I’m going to write something devastating. That’s what I said to myself this morning as I sat down and prepared to open my screen. It was scary, thinking of opening my heart and mind to thoughts and memories that I knew would flood me with pain. But when I set out to get deliberately lost in the woods, and begin this blog, and become public with my struggles with mental illness and alcoholism and addiction, I knew I would be opening locked but leaking boxes inside me. I knew they would be emotionally devastating.
The world has been emotionally devastating this week. As I work (hard work, sweaty and slimy hard work) to bring myself back from the precipice of no return and build myself back up from the wreck of a creature I had become back in June, I must insulate myself from the terrible woes of the world to a degree I often find distasteful. Shaming. I *feel* so deeply, and am so passionate about fighting injustice and ignorance and misconceptions about fellow humans, that when I remind myself constantly that in order to rebuild and heal myself I must NOT stand tall with a shining sword against all this sorrow and hate flying around and fight it perpetually. To do so would drain me; drag me down into an ever-more-rapidly swirling vortex of emotional bleakness until I am once again sitting at the bottom of a pit of despair. So even though we have family in Paris we still haven’t heard from, our philosophy has been “no news is good news” and I reinforce those semi-permeable walls around myself so I can continue to heal my still-fragile self while not isolating from the world and people around me.
Writing about trauma and one’s personal experiences of mental illness, whether they are associated or not, is both cathartic and devastating. Purging that devastation is like draining an abscess that is terrifically slow in healing. Trauma is locked in our bodies, and somewhere in that abscess is a kernel of offending matter; once enough matter is flushed out, the original infecting bit will pop out, and genuine healing can take place. Writing is akin to warm compresses and gentle massage around the wound that causes the gross stuff inside to come pouring out. Ofttimes it’s ugly, but the relief of all that built-up pressure is sublime. I need to keep writing and talking about the things that create toxic bubbles inside of me, so they don’t put pressure on the vital other things inside of me, or rip me open and create other wounds.
When I was about sixteen I saw a documentary on apartheid. It was on PBS, and as usual I was home alone, doing my homework. I was more or less a compulsive PBS watcher most of growing up, and I watched a lot of documentaries. I remember vividly the scene of the Afrikaner police beating the tar out of peaceful protesters sitting in the streets, and the blood, and the gas, and the violence all for nothing more than sitting there. It was so much more brutal than that perpetrated against the hippies protesting the Vietnam war. I can’t remember the particular protest I watched footage of, but I do remember it resulted in many deaths, and I was so viscerally shocked, I was moved to do something. I joined my high school’s Amnesty International chapter the very next day. I have written countless letters to free political prisoners across the globe. It is one of my greatest prides that I was part of numerous letter-writing campaigns to ultimately free Nelson Mandela. I have been part of so many petitions and awareness and activist campaigns for human rights I couldn’t possibly recall or count them. And what this ultimately taught me was that people are just people. No matter what their politics or religion or where they live or what they do or do not have, they are human beings who feel pain and miss their loved ones. Whose loved ones miss them. Who deserve so very, very much more than to be just another missing person or bones in a mass grave. Who should never ever be tortured FOR ANY REASON, or denied food or water or shelter or clothing or basic human dignity. Who should not be put to death, for any reason. I learned that as civilised human beings, we are worth so much more than the capacity to do these things to our fellow humans.
It took me a much, much longer time to realise that the reason I did this was because I lacked so much control over my own life; that I was a political prisoner of another sort. For as long as I can remember I suffered abuse at the hands of the man who calls himself my father. Literally, my first memory is a traumatic one. I was very little, a toddler, and we were living in Germany (the man who calls himself my father was in the Air Force). He was wearing his uniform; I was in my high chair; he was trying to feed me. I was feeling unwell. It was dim in the kitchen/dining room area with the heavy curtains drawn. The tv was on. He was trying to feed me some baby food out of a jar and I did not like it. He was telling me it was peas and sharp cheddar cheese and I liked it; I was telling him I did NOT like it. He was getting angrier and angrier. He was always angry. He started shoving the metal spoon into my mouth, into my soft palate, into the back of my throat, harder and harder, and I of course tried to get away, move my head to the side, tell him over and over I DID NOT LIKE THIS STUFF. I did not feel well. He started yelling more and more, louder and louder. He grabbed my face and shoved the spoon really far in…and I puked all over him and his uniform. He threw the spoon and the jar, crashing them onto the floor where the jar broke, and stormed away. I don’t know how long I sat there crying, with vomit and peas and sharp cheddar cheese all over me. Hooray for my first memory. And although I do have a few pleasant memories including the man who calls himself my father, the other sort are par for the course. The traumatic abusive kind are so prevalent that it was my normal. I’ve blocked out many of them, because the abuse was not just physical. It was sexual, psychological, emotional, and mental. He was and is an expert gaslighter. My mother has been so profoundly gaslighted by him she will probably spend the rest of her life trying to undo the damage and working to reclaim the person she is deep inside; the person she was meant to be. So Amnesty International gave me the chance to DO something. Because in my own life, I could do nothing. I was powerless. Every time I tried to speak up about what was going on in my life, the adults in charge told me I was making things up or being dramatic or I was “just depressed”. I don’t show bruises, you see. Something about my physiology. Ergo I was lying. Or the man who calls himself my father, expert gaslighter and sociopath (it eventually started catching up to him later in life when his drinking and bitterness got out of control), convinced said powers that be that I was the sociopath and gaslighter. Not in so many words, mind you. It was “she lives in a fantasy world” or “her mother coddles her” or “she just wants attention” or “she’s an only child so she doesn’t think she has enough X” or whatever else bullshit line tough love served up to him. Amnesty International gave me autonomous power I could exert on behalf of others that I could not exert on behalf of myself, and it taught me how to be a human too.
I have a lot in common with refugees who are so afraid. I’m a first-world girl with first-world problems, but I lived the first seventeen years of my life locked in a prison of fear and confusion. And even when I physically escaped that man, his psychological hold on me kept me tied to him, constantly seeking his approval so he could psychologically continue the abuse until I was strong enough to sever all ties with him. So while people, actual human beings, cry out that Syrian refugees are terrorists in disguise, I shake my head and weep, because I know better. Mr. Neil Gaiman has spent a vast amount of time and personal soul energy amongst the people and refugees of Syria for years. Terrorists don’t welcome outsiders into their bosom like that, much less people like Mr. Neil. The illogic of humans gripped by terror and conviction scares me and makes me sad, but then I settle myself with those lessons learned so long ago from Amnesty International: we are all human; we all deserve dignity no matter what; we will be patient, and if we lose people while we are being patient, we will grieve, but we will continue on.
It is a good fight, toiling against the poison. We lock trauma away hoping it won’t hurt us anymore, but it sits there, hurting us the whole time. It’s fear that does that. And it’s fear that keeps it locked inside. I was very afraid to write all this. I have wanted to write that first memory in this blog since I first created this blog, many many weeks before I even made the first entry. It’s a relief to finally put it out there. It’s devastating, too. I never believed that all those things the man who calls himself my father told the powers that be were true; I always knew there was something “wrong” with me, and my mental illness diagnosis was a huge relief, because it meant I could get down to business of healing the illness. Writing is part of the healing. Draining the abscess, no matter how many times I have to go back and lance the wound.