Daddy’s, trying to push breath into his lungs. A reflux of vomit went from Daddy into Seth. Seth rushed to the kitchen sink and splashed it out of his mouth.

I stood in a stupor, Stevie nearby. Daddy lay unmoving. What was going on? I stood frozen in one spot, watching the whirling lights outside and the seemingly sudden presence of so many people. Daddy left with the whirling lights, taken by stretcher. He would never return, but Stevie and I didn’t know that when a family friend, Mrs. Nielson, took us into the back bedroom and told us to pray. On our knees, we put our hearts into it, believing God would make it right.

Scared and confused, I dutifully prayed, “Bring Daddy back. Bring Daddy back.”

Later we were allowed to go into the living room after Mommy returned. We sat by her side as she held our hands, but she seemed distant. Daddy lay flat the next time I saw him, so still, waxy, and pale. Approaching the casket slowly, I studied his face. It looked curiously pocketed with dips and curves of skin, not the smiling lively face I had known and cuddled up against with warmth and love. I had been warned before stepping up to the coffin about what I would be seeing.

“Your Daddy’s sleeping,” an adult voice whispered, her lips brushing my ear in a hushed voice. But I knew it was more than that, something sick and queer. Someone sleeping ought to move. Someone sleeping would come back home to us.

“Now I lay me down to sleep,” Stevie and I prayed, kneeling beside his bed, our bedtime ritual. Our nightly mantra with clasped hands included blessings for Mommy, each of the seven brothers, the dog Sneakers, and most importantly Daddy who watched over us from heaven. Then came our song together, “Silent Night.” Mommy seemed hard to reach, far away, so I comforted Stevie, reassuring him that Daddy remained close by even though we couldn’t see him.

Stevie asked, “Where is Daddy?”

Mommy didn’t answer, but I always did, “He’s in heaven watching over us.” I smiled, adding, “He’s not gone, he’s everywhere around us.”

I needed to believe it as much he did, yet the feeling a part of me had been severed never left. Goodbyes of any kind became grief- colored endings. I would experience grief in a million different ways because I did not fully grieve Daddy’s passing, comforting my little brother instead. But maybe what came next obliterated all the rest.

Reflections on Last Chapter

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After some thought, I decided to continue sharing my book with new survivors along the way, of which unfortunately, there are many. If only there had been more literature when I started my journey. But at least I found a tiny woman’s bookstore in the city where I purchased a few books detailing the horrors of childhood sexual abuse. I was not alone. (Voices in the Night) 

So I share on that note. You are not alone. This is the last chapter and coincidentally also posted on my 12th month since beginning to blog. It’s been an experience of going deeper which is odd because the people I connect with I have never met, yet feel more intimate with than just about anyone else. And that is because only when one is hurt on such levels would they truly understand the depth of pain and injury one has to fight, claw and climb out of in order to survive. 

I can say I don’t wish to be somebody else as I once did, wishing so hard I am surprised I did not morph into the person I was wishing to be. I do wish still to be more lighthearted, less serious, more carefree, so I’m still wistful when around others like that, my friends for instance. But I embrace me, wrapping my arms around who I am, some that changed irrevocably because of what was done and what I survived, then worked to rise above. I am still learning to appreciate what that took, and the beauties, talents and gifts that lie within. 

I am thankful for my blogging friends, whose courage and stamina propel them forward in life with hope, instilling hope in my days too. Thank you!

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CHAPTER 24: GHOSTS

It’s hard to get close. Keeping quiet, pretending nothing happened, fractured me. The deal: keep a family, stay silent. Shame silenced the roaring rage. I spent much of my lifetime smiling at those who used me for pleasure and as a dumpster for their anger. Silence erased me.

My job now, each day: accept who I am and what happened. Stop wishing to be somebody else. Since I do not possess the fiber to pretend it didn’t happen, and lack the grace to accept what occurred without extraordinary effort, the wish remains. But the beckoning voice, which once bellowed, has quieted to a whisper, pricking softly and less often. Slim girls do it—make me envy their slimness, their smiles, raised happy, loved, whole, or at least safe. Why not me? I have yet to figure out how to be slimmer and feel safe. Being taught to allow such crimes, to love the criminals, caused breakage difficult to repair, impossible to restore to what would have been. So I work with what is, or try to.

Discovering a voice, my center, takes patience and time. The voice beneath the excess pounds of flesh hides, even from me. I work to connect parts of myself foreign to me, hidden by the other voices clamoring in my head.

Every day they haunt me, the voices, sometimes at three or four in the morning, but that’s a normal occurrence for many women over fifty, so I am not alone. Sleep usually comes again after a stumble to the bathroom. The voices lay in wait till morning to begin their yammering. “You failed. You’re not good enough. You did this wrong. You should be ashamed of yourself. You’re fat. You’re ugly. You’re not normal. You’re a bad mother, wife, sister, friend…you are bad, bad, bad, undeserving of life.”

The voices are relentless, insidious, almost soothing in their familiarity and brilliantly, creatively destructive. As a little girl abused, I believed all living things in human form thought me to be as dirty as I felt. The family system supported my badness to survive, even if unknowingly decimating my ability to grow and mature naturally, as if pulling a plant out by the roots. I find myself at the cusp of sixty with an eight-year old heart, still yearning to please so you will not leave me. That’s okay. Moments of peace, internal connectedness, and the late blooming birth of self-acceptance make aliveness worthwhile.

Though I know they originated outside of me, the voices of my childhood became my own. There’s plenty of blame to throw around, if I choose to be stuck burning in rage, but I choose relief, a better way, another way, to find the real me. That is the work. Confront the voices.

Some days are harder than others, and it is hard work. There are many voices, or one voice repeating the soul-breaker over and over, “It’s your fault, you said something wrong, did something wrong, felt, thought, acted, looked, saw, blinked, turned your head: wrong, wrong, wrong.”

The work comes with the comfort of knowing that I did not lie down and take it, not as an adult. After leaving home for college at eighteen, I began the long journey of coming up from a very dark hole, a crevasse immeasurably deep. And every attempt afterwards, successful or not, proved courage, persistence, and a strong will to live, because it took years to stop telling Samuel, “I wish I would die.” How do you trust again after you’ve been shattered? But I kept going, trying, working, and found many along the way who cared, helped, and were trustworthy.

Sons grew strong, despite the breakage. Friendships, like trees that live past the span of our own lives, are mine. Risk, take a leap! Unlike the squirrel jumping skillfully from branch to branch, I often fell, and fell hard. It took many failed friendships, wrong friendships, bad choices, and most of middle age, but I found them. They were right there all along, but I wasn’t ready. I chased after what I knew, and what I felt accustomed to.

It took too long, from college, where the opportunity to make friends spilled rich and ripe, to well past marriage and having babies, when isolation descended without the energy to combat it. Soap opera stars were my best and only friends. Morphing through the screen into their intimacy, I felt closeness without pain. Socialization came with the weekly trip to the grocery store and a few moments with the cashier.

I finally opened to those who would not take advantage of me. I kept taking risks, painful as the many failures were. The risks, each time like stepping off a cliff, allowed others to see what lay hidden beneath the wreckage left by the hands of brothers. Yet I did take steps, baby steps at first, often more steps backwards than forwards. But as I found myself worthy, so did others, a person worthy of life, living, and breathing. I don’t have to do anything to prove it. I am, and it’s okay.  

CHAPTER 23: BUDDHA

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I headed to the Zen Center for a one-day introductory workshop. Ex-therapist Matt had described the center before I quit seeing him. Going there had seemed to help as he struggled through his divorce. I thought, Why not? The bouts of depression and anxiety from years of untreated post-traumatic stress had continued unabated, ramping up rather than calming. I was apt to try anything if it would help find a new way of being. The only way I knew how to exist was by zoning out (don’t ask where I go, I don’t know, just not here) or feeling anxious when I’m around others except Samuel, my kids, and cat, Polly. Out of the four, Polly wins the “most-trusted award.”

We live in the country by a creek. Samuel drives to the city nearby every day for work. I rarely travel there, yet took on the adventure excitedly. The city was foreign territory but I eventually found Harold, a quiet little street lined with trees. The homes sat at varying intervals back from the road, most hidden by more trees and shrubbery. Finding the house, I slowly pulled into the compact gravel parking area nestled under the shady greenery out front.

There’s calmness, a feel about the place that enveloped me like an embrace. My school bus yellow car looked out of place among the trees that formed a natural canopy, their branches shielding occupants from the hot sun. My love of bright colors lightens a tendency towards sadness, so clothing gravitates towards gaiety along with vividly splashed color on a few walls at home; not too many, Samuel, a quiet, conservative man, can only handle so much of that. The Zen Center felt like an oasis hidden amidst the chaos of the city, cement, exhaust, buildings too close and traffic too fast. I sighed, expelling the city with my breath.

As I was about to knock on the door, it opened to a smiling face.

“Hi, welcome. You’re here for the workshop?” the greeter asked, opening the door wide.

“Hi, yes!” I replied, noting the casual dress, relieved with my own choice of khakis and light top.

“Come in. There’s tea on the table. Help yourself. And sign in please. Once everyone’s here we’ll start.” She led me to the sign-in book, then pointed towards the tea table.

While she left to receive more guests, I made a cup of tea and stood near the wall watching the others. An eclectic mix of souls were gathering, maybe wondering “why” like me, searching for truth, or hoping to become one with themselves. Clothing ran the gamut from suit jackets and dresses to decent-looking jeans, shorts, and pants. The expansive entryway retained a simple charm, unpretentious and functional. The wooden walls and planked floors gave the space an earthy feel, helped by the slight hint of incense in the air.

Though alone, I didn’t feel out of place. There were small groups, couples, and other singles. Finally the foyer filled and the group moved to a spacious area down the hall large enough to accommodate forty or so. I chose a seat near the back. This room also had unvarnished walls, earth-toned with a large window behind the speakers‟ podium looking out to the backyard gardens. The lighting was soft, easy on the eyes. Milaca introduced herself and absorbed the audience; the lilt in her voice sounding slightly British. Later I learned she had traveled from Australia and would return to start a center there with her husband. Though the receptionist greeting guests at the door wore street clothes, Milaca looked monk- like with a long drab robe and a sash gathered around the waist. The extra cloth signified high ranking from years of practice.

The Zen master entered the room and took the podium. When he spoke, the group became quiet and attentive. He seemed kingly, resembling the lead from the movie “The King and I,” but more because of his regal carriage than his clothing. His words were clear and simple with a surprising addition of humor. He told a story of how Buddha began his quest. Buddha, who searched for the meaning of life, started as an angry young man. Maybe there was hope for me.

I longed for peace, for calmness, for whatever it was I saw in others who seemed to have it, who seemed to digest each moment one by one, slowly, not speeding past it. Full of anxiety, I withdrew to a place only I knew to feel safe from the present and the people in it. Yet those weren’t thing I could put into words. I didn’t know what I longed for, just anything different than what I had known. Moments of connectedness within, a calm interior: those miracles were to come. And since I didn’t know them, I couldn’t name them, just that there must be a better way to be.

After the morning’s introduction, we toured the kitchen where the cook prepared lunch and happily greeted everyone. Downstairs a room held cloaks which were offered for meditation, but not required. The cloaks were intended to cut down distractions while meditating so one’s eyes weren’t diverted by clothing colors. A smaller room off the side with little cubicles housed extra pillows for supporting knees and elbows if needed.

We were then led to the room where meditation took place: the zendo. The guide talked in a hush as if in respect of the room itself. The feel of it captivated me, quiet and serene. The only windows were up high near the ceiling, with the sound of birds drifting in from the trees outside, safe from the rush of the city. The smell of incense intensified. A large, almost life-sized gold Buddha sat at the front. Four rows of wide built-in counters, where you sat cross- legged, spanned the length of the room. Anyone sitting at the outer two rows faced the wall while meditating. Before the start of sitting, helpers put up temporary walls along the inner two rows. If you felt sleepy during meditation, by prompting the monitor with your hand by a signal behind your back, you’d receive a slight wrap on the shoulder with a stick. I definitely would not be doing that.

The guide added, “Anyone who experienced physical abuse during childhood or later on, would probably not want this form of prompting.”

After careful explanations about the process, the group broke for lunch, then returned to the zendo for afternoon meditation. Here I would have my first taste of relaxation. A brass gong clanged at the start and I eagerly found a spot. Breathe in, count one, breath out, count two, and so on until you get to ten, then start over. Come back to the breath; find your true nature…

Sounds easy, but too often I lost track of counting, my mind whirling with other thoughts, and suddenly the count was eleven, twelve, or thirteen. Counting to ten with the breath took practice. The gong struck again, signaling a walk around the room with eyes slightly downcast, then more sitting.

My knees ached, throbbed really, but I was determined to be like the rest. There were chairs set up at the outskirts for those with knee, back, or any other problems that interfered with sitting cross- legged. I wasn’t connected enough to my body to realize I was causing further injury to already arthritic knees. I would have been too shy anyway to take a chair and risk being different. So I sat cross- legged and almost cried with the pain as sweat beaded up on my forehead.

Still, even through the pain, something of value happened while sitting silently among a roomful of people. I quieted. Maybe I felt it only a moment or two, relaxation around others, my insides untwisting, but it was enough.

Shaking hands with staff, we said our goodbyes and I headed home, continuing with what I had learned, committing to a half hour a day. And over time, with practice, change occurred deep within.

The first year I set up a pillow as they had shown us, with extra support under the knees. It faced a white wall in a little room off our bedroom. The cross-legged position ended after knee surgery repairing a torn meniscus. Trying to be like everyone else, forcing my knees to bend and overextending the joints, probably caused the tear. Though it sometimes takes a big message, like surgery, for me to pay attention, I did change my position while meditating.

Practice continued by lying flat with a cushion under each elbow, my hands overlapping each other lightly across my lower abdomen, called the “hara”, or spiritual center. Using a thirty-minute timer, my cat curled up and purring on my stomach, my thoughts quieted as I concentrated on my breath. A peaceful interior began to grow, a connectedness within, and the ability to be present, unafraid.

More than all the years of therapists, money, time, and effort poured into feeling even a moment of peace, this one thing helped me find what I had been looking for: myself.

CHAPTER 22: SHATTERED

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Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or more commonly PTSD: I wondered if that applied to me after years of overly exaggerated responses to everyday encounters, like my kids, husband, or anyone coming from behind or around a corner. I feel a rush of terror, let out a scream and jump away from the perceived threat as if my life were in danger.

Kids thought it funny and scared me purposely until I turned on them, snapping, “That’s NOT funny, stop it!” I attempted to explain, “I get scared very easily and become extremely frightened when you do that.”

It began to sink in that others don’t react as I do; my responses are out of whack. I read about trauma and its effects. Could this be it, so long after childhood?

Trauma causes post-traumatic stress, and one symptom is an exaggerated startle response. That must be it, but what’s the timeframe? I didn’t read anything about how long it lasts. A lifetime? Mine does. I read about veterans returning from war, the suicides, drinking, and the inability to hold down jobs or their marriages. I have deep empathy for them. But I wouldn’t compare myself to them. War? I can’t imagine what they saw or experienced. It’s no comparison. Or is it? I underestimate what was expected of me, how I was trained to feel, which wasn’t what I really felt. I was trained to act like I loved my attackers, so I lived in terror but had to hide it, even from myself.

Like leaves in the wind, parts of me scattered to places I couldn’t reach. How much energy does it take one’s psyche to repress a violent traumatic event, or more than one of them? I became two selves: one that cannot remember, and one that remembers but remains inaccessible. I broke in two, leaving fragments along the way, hard to pick up and paste back into one, not the same one anyway. I am not the me that I could have been had I stayed whole and safe from attack. Our psyche protects us by splitting our spirit or soul apart from physical and emotional trauma. But then we are left that way, broken, with no clue how to put ourselves together again, like Humpty Dumpty.

Could that explain why I don’t have the energy others seem to naturally possess? Repeated and excessive bursts of the hormone cortisol, meant to give us sudden energy quickly, to move us away from life-threatening danger, would spurt through my veins daily, depleting precious reserves. And draining that substance, which was meant to be used and resupplied much less frequently, took a toll on both my nervous and immune systems, burning them up. Chronic fatigue became normal. Though my body’s systems have healed somewhat, full recovery seems unlikely. The glands under my neck, and most likely elsewhere, pop out after very little stress. If I don’t pay attention and go at my own pace, I could weaken what’s left and cause even more damage. But it’s unfamiliar territory, respecting my own needs, because I tend to compare myself with others, and compared to them, I appear like a slug.

Energy used to protect my inner self from annihilation taxed my emotional and physical being, especially during my years as a nurse. But that didn’t stop me from trying to keep up with everyone, if that’s what it took to be “normal.” Being on edge, watchful, crouched internally and cowering in a defensive position for the next attack, exhausted my already limited energy supplies. Just carrying on a conversation with anyone who felt threatening permanently weakened resources over time—and nearly everyone felt threatening.

I craved social outlets, connections, and closeness, but when around others I buzzed anxiously. That feeling, like the excessive speed I experimented with in college, took precedence. I feared connections, yet needed them. I spent much of my adult life split, pieces flying about me like busy electrons, a carnival game trying to catch them and make them stick in the holes. Meditation began to bring the parts together, the feeling of wholeness brand new and magical, even if only momentary.

Meditating doesn’t take away pain, but rather takes me into it. Creative solutions to everyday dilemmas often occur. There’s new evidence suggesting it can help heal a brain damaged by PTS,1 but I knew none of the latest research over ten years ago when I began practicing meditation. 

                                                             1 See Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom by Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius for more information.

CHAPTER 21: MATT

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Therapy with Matt began the same spring Mom moved to the city. His office happened to be very near her new apartment. Over summer, during my sessions with Matt, the tearful well emptied. With the support therapy provided, I found employment as a nurse again. I stuck with Matt six years, the same length of time I worked as a nurse, and not coincidentally. I needed someone in my corner to handle the stressful job, but during the course of therapy both the job and Matt became liabilities. I finally mustered up the gumption to tell Matt over the phone I wasn’t coming back.

“I don’t want to compete with your cell phone anymore,” I barely squeaked, calling him to cancel not just the upcoming appointment, but our whole arrangement.

“What?” he said.

He couldn’t hear me? Or he heard me but couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t possibly be speaking up. I had locked myself in the bathroom away from my kids and husband. This was private, and a big deal, huge, pivotal. I needed to be alone when I finally took a stand. I felt embarrassed I hadn’t already.

“What?” he asked again, sounding shocked, not sure he had heard right.

Even after a long year of interruptions, as he went through a divorce, once taking a call from his car repairman, I kept quiet. I needed him. Without him, I knew I couldn’t continue with my job which stretched me to the breaking point and beyond. He knew it too.

Our call continued awhile.

“Margaret, a few doors down, is a very good therapist,” he suggested. Instantly I knew why he had suggested her, but I didn’t say it.

I felt restless in the little bathroom, going around in a circle, finally putting the lid down on the toilet, then sitting, agitated, as if the seat was searing hot. Yeah, you would recommend her, someone who, if I leaked out your unbelievable treatment, would know what you’re going through and understand. You’re having a difficult time, so of course it’s okay to interrupt every ninety dollar an hour session with phone calls from your lawyer, kids, and goddamn mechanic! My anger rose as these thoughts ran through my head, stuck in my belly, and clogged in my throat.

The only thing escaping my lips was a barely audible whisper: “I don’t want to compete with your cell phone anymore.” It was so quiet I might not have said it at all.

But I did. And he heard me. I felt his fear prickle across the phone lines. He knew he had done wrong and didn’t want anyone else to know. His defense? He probably believed he provided a great favor sticking by me, despite the interruptions, because at least he didn’t abandon me. The imaginary conversation that I should have had—needed to have—repeated over and over again in my head like a rat stuck in a wheel.

I answered his protests of the imagined rally. “I never left you,” he would object.

But you did abandon me every time you took a call! And each time you answered your GODDAMN cell phone, getting up, leaving me, going down the fucking hall, with me sitting alone, twiddling my thumbs like an idiot, waiting for the GOD of therapy to return. The very thing I was there for, working on, struggling with, SELF ESTEEM, plummeted, dropped to below zero, dropped to center of earth, to hell, every time you took a GODDAMN CALL!

Oh, how my gut ached to voice the necessary fiery explosions yearning, scraping, clawing for release, but couldn’t. The bars of childhood held firm, locked tight.

The things that needed to be said, the anger that needed to be expressed, remained unsaid. And like most things unspoken, hungering for expression, they lay waiting instead, simmering, repeatedly turning over in the brain until the lava cooled or another drama took its place. 

I spent the weeks between therapy wiping up the spills of his arrogance, or dragging myself up by the scruff of my neck telling myself it was okay. At least one of us thought we were great. I made excuses for him, and for me, especially for me, because I tolerated it. Too long I did this, making it hard to live with myself. I kept my job because he stuck by me, but lost self-worth, or the tenuous, tiny amount I possessed. As a child I had no power, but as an adult in therapy? My need for him and what I permitted tortured me. After the repairman call, I knew I had to go, but it took another full year. I let go when I could.

He did warn me. But an ethical therapist wouldn’t just be clear about the intent to frequently disrupt therapy by accepting calls. An ethical therapist would have ended sessions; because it did end when he gravitated to his phone, more present with the device attached to his hip than the therapeutic hour. I became his therapist. He should have been paying me; I became his crutch, the tree that money grew on. A cash cow.

I listened to stories about his new dating scene, every nuance, his newfound “love,” the nights out dancing, and on and on, too many details about him, thrilled that my hotshot therapist confided in me. But all the while I piled on weight, gaining back a substantial amount that I had lost and kept off for ten years. Forty fucking pounds. It took a lot of poundage to keep “it” down, my rage at him, my fear.

When I first began seeing Matt, a crucial red flag rose that I didn’t pay attention to. I needed him too much even then to walk out. He didn’t have time to read the literature I offered from my weekly weight loss group that helped me not only lose seventy pounds but keep it off.

He said, “Those groups aren’t the way,” tossing the pamphlets down like trash. “I won’t have time to read them anyway.”

I felt shocked. “What?” I asked. “The group teaches me so many things…” My voice trailed off.

I looked at the parcel of information timidly handed to him, lying on the table where he had casually discarded it, as if discarding me. The group meant so much, a place where I fit in, a place where I found others who used food for reasons beside physical hunger. A place where, over time, I had succeeded at something I had long failed at. Being fat had haunted me since the age of eight after the rape, when my skinny kid frame blew up like a balloon. Fatty Patty became my name.

I stopped going to my group that felt like home, his voice stronger than mine, more important. He had to be right, I barely questioned it, ignoring a tiny voice inside that knew different, even as the pounds came on. His offhand rejection of my tested, successful weight loss group zeroed in as if he were a learned man in the subject and I knew nothing. But his thoughtless off-the-cuff remark, became the truth I had yet to discover. It solidified as the way to be that I had yet to become, like him, fully present, eyes blazing with life. He believed himself to be knowledgeable in all areas. I believed it too.

His cavalier response exhibited knowledge and experience, but really pertained to lack of time. I sensed it, but disregarded the repeated protests arising, unused to listening to that flicker of instinct, “Look at him, skinny as a rail since birth. What could he possibly know about fatness and what it takes not to be?”

He had other more important concerns that I didn’t know about. I didn’t know until that last year what he had undertaken when we first met. His wife had contracted a chronic debilitating disease. They had discussed how to keep their house, because she could no longer offer therapy in her office down the hall from him, where they had first met. They talked about what to do when the expense of owning a home in their posh neighborhood became too much on one income. They wanted to keep the house rather than move to a lesser one. He would take on more work, up to ten clients a day, as many as he could. Time between clients was not spent pondering how to help them, but looking for more.

And being just one more, of course he would not read pamphlets or have time to think about me from one week to the next. I was one of too many, aware of something not quite right, but not heeding the warning. He took on the load of two therapists, a sick wife, and two daughters.

And then the divorce; she was leaving him. I heard all the details about the therapist he began seeing after his wife left. “Start dating, have fun” was the motto from his therapist. Had he heard the term “counter-transference,” where the therapist lays his own burdens on the client? He had no clue why she had kicked him out, but if he treated her anything like he had treated me, it was easy enough to understand. He took precious time from my sessions describing it thoroughly, her rage, and his wonderment at her rage with no reason why she wanted to leave. He came across as the victim, pleading innocence, looking for comfort while talking. I gave it the best I could, poor pathetic Matt. At least his therapist got paid.

Another component of my regretful weight gain came from the change in him. Upon hitting the dating scene, sexual energy emitted from his being like an open fire-hydrant, as if I’d been sprayed with his musk. Being near him started to scare me. Piling on pounds with no conscious realization of doing so, or why, made me feel safer from his newly awakened sexuality.

I hung up the phone after finally cutting him loose. Dignity slowly crept back into me. I contemplated the fuller feeling: relief instead of the loss I thought I would feel. I collected paper images of cell phones from magazines and made a mobile of them, hanging it up in the breezeway window. I had stopped the abuse, cutting my noose.

Cory noticed the dangling mobile, looking at me thoughtfully, then asked, “Do you really want to remember him that way, Mom?”

At seventeen, his perceptions went deep, more balanced than mine. I took it down. What appeared to be easy for others, saying no, made me fear I might be physically harmed or worse, abandoned. I feared him or even his physical nearness. But over the phone, in a whisper, I finally said, “No!”

CHAPTER 20: DEPRESSION

shattered-small title

When eating didn’t suffice to stuff my anger, depression helped. I’ve lost count of how many. But after Raymond left, I managed to survive, surprising myself. I finished that last year of nursing school, passed the State Boards, and landed a job as a newly registered nurse at a psych unit in a nearby town—all without him.

It was night shift, and it fit me well, the quietness. But the next morning, even with thick homemade curtains blocking out the sun, I slept only three hours tops. Maybe I could have lasted longer if Louise hadn’t become the new supervisor. She worked days at a hospital in a neighboring town. That psych unit was somewhat more progressive than ours because they had recently incorporated ECT or electroconvulsive therapy, not something I felt in favor of. It scared me. I knew only the movie, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and what it did to the boisterous character Jack Nicholson played.

Louise introduced herself. The interrogation began.

“I work at Springtown,” she said, puffed up with pride as she added, “and we’ve instituted ECT.”

She immediately noticed my skepticism, not the expected response, as she bragged about the new equipment at her unit.

“You’re not in favor of it?” she asked, already on the attack after I frowned, the edge in her voice pointedly sharp.

I raised a white flag, suddenly fearful of her hackled, compact body, which seemed to have curled in on itself like a porcupine ready to throw a quill.

“I really don’t know much about it,” I answered, backing down too late.

I didn’t want to make an enemy of my new supervisor but the damage had been done, not by my words but with body language.

She lunged into me. “For a nurse, you ought to know better,” she lectured.

I cringed, quietly looking at her, moving back slightly. I didn’t like her or her banty hen stature—tough, small, and overly proud. The way she carried her body, a defense in itself. Things between us didn’t improve.

Her presence made some of the patients uncomfortable too; the worst acting out occurred after she started. One patient bit her and pulled her hair before the three of us could pull her off, the Psych Tech, me, and the security guard, hands tangled so thickly into Louise’s scalp that a clump of hair came out. The smile I must have felt, had I been connected to my humanly emotions, stayed hidden. I had been taught to be ashamed, but there had to be a smile swimming around inside somewhere!

When speaking up in any way but meek or dutiful as a child, Mom contained me. She had to, instinctively, without premeditation; she didn’t think that deeply about things to have controlled me consciously. She had to silence me in order to protect the family’s image of goodness. I had to be manipulated, and much more so than brothers, because I held the secret to their sins. They wouldn’t expose the truth. She needed to work diligently in shaping me. It’s not hard to silence a child. Just threaten to abandon, not in words but in actions. Do this, you’ll be loved. Don’t and you’re not.

The message hit home over time. It took repeated lashings of, “You should be ashamed of yourself” to brand that scar into me, burned so expertly into the template of who I was to become that shame replaced wholeness like a headstone. A death knell, part of me incinerated into ash, blown away to the far winds forever gone.

A natural reaction to Louise’s hair being pulled, only days after her lecture, would have been satisfaction. Why not stifle a smile and forgive my human frailties? Life’s little justices need to be savored, even if guiltily. But I had been trained to feel shame, not pleasure. The sweet guilty reward of her receiving some payback went unacknowledged.

Most nights Joel worked with me. Joel was a Psych Tech, but also my friend. He had been the one to show me the ropes from the start.

“Here, use my hand!” he volunteered, when I needed three successful attempts before drawing blood from patients.

And during my first assessment of someone in crisis brought into the hospital’s emergency room, Joel was there waiting, staying just long enough to tell me, “You can do it!” beaming with assurance.

It took only once, someone who believed in me. After that, I excelled at assessing patients in crisis.

Two RNs were always on duty, even overnight, one as charge nurse, one as PAO, or Psychiatric Assessment Officer. If a crisis arose on the floor, the charge nurse handled it, which meant giving a calming injection in the butt. No wonder no patient took one willingly. They had to be held down by staff, including the security guard who came running from another part of the hospital. If a crisis arose in the emergency room, the PAO assessed the patient, then woke up the psychiatrist on-call at home to relay the assessment and determine whether to admit or not.

One evening, Louise said, “I’m going out to my van to sleep a few hours. I had a hectic day at Springtown. You wouldn’t believe what a day! Make sure you wake me an hour before day shift arrives or if a call comes in the ER.”

Assigned charge nurse that night, I thought, “Are you kidding?” but knew already not to cross her. Nodding my head in agreement, I looked at her steadily, feeling sick to my stomach at her audacity and complete lack of character. My first impressions of her of a cocky, bold rooster dropped to that of a fat, self-serving slug.

Joel, a more agreeable sort than me, said, “Sure,” but gazed at me with a tweak of the eyebrow that said, “Wow, can you believe it?”

Joel went out later to wake her and she chastised us both for waiting too long. She could sink no lower in my estimation, but I never reported her. I should have, but I didn’t know how. I could advocate for my kids, but not myself.

Weeks later, she accused me of being insubordinate and recorded a curt message I had left when I could not fill in for someone who had called in sick. She gathered evidence, tidbits of my disrespect. I did not realize how negatively I had affected her.

More because of my inability to sleep than Louise, I decided to leave the job and put in my two weeks’ notice. Louise arranged an exit meeting with her and Mary Ann, the superior to us both. I guess Louise needed her say, and I knew no better than to do what I was told, so attended it. Louise spewed out a list of complaints, turning the ‘exit’ meeting into something quite different. I needed to agree to several demands if I wanted to stay. But I had already decided to leave, so it made no sense, and I walked out confused about what had just happened. Though churning inside, I remained disturbingly quiet.

Because Louise had orchestrated the entire meeting without so much as a peep out of me, I became a puppet used to quell her need for vindication. Did her hate for me arise because I couldn’t be controlled, or because I looked beneath the person she attempted to portray and saw the real person? I left the meeting and the job dazed. I never said what needed to be said: “How can I respect her when she goes out to her van to sleep?”

It was the same hand that wove its death thread through my family, the needle sewn through my soul. Blame and shame, all mine, and only mine. What happened in that meeting felt familiar. And so in life, the role given to me as a child followed like a dark shadow, tamping down my spirit without mercy or justice. Louise was rewarded with vengeful vindication, and my spirit became so villainously extinguished it would be hard to find and reignite. She was rid of her antagonist, besmirching me in the process. Meanwhile I took the pain deep inside where it festered into Christmas and over winter.

Spring came, but the usual uplift that accompanied it did not. I followed Samuel into the woods behind the garden. The day sparkled, cool, clear and sunny. But the swirling mass rocking in my gut darkened all splendor. Feelings agonized for expression with no release, locking me up completely as if I’d closed all the shutters. The only emotions able to leak out were sadness, tears, and seriousness, robotic and repetitive. I had shut down.

I tagged along behind him while he poked the ground with a stick, looking for the source of the wet earth, hoping to have a spring dug there. I felt desperate for relief from my pain, which made it hard to move, think, breathe, or smile.

“I don’t know what to do! I feel so bad,” I beseeched him once more; too many times to count over the endless winter months.

“Enjoy the day!” he answered.

Was that disgust in his voice, I wondered? I moved slowly away through the trees back toward the house. Why couldn’t I enjoy the day like he did? I knew I was in trouble; I had been there before, a depression so deep I needed help. Raymond. I needed him. Entering the house, I went upstairs and pulled out the drawer in the nightstand by my bed where I kept precious mementos, cards and letters. I shuffled through the papers and found the short list of names Raymond had given me, noticing the one circled.

After pressing Raymond who he recommended more highly than the others, he had replied with some reluctance, “Maybe Matt.”

Studying the neatly typed list, my hands smoothing the crease gently, caressing the white paper as if the movement brought Raymond closer, I placed it back in the drawer. As March melted into April and my birthday arrived, I called Matt’s number.

That began the first of six years of therapy with him. It took many months to stop crying, each week, each entire session. I just cried. Tears flowed down a face already hot, red, and blotchy. The salty tears scalded my scarlet cheeks. The internal lava crushed into silence by rocks of undeserved shame finally found release, erupting in a safe place, flowing each week till the next; tears of failure, loss, rejection, and grief for the voice that had been taken from me as a child.