Make It Better: You Said It

Make It Better received the following from a reader after Tuesday’s election: 


Eight is the number that sticks. I keep coming back to it, over and over, ruminating that it must have been the start. Or at least — the start of remembering. My precious first child, the oldest of three boys and an incredibly gentle and thoughtful soul, is now eight. That’s no coincidence. Eight is different. He’s changing. This is the year he stopped believing in Santa. This year, more than ever, I’ve listened to him wrestle over injustice. I’ve watched helplessly as he loses the innocent veil of five, six and seven. This year, when I tuck him in each night, instead of a thousand “I love you mommies,” he asks me important questions, like is the earth going to be blown up by a gigantic meteor, and why did I divorce his biological father. We talk, as long and honestly as he can, about big, hard things. I try to let him down easy. The truth is steely, but want to keep him warm. I want to stoke his hope, and his capacity to believe in magic and miracles and the essential, powerful goodness of love. Instinctively, I know that it is my mother’s-view of his fragile and evolving world that has helped me to remember what it was like when I was eight, and to wonder, dumbfounded, at how anyone — let alone the single most important male figure in my life — could have destroyed me as he did.

The first memories of my father sexually abusing me were at around eight years old. I know, because those memories seem to be inexplicably intertwined with a thousand different smells, textures, colors and events specific to that time. My first-grade teacher, a strong and beautiful black woman named “Ms. Battle,” applies her dark maroon lipstick before we go to lunch every day. My brother and I find furry orange and black caterpillars on the oleander trees in our backyard. My faded and sparkly blue bathing suit smells like chlorine even after my mother washes it. When I walk in the front door of my house, the door squeaks and I run my fingers across the soft velour of our hand-me-down chevron patterned couch. When my father made me touch his fat, short dick with my hands and mouth he smelled like yellow dial soap, and if he cried when we were finished, all I could think of was hugging him hard enough to take his pain away. These are all things I’d long forgotten. They were locked away, handcuffed to the assault memories. Yet now, in remembering any of it, I remember all of it. How fascinating that the human brain can simply bury, deeply and securely, trauma so devastating that we cannot even acknowledge its existence, in order to maintain our sense of safety in the world. As a child, there is no escaping an abusive parent. Where do you run at eight years old? There is too much at risk. You cannot fathom the betrayal of speaking the actual thing. Your world is too small. There is nothing but your own little experience, and when that experience is manipulated and massaged by someone on whom you innately adore and are solely dependent on for survival, especially someone who poses a dark and deliberate threat to the only ones who could possibly rescue you, you are utterly trapped.

How strange that up until a few months ago, I had no memory — not even speculation — that I was a victim of incest, yet the feeling of being trapped had defined my entire life. I was always on. I couldn’t ever seem to relax, unless I drank or took enough drugs to induce complete blackout (a habit that started around 16). I didn’t have a real friend, because I never trusted anyone. I saw the world through the twisted lens of what had happened to me, and that lens made the world an incredibly lonely and intimidating place, where survival was only possible ALONE and through brute force. At 24 I married someone I didn’t really love, because he was nice, and stayed in a loveless marriage for seven more years. I pushed myself way too hard. I worried all the time. I ignored my basic instincts about almost everything, and somewhere in there I lost a sense of who I really was.

This went on for almost THIRTY YEARS. For a huge chunk of my life, my nerves and neurons, fully engaged always, had ravaged my body and mind. My instincts to freeze, flee or fight, had allowed me to survive, to escape a living nightmare, but they had simultaneously poisoned me. A steady stream of cortisol in the blood left me like a burnt-out junkie, and five years ago, well before my mind was ready to process the memories, my body began to show the wear. The ravaging reached a breaking point and I ended up with pneumonia and pleurisy. My body was shutting down because I couldn’t handle the negative energy surging through my system.

After that lengthy physical sickness subsided, I was left with mysterious chest pain, shortness of breath, a sensation of my ears burning at even the thought of something mildly threatening or exciting, and an ever more present sense of impending doom. “Have you ever considered that you might have general anxiety?” the doctor asked. “Huh?!” I replied, confounded. In a couple of years, I had had a baby boy, moved through a divorce to his father, and married the love of my life. We’d moved to a new city, and I had an exciting and glamorous job, and a book deal in the works. It should have been a time of elation. I was crumbling.

I don’t think I’ll ever be able to thank my husband enough for providing the environment that has allowed me fall apart. Until I knew his strength and his unconditional, completely devoted style of love, it simply wasn’t possible. I truly believe it is because of him alone that my pervasive armor showed any small sign of cracking. He never judged me for going to counseling, for taking medication to calm down my system, or even for using him as an emotional punching bag whenever I felt scared (which was all the time). I don’t know how or why, but he saw something in me. Some deep, golden goodness that it would take me another few years of heartache to discover in myself. For that I’ll always be grateful. It was a lifeline.

For the past four and a half years my husband  and I have held hands, through the birth of two more beautiful sons, and through the storm of early parenting life together, all while I’ve been struggling to understand why I behave the way I do. I figured that it probably had something to do with my dad. (I did remember some things after all.) He was violent, and scary. Once my brother and mom and I slept in our van in an alley because he was chasing us. More than once I woke up to find my mom on our couch, her face bloody and broken from his fist the night before. My brother, in a likely reaction to his home life, had become a heroin addict as a teenager and left home around 14 to become a career criminal, in prison even today. My father could be the life of a party, charming and convincing, but he could turn mean in an instant, and seemingly without causation. I remembered his loud, narcissistic take on the world. He manipulated everyone in his life. He intimidated his friends and employees. He was racist. He thought women were beautiful (he would tell me all the time how much he liked tits and show me his posters and pictures of naked women, which always made me feel awkward, but also privileged, like he was sharing something special with me). I remember clearly him telling me that “women were only good for what was between their legs” and ribbing me with his elbow, fully expecting me to laugh at his entertaining insight. He hunted people he was curious about. He was a bully. Perhaps most pervasive of all, and the deepest character flaw of all, was the sense that he was the center of everything.

Sound familiar?

Donald Trump was the last straw. Completely unexpectedly, when Donald Trump first appeared on the political scene last year, there was something instantly and instinctively recognizable about him. He oozed “predator.” Something in the way he looked at women, in the way he led with ego, in his attacks on anyone different than him, triggered an avalanche of memories for me. He WAS my father. At least, he represented all the bravado and aggression that my father was to me. In an instant, and pervasively, just as Trump took over all popular culture, my memories of abuse began overtaking me. Strange as it may sound, my journey through remembering all of this has followed the journey of the presidential campaign. My fear and my pain and my hope have all been tangled somehow in this mess of who will represent our country — the angry bully who takes what he wants, or the female who fights and fights and fights for love and equality and the rights of women everywhere. On one hand was everything that has been my reality, on the other was everything that could be.

Gloria Steinem said that Trump as President represents a “root normalization of male dominance and violence.” She said that the single most indicative characteristic of a culture’s general propensity toward violence and war could be boiled down to how that culture treated its women. Keeping women down — through violence, reproductive control by inaccessible birth control or abortion, and banning women from participating in education and politics — turns out to be crucial in maintaining the hierarchy of white male dominance. What a fragile system.

In the past few weeks especially, through lots of psycho-therapy work with a gifted and smart doctor, I am beginning to make progress. It is painful to remember, but it is also a relief. In remembering, I am reclaiming my essential self. I am re-learning what makes me a special human being, and truly starting to believe that I have something real and valuable to give away to those I choose to give it to. And they can give back to me. I am starting to feel that the memories are part of me, but they don’t singularly define me. I am so much more than what has happened to me. There is a love so big and warm and wonderful inherently inside me that no one, not even my dad, could take it away.

And Hillary has been there with me. The  campaign has felt extremely personal. That “we’re stronger together” slogan meant something to me. It meant it’s OK to lean on others, and it feels good to let them lean on you. That I am not alone. The sad truth we know about sexual abuse is that one in every three girls is assaulted in some way. It felt like Hillary was on a parallel path with me. Claiming what is possibly rightfully a woman’s place, as a leader and an advocate, just as I was reclaiming my sense of safety, belonging, community, peace, and strength.

My heart was broken when the results poured in, and I realized that this man, this bad man, was now the leader of the free world. Millions of people in our country demonstrated their allegience or indifference (both equally offensive) to this man’s hyper violence. His face, the one that triggered me so often and easily, would now be cemented for at least four more years. His name would be repeated over and over. His hateful rhetoric would go on and on, and that realization felt like a huge, bitter defeat. One in which I found myself trapped, once again.

But today is a brand new day. I wake now with the grace of so many women before me, instead of the grief of a child I once was. Neither my father, nor Donald Trump, will ever be able to hurt me again. I wouldn’t let them.

Today I feel strength and light coming from some hidden depth. It is a light that flows through me, not mine alone, but one that is connected to all living and loving things.

I don’t pretend to know the specifics of what comes next, but I do know it is something wonderful. The pendulum WILL swing back. It has already begun. Maybe today we talk to a stranger about something that matters. Maybe we hold our children closer, and we listen to them a little more intently. Maybe tomorrow we notice when someone needs a lifeline, or we speak up when we need to. Maybe now we’ll be a little braver, letting our inner lion roar when it really needs to. Maybe this is the spark we need to pay it all forward, on the backs of so many who came before us. Maybe we sense the magnitude of that responsibility. If I feel it, others do too. Hate can never win. Love is too big.