Note on shifting tense…the here and now, way back when, first person, third. Sometimes second. I and she. You. All, one and the same. It is a practice of creative non-fiction, to write oneself from an external perspective. Because I experiment with autoethnographic inquiry around the relationship between self and perceived personhood, it makes sense that I would play with I and she. Write myself as someone who is separate. I am not dissociated or anything like that. It is a way a writing about experience. That is all.
It blows my mind that I can still think about my life and story in ways that make me feel trapped and stuck and wounded.
I am not trapped and stuck and wounded.
I killed that old fear out in the woods the other night.
I might still feel the sensations of it, and remember in sharp detail the experiences that gave birth to that fear, but I will never be able to believe in it the way I used to.
“I don’t want it to exist. That is why I don’t want to talk about it.”
A major barrier to me gaining a solid footing in constructing a book has been this thought that, in order to tell this story, I have to talk about the bad things that happened.
Can you talk about recovering from complex trauma without sharing what it is you are healing from?
Yes, of course you can.
Can you connect with people who are experiencing pain without sharing the pain you have experienced?
Yes. People do it all the time.
I have an idea, the spark of a direction.
She had had a headache for two days, a dull throb, with rough edges in her left temple, across her jaw. She felt it in her neck, and it pulled her body just a little. That reflex to curl up, the big muscles in her low back clenching and squirming as she sat in the meeting, stood in the classroom, listened to people and talked with people for hours straight, somehow managed to say the right things, in just the right tone, if only a time or two.
She wasn’t bothered by the headache while she was at work. Distraction. Outward attention. Alone at her desk, staring at the computer screen and adjusting her back again and again, she could feel that she was holding her face oddly. Flinching a little on the right, slack on the left, a slight numbness in her cheek.
Her desk was covered by papers, small notebooks turned face-down, a group of pens lined up on by her phone, a gesture toward some small order, voicemail light flashing red. She knew that she probably wouldn’t check the message. She had only slept for a few hours the night before. Nonetheless, she felt okay. Determinedly trying to ignore the headache, mustering up a weak excitement for running in the forest.
The person across from her kept repeating how they had been on the prescription for years, that their doctor had stopped prescribing. They need it.
(It is hard to work in a system that doesn’t work as well as it could, in an economy that allows homelessness, in a culture that creates lives of desperation, fear…rootlessness.)
It was getting dark outside. There was nothing she could do to help the person in front of her, who still had their child face, who still looked the same as they probably did when they were 4, 8, 12, 17…even though they were getting old, the shadows of 50 cutting in around the mouth and eyes.
The woman stood, her hands open in a gesture of apology. “Do you want a banana?”
The person accepted the fruit, smiled, said it was just the way they liked them, still green at the ridges.
It was a good banana, from the good grocery store. Organic. She’d had one earlier, doing paperwork at her desk, and one the night before, sitting in a parking lot and talking about the fear. About what her problem is.
“I don’t want it to exist,” she’d said, laying the skin of the fruit on her thigh, straightening the peeled segments so that there was just one even line of yellow against her black jeans in the dark. “I don’t want it to exist.”
“That’s why I don’t want to talk about it.”
She stopped speaking, drank some water to get the loud taste of fruit eaten in the dark out of her mouth.
She left work a half hour later than she’d planned. It was already getting dark, the sun already going down, when she parked at the big home improvement store, cut across the highway, entered the forest. There were only people walking out. Nobody was going into the forest at sundown, not on that path.
(this is that path, in the morning, the next day)
Her head was pounding with every footfall. It felt like the beginnings of a migraine, which she hadn’t had in a long time. When she was young, she had those sort of headaches all the time.
Immobilizing headaches, her face numb, tears sliding across her nose, but not crying, because crying would make her heart beat faster, make her head explode. She tried to breath slowly, laying in the dark, her cells nauseous, body limp.
Only a head, the feelings of sickness.
Tried to picture her heart slowing down, coolness in her blood. She did not know what else to do. If she could lay still enough for long enough, the headache would quiet, and she could fall into almost a half-sleep, the colors blue and black and orange shifting. If she moved at all, rolled or curled up or stretched out to quickly, the headache stabbed back to life. She moved slowly, stringing together dark pearls of sleep.
Sometimes, when the headache lasted for more two days, when she was nothing but pain, she would have her mother take her to the emergency room at the little hospital there in town, for imitrex, which – at that time – was only available as a shot a doctor could give you.
The relief of the headache easing back was worth the violent assault on the senses, the cacophony of pain, that was traveling the four miles to the hospital, the car ride, the feel of the seats. The smell of upholstery. Sitting there under fluorescent light, in cold air with strong smells, metallic sounds, doors closing, footsteps on old linoleum. Curled up like something dying.
It was worse than she imagined dying would be. Dying could be almost painless.
She hasn’t had headaches like that in years. She had them when she was a teenager, when she was taking medications that caused headaches.
The forest did not scare her in the dark, though there were spots that felt alive in ways that other places didn’t, something in them that was maybe just a slant of light off from the neutrality of trees and branches, grasses, low growing flowers, ferns, rhodendrons, hickory, oak. A draft of warm air, a quick stillness, pockets of dark that seemed to pull in light. An animal that pauses, that does not run away.
She knows that what she feels in those sorts of places is rooted in her impression, what she sees, what she thinks, the ideas that she has. The doubting part of her does not know if the woods are alive, but she likes the believing part of her more. The woods have electricity. Life. They are alive places. They are full of life and death and movement.
By the time she got to the start of the long trail, the sun was fully setting. She was at the 2.5 mile point in the run, she had 4 or 5 miles to go. For her, that was far.
Her headache had receded a little in her attention, because she had to watch her footing, read the trail in dim light. Her breathing was off, inefficient, constricted a little. She did not like that feeling, pulled in deeper breaths, slowed down.
She’d set out to get rid of the fear that had been stirred up the night before, to dump it in the forest. For three weeks, she had been dumping fears and grievances in the forest at sundown, running alone out in the woods. She didn’t cry or feel much as she did this, maybe a brief clenching or fluttering, a powerful thought. Once, she had tossed her fist out to her side, from the hip. Swatting at something. “Fuck you,” she spat out, “Yeah, fuck you.” Ran harder. Felt good.
Before she went to bed the night before, she decided that she was going to leave that old fear out in the forest.
She didn’t just go to the forest to dump fears. She loves the forest. Says, “Hello, forest…”, quiet and in her head usually, but sometimes out loud.
Usually when she runs, she thinks about how lucky she is to be running, because last Spring, she was remembering a person who had died, a person who used to run marathons, but who died unattended barely able to walk, and had the thought that the person would have loved to run in the forest, that it might have saved his life, if he’d been able to get to the forest before his body became wrecked.
Everytime she runs in the forest, she feels lucky to be alive.
She thinks that it is okay to leave pain in the forest, to leave anger and grief there, way back in the woods. She trusts that the woods will know what to do with pain.
When she thinks about these things, she feels crazy, because other people don’t believe in the things she believes in.
(“I think it might just be a placebo effect, some psychological trick, some internal process, nothing really happening in her body or in the world outside of her, but nonetheless producing changes in body systems or perceived experienced. I do think that if one runs or does some other vigorous or releasing activity – even if it is not vigorous – while in a PTSD-related state of experience, that the body responses associated with the content of the ” trigger” may be impacted, possibly with therapeutic value through the releasing of body impulses, the strong charge of instinctive reactions to run, to fight?)
As she ran, she tried to work out a new way to think about the fear that was making it so hard to breathe, hard to run. She marched up the mountain, her hand on her chest, feeling for the noose around her heart, pulling in deep and ragged breaths, a gasping animal sound at the edge, a cough of crying that wouldn’t break loose, that she could not get out.
A part of her, some deep pull in her hips and in her shoulders, wanted to just lay down in the leaves, to just lay there, to let it get dark, to let it get cold. She felt like she could sleep, but she kept trying to run, finally reached the beginning of the long, slow downhill.
Her head was whirling around old arguments, faces and voices, all overlaid and staccato, flashing and blaring as she studied the ground in front her. “Just run,” she thought, studying the root – knots hiding under leaves, the subtle shadows of holes in the ground. Small pits.
(She will not name the things she saw, the people she was trying to forgive.)
By the time she got to the easy part of the trail, the smooth wide part, she ran as fast as she could, still angry and ragged in her breathing. She coursed through the snake – shaped bend that she loves, and, with little warning, stopped running because she suddenly could not run, sat down on a log and tried to cry in the dark, but couldn’t. Not for more than a small string of seconds.
She was still angry.
“Let me tell you something, there is this thing that happens sometimes when people are terrified, when they are under threat, when they are alone. They seek out other people. They become desperate to not be alone. The pull to find someone to not be alone with is tremendous. It is in our instincts to seek out others when we are in trouble, to try to find a friend in the world.”
She was talking to her mother, apologizing for being angry earlier, for saying that she still remembers what was said to her, all the things that were said.
She is not supposed to remember those things.
She is supposed to forget.
She doesn’t want to remember them, but she cannot forget them. Even in trying to forget them, she remembers them.
Pacing around her front hall, a tight circle, an agitated animal, her body just a vehicle for the calm strident voice that was filling the room, getting louder.
She was trying to find ways to think about the anger that had risen up as she left her fear in the forest, ways to make peace with it.
She did not want to be angry anymore. It is a waste of time. It isn’t even about anger, she decides.
It’s about what is important to her, what matters to her, what she will and will not abide by, how she will be treated by people in her life. She doesn’t want to put her energy toward laments.
“The only reason I had people in my home is because I was scared and I was alone and the people who I relied upon to be there for me were not there, were – instead – contributing to the reasons I was scared. That is why I had people in my home. I did not want to be alone. The people I needed there were not there.”
She got off the phone, and her headache was gone.
The next day, she would wonder if the feeling she’d felt as loneliness for so long was her nervous system nagging her to befriend someone, to reach out to someone. There had been many times when there was no one she wanted to reach out to, no one she could reach out to. Times she would have rather talked to a stranger who was kind than to a family member who was not.
She doesn’t get lonely anymore.
She can’t remember what song was on the radio.
At the time, she was probably sure that she would, that she would never forget that wide open feeling on the north end of her street, seeing the person standing on the sidewalk, feeling a sense of recognition, the afternoon sun casting shimmers around. She realized the person looked like a musician she had seen play at the 40 watt the night she moved back to Georgia, a long time ago, but that the person was not the musician. They were younger, taller. A military issue duffel on the concrete beside them, peering at papers in a notebook, just standing there.
“It’s a difficult story to tell and a difficult story to tell well.”
I am wobbling around again in my focus. This project is a thematic triumvirate. There are three major bodies of story here. They are less woven than they are heaped and tangled, a mess of yarn, crossing threads. They are layered, with the underneath showing up through the surface, other things all but hidden save for their texture. Junk canvas, practice strokes. Getting the feel of it.
The dark-eyed girl who grew up by the river, who dreamed a mirror and broke her spleen. Her left wrist, elbow. Became melancholy, angry, when the trees were cut down, as her great-grandmother got older and older. The girl who could not say her own name, who barely sang for years. She did not know she was smart. She did not know she was different, that everybody is different, that people do not know what it is like to be her. Spent months in the hospital. Ran away.
Why is this a worthwhile story to tell? Why does it matter?
I had a strange childhood, back in the woods. I lived in a protected world, and I watched that world change, learned what it is to love a place and to grieve a place, what that feels like in adolescent bones. I watched a place that I loved become damaged, wounded, destroyed. I do not know if I want to hold onto to what that place was like, but – if ever I did – by writing about it, I can revisit it, the feelings of being there, the light and smells, the feel of mud.
The town I grew in was home to a major military installation, luscious coastal real estate.
I was in middle school during the gleaming first wave of pediatric and adolescent psychiatry. First depression, the bipolar. The endless appointments and side-effect malaise, headaches and weariness, dizziness, a thwarted sexual development, bored numbness, jangling with fear at the edges.
It is no longer legal to prescribe children and adolescents some of the drugs I was on.
A half dozen highschools and made up programs, tattoo on my hand when I was 15. Reading books alone in my room. Screaming at my mother and swallowing the pills every morning, every night.
Happened upon the feeling of wanting to die, the idea of it, in songs and books, pictures. The feelings in her own body. “Is this what it feels like to die?”
She had already almost died twice, falling and then falling again, the strong pull of gravity, the thud of her own weight hitting the ground.
Dying was easy to imagine.
That is just one sweep of a layer.
“It’s hard to write well.”
“It’s really, really hard.”
She understands that it will be difficult to try to tell this story in a way that holds all that is important to her in the telling.
Even this brief effort to identify broad content areas, which will be necessary in any sort of proposal or outline of structure, has overwhelmed her a little, with all the stories connected to a small phrase, a single sentence.
She will work on the summary and outline of content more tomorrow, the next day, begin to commit to either a) write new content based on the general scope of content that is identified, expanding, connecting, and refining as she goes, or b) gather existing content pertaining to the topic areas.
She could do a combination of those two things.
She is excited by the loophole she found in the idea that she can compose segmented sense – driven poems about the experiences she will not include, but which are central. Assemblages of recalled images, sharp smells, fragments of phrase.
I do not want to write a trauma narrative, to tell my story with those anchors. I will turn all that into poetry, collections of the details I remember from specific events, arranged in such a way that it is not necessary for me to share more.
I did not address what I hope this project will accomplish, and will not try to do that now. I have the big-picture aims identified, but the details need to be further articulated.
I slept for just a few hours last night, worked all day. I am tired. I am going to rest.
I am training myself to be able to do more, to tolerate sleeplessness with skilled aplomb. In order to do this well, I have to respect that sleep is important.
“Sometimes, the way I think about things, the meaning I make of them…”
She has a sudden clarity that she was surprised to find that she didn’t have before. She was learning about non-attachment, talking with a friend.
“I think I create distress for myself, in the way I think about why something is happening and what the significance of certain events might be.”
She knows that she can shift her thinking, but knows -also – that it is sometimes hard to shift her feelings about certain things. That she can find a perfectly gracious and accepting way to think about a situation that jabs at her, but that she can still feel the jabs. Can’t quite make her body believe that, really, everything is okay.
I can find ways to think about old problems that make them less troubling. Null even. I can learn not to care the way I did before. I can teach my body to feel differently about things, by noticing that I feel better when I am not angry, that being gracious in the face of threat or insult feels better than being harmed.
I can teach my body that it harms me when it is scared.
“It’s okay. I know you are just trying to keep me safe. You’re confused though. This safety is killing me. Here, I will show you that it is okay. I will show you that it feels good to be brave, to not feel scared or angry.”
I can adjust my experience, the nuances of my reality.
For now, I need to begin this Saturday morning. There are dogs to wash, floors to sweep, a car to clean, young people to greet.