Monthly Archives: February 2014

Childless

I could see a McDonald’s down the street as we sat at the red light.  “I want a chocolate milkshake.  Can we stop?”

The husband’s hands tightened on the wheel.  “Why?”

Because I want a milkshake?  Because I worked ten hours today?  Because I’m seven months pregnant?  Because…because?  Rather than say anything, I shrugged.  

“We’re going to eat at the party.  You can’t wait?”

I shook my head.

He sighed deeply and turned into the McDonald’s drive thru.  I could tell he wasn’t happy.  As if his body language was not enough, he practically threw the milkshake at me when the cashier handed it to him.

I wondered how he would treat our son when he asked for things.  I wondered if he would be different.  Kinder.

It was New Year’s Eve.  Our last year childless.  We wished at midnight for good things, for ourselves, for our son.  For good health.  At least I did.  I don’t know what the husband wished for.  I never asked.

*

Our first year childless.

I ordered a white box online; I thought it big enough for all his things.  The website promised the box would come in just two days time—plenty of time before the funeral.   I had it engraved with his name and the day he died.  Saying his birthday felt weird to me then, though it’s something I do now to make others feel comfortable.  But then, it was the day he died.

I suppose I can say it’s both.  

Sitting in the waiting room of the OB the week after, I was surrounded by a bunch of expectant moms and their husbands and I wanted to stab myself in the eye.  I had dreaded the moment I’d have to come back here, tried to come up with ways to get out of it.  But it was necessary, I’d been told.  To care for myself, after.  The receptionist had called me two days prior:  “I notice you have an after care appointment scheduled.  Would you like to cancel your 39 week appointment then?”   

“Yes.  Yes I would.”

“How’s the little one?”

I wondered why she’d even ask that.  Though I suppose it’s a natural response.  But I still sat quietly in the waiting room that day.  I stared at my lap, my hands folded and my thumbs tapping against each other.  I didn’t want anyone to ask.  I didn’t want to have to answer, to say the same thing I’d said that day on the phone.

“He’s dead.”

I didn’t wish hard enough.

*

Childless is a weird term.  To have no children.  To be without a child.  To have never had children.  To have once had children but not anymore.  It can be used in so many different ways.   There are many things a person can wish for, but this isn’t one of them.

When you fill out forms and they ask if you have children, there is only yes or no.  There’s no line that says “I had a child who died.”  No line to acknowledge a life that is gone.  And when that happens and you have no other children, you are childless.  For a long time, I left that line blank on forms.  At the doctor.  At work.  Taxes.  I never figured out how to say “I had a child and now he’s dead.”  I still haven’t.  I wish I could.

I never will.

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Planning

One day when we were sitting in the kitchen of his mother’s house, B handed me a bag of his mother’s rings.  “You should try these on.  See if any of them fit.  My mom doesn’t want them anymore.”

I went through the bag one by one, trying different things on.  There was one, an old leather ring with a peace sign engraved on the top, that I fell in love with.  “I like this one.”  I slipped it on my finger with ease.  He told me to keep it.

I didn’t take it off until he replaced it a little over a week later with a diamond engagement ring.  When I had planned for the time I’d get married, I imagined it would be forever.  I didn’t know how wrong, how stupid, I was.

*

I live my life best when I have plans.  

My favorite thing at the moment are the syllabi I have for my courses this semester; they are like miniature datebooks by which I can plan my entire life.  They are broken down by class period, with the required readings and various other course assignments under their certain days.  For instance, I know that I have two papers coming due.  I also know that I have to write discussion questions every Tuesday for two of my classes, and that I have meetings on Mondays and Tuesdays for the magazine.  Because these things are certain, I can plan for them.  They are always the same.

It freaks me out when I can’t plan for things.  While I approve wholeheartedly of opportunities to incorporate new experiences into my person, I also feel the need to run from them because they are new.  Because they are unknown.  Because I cannot plan.  

*

I clutched my phone in my hand, reading the email that had been forwarded to me:  Maybe you’re thinking that Sara saying she wants to go back to school/college is a sign of progress?  Sara has “said” she was going back to school at least three other times, and this makes the fourth.  She is terrified of going back to school because she is afraid of “failing.”

College acceptance.  Email.  College acceptance.  Email.

I chose to listen to the acceptance letter.  I didn’t feel like my ex OR his mother deserved to have any power over me, but I didn’t know if I could be a person without him.

I went to campus the week before my classes started so that I could find all the rooms.  I made a map in my head so that I could get easily from class to class on time.  And then I started college—and I didn’t fail.

The first big paper that I wrote was a paper on Beowulf.  The day I got it back, I was terrified I had failed.  I couldn’t look up as the professor walked the room passing things back; I focused my gaze on the sneakers of the person across the circle from me.  D slowly made her way around the classroom, handing back the first paper she had assigned, graded and commented upon.  My dissection of Beowulf for this assignment had been a struggle; professors in my other classes had never cared this much about papers.  I could see the F now every time I closed my eyes.  Big, bold, and red.  Something brushed my elbow and I looked down.  My paper.

92.

I had gotten a 92.

My face must have portrayed my shock, because D began to laugh.  “You have the best facial expressions,” she cracked.  “But seriously though, you’re awesome.  And this is good.  You just need to be more confident.  Believe in yourself.”

That was the moment where I first realized I was better than him.

*

In self-defense class, they teach you to aim for the crotch or the eyes when you are grabbed from behind.  But all the training in the world can’t prepare you for a knife against your throat.  I was the top of my class, but when it happened I still felt woefully unprepared.  

I froze.  I hadn’t planned for this experience.  Stupid.

After, I made lists.  Lists for my day; lists that told me the times I would complete all of the activities that I needed to get done.  I hadn’t planned for the before, but I could plan for the after.  I could protect myself.

*

You’ve been accepted to read your Creative non-fiction work at the Sigma Tau Delta International Convention.  Please respond by the 21st as to whether or not you are available and what piece(s) you will be reading.  

I read the email once.  Twice.  I thought about declining yet again.  But I didn’t.  I said yes.  Another new experience.

*

I can’t plan for this.  What if there’s a stranger who sits next to me that reminds me of him?  What if there’s a topic I don’t like and I can’t find an exit from the room?  What if I get lost?  What if something happens?  What if I fail?  Does that mean I’m not good enough?  Does it mean that I’m that same person he thought I was?  That same stupid girl who got herself hurt?

What if, really, I’m always her?  That horrible girl who fails?

*

“You are not horrible, and you know this, sometimes.  So hang onto that for your presentation.”  I focused on those words.  Not horrible.  Not a failure.  Words mean something to me, and I’ve heard a lot of them this week.  I absorb them.  I absorb the belief that others have in me.  I let it change me.  

Brave.

Strong.

Confident.

I make plans.  Connections.  A safety.  And then lists.  

I breathe.  

I’m not stupid.  I won’t fail.

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Believing

I love you.

 

I view the experience in an out of body manner even now, just as I did then.  

What sticks the most is his smile.  Me in tears, and him smiling.  I can see his smile sometimes when I close my eyes.  His teeth gleaming, his breath like garlic.  From his smile, I see his eyes.  They glitter, a cross between brown and hazel and something that I can’t identify.  The gleam in his eyes is joy.  He found happiness in my tears, somehow.  I didn’t understand that.  I still don’t.  I don’t get how people can find happiness in the pain of others when I’m so sensitive I will cry at commercials. 

There was a “Private Practice” episode where one of the doctors was raped in her office.  I both wanted to watch it and didn’t want to watch it at the same time.  I felt connected to the character, Charlotte.  I didn’t want to look at her, but I couldn’t look away either.  When she fell silent and stopped fighting her attacker, a single tear trickled down my cheek.  Because I got it.  I understood.  That moment when she stopped believing.

 

Snap.  Close.  Cold.  The feeling of metal.  Something hard.

 

After surviving a serious physical injury, trauma may show up in a variety of ways—from disturbances with normal eating and sleeping to general dysfunction.  On the emotional side, people who experience shock trauma may experience depression, despair, panic attacks, memory loss, and a host of other issues. While the body may heal after shock trauma, if nothing is done about the emotional side of the ordeal, other problems may develop.  The patient may believe they are alone.

 

Licking.  Knife.  The release of blood.  So much.  Ice.  Black.

 

I was driving down the road on my way to teach one night, and I saw a deer crossing the road.  It went right in front of my car, and it turned to see me coming for it.  It froze.  I think it froze because it believed there was no escape.  It forgot there was another side to the road, a way to get away.  It believed that it was going to die.

 

One.  Two.  Three.  Four.  Ninety nine..One hundred…Five hundred.  Open.

 

There is a room inside my head.  In that room, the walls are black.  There are no doors or windows.  Only I can enter.  Only I can leave.  In the middle of the room, there is a chair.  The chair is black, wooden.  It has no cushions.  It is plain, just like the room. Which is the size of my closet.  That isn’t a bad thing; it is perfect for me, and it is just what I need.  It’s safe.

Sometimes, when I’m really bothered about it, I can feel the weight of it around me as if it just happened yesterday.  I think about things and I process them through that veil, at their base level.  It is harder for me on those days, the days I am worried.  Even though it was some time ago, I am worried.  It still affects me, while the effects on him are minimal.  That doesn’t seem fair.  My brain is a cesspool of gunk.  Of it.  Him.  Most of the time I am fine.  But I don’t trust myself.  I don’t see the me that other people see.  I don’t always believe.  I wonder if he took that from me.  If it’s gone. Forever.

 

Love.  You.  Love.

 

Don’t come back.

 

Someone told me that I enjoy new experiences.  That really struck me, because it’s true.  I enjoy new experiences, yes, but they scare me.  They scare me a LOT.  I don’t believe in my ability to handle every day.  I don’t give myself a break.  I get very angry when I am okay one second and not the next.  I want to be okay all the time.  I worry that the new things are overwhelming.  That I will fall.  Fail.  

I have led a double life, a difference between my body and soul.  I carry myself differently because of the past, because of that day.  I hide myself from the world.  There are many things I can’t talk about, many things that are folded into other things and disguised and cleverly hidden.  I put my past in the light, but also in the shade.  I will always be in the shade.  

And as a result, there will always be times when I don’t believe.  

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Plan B (On Rejection)

The first A minus I ever got in an English class broke me.  I was in eighth grade.  I wrote a twenty-two page story called “Searching for Becca Fischer.”  My teacher faulted it for the little things; she thought that some of the characterizations went too quickly.  At the time, I cried.  I had spent a long time on that story.  I felt like I really knew who Becca was, like she was a part of me.  I still think about her sometimes; she was the first character of mine I really identified with.  So when I saw the A minus, my black and white brain interpreted it as a failure because I was so connected to the work.  I thought that, in rejecting Becca, my teacher was rejecting me.  I reread the story last night when I couldn’t sleep, and I realize now that my teacher was right.  The characterization is weak in places.  There’s a lot that I could do with the piece now that I’m a better writer.  But at the time, I was so connected to my work that all I saw was the failure that wasn’t even a failure at all.  It was an A minus.  A bloody A minus.  But it was a rejection all the same.

Fast forward fifteen years to court and my (now) ex’s stupid face.  After all the things we went through, the end was sudden.  Jarring.  It wasn’t the same sort of rejection, but it was a definite lack of acceptance.  Over the course of our marriage, he invalidated everything that I thought I was.  I tried to change for him, but I was never good enough.  I never made the cut in his eyes.  I could never be who he wanted me to be.  I had ten years of my life between high school and college that feel like a waste, like time that went by and has left me nothing but older.  

I got my first graduate school rejection yesterday, and it brought me right back to that day in my eighth grade classroom, right back to all the time spent in court.  I cried a little.  Ate froyo.  And then spent most of today being sad.  Because a large part of me feels like a failure.  I know that it’s only one rejection.  I know I still have seven schools out there, pondering my future for me.  But I’m still really bummed for a wide myriad of reasons.  One—it was a school I REALLY liked, and they didn’t like me back.  Two—it feels like my entire life is on hold because I can no longer plan for my future.  Three—it feels like I wasn’t good enough.  I talked to a professor today who pointed out to me (or maybe this came from my mouth) that the graduate school application process is really like a lottery.  A bunch of little balls get loaded into a bingo-like cage and some big-wig pulls them out and calls a number.  That number gets in.  The hundreds (thousands?) that don’t get drawn just stay in the little cage.  It paints a stark reality, this rejection letter I received.  A reality where my future is incredibly uncertain, a reality where I have worked my ass off but might still not get in anywhere, because my number might not be called.  I have done all of the right things, taken all the right courses, kept my grades up, become a TA, tutored, edited at the magazine…and I might not be right.  I might not fit.  That reality is very much in the forefront of my brain now, because I am accustomed to not getting what I want.  I have worked my ass off and it might all be for nothing.  There might not be an MFA in my future.  I might not be a writer.  That is so, so scary.

I think that, over the last year, I have put a good 99 percent of my eggs in the graduate school basket—and I’m scared now because I worry I put my hope into the wrong thing.  I had a gaping wound that I needed to fill and I filled it with this whole graduate school process.  What happens if that process doesn’t come to be?  Will I start to hemorrhage again?  Will I lose my place?  Did I fill myself with the wrong thing?  Is it possible I won’t be a writer?  I have carved an identity for myself within academia and this plan that I have made to go to graduate school.  I will have to reshape it if I don’t get in.  It seems like I am always reshaping.  I want to be the cause of that reshaping, just once.  I want to prove to myself that I can be successful without him.  In my head, I’ve made graduate school equivalent to success.  Now I’m worried I will be lost. 

I feel like I need to make plans, somehow.  But without knowing where I will be next year, that’s hard. So, I’ve come up with an awesomely outrageous Plan B.  (The first of many, probably, since I have time to ponder before more letters come, but a plan I really like.)  I want to hike the Pacific Crest Trail.  Really, I won’t have anything to lose—it would be the perfect time to do it.  I don’t have kids or a family.  I don’t have any stuff.  I just have me.  And it would be nice to wander into the wilderness for that length of time and just…be.  I’ve read all of Cheryl Strayed’s books:  Torch, Wild, and Tiny, Beautiful Things.  Her writing is amazing.  Yup, she was pretty dumb to wander into a hike of that magnitude with little training.  Yup, she was very lucky to survive.  But she did.  And not ONLY did she survive, she wrote a book about it.  And that book is amazing.  That book is the story of a woman who figured out how to conquer her shit because she grappled with it and won.  She beat her shit.  I want to beat mine. 

I will start with the tattoo:  “How wild it was, to let it be.”   

How I finish will be up to the graduate school application lottery.

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On PTSD

The brain is made up of tons of different neural networks.  We strengthen the connections between neurons when we learn to do something.  As a simple example, when a person is learning how to ride a bike, a neural pathway forms that strengthens the more a person completes the action of bicycling correctly.  If the person never has any desire to ride a bike, they will never form that neural pathway because they will never give the neurons a reason to connect.  And if a person doesn’t ride a bike for many years, that neural pathway will begin to fade away.  

Neural pathways do not only form for positive experiences such as riding a bike.  They can also form from negative experiences.  A psychologist named Martin Seligman coined the term “learned helplessness” after his experimentation on dogs.  He locked dogs into kennels with no way out and hit them with repeated electric shocks.  The dogs would try to escape by biting the bars or throwing themselves at the sides, but they couldn’t get away from the shocks.  Eventually, learning that there was no escape, the dogs would lay down in the kennels and just take the shocks.  Even when Seligman opened the dog to the kennel, the dog would continue to stay and take the shocks.  The neural pathways formed by the repeated electrocution taught the dog that there was no way out.  There are chemicals formed inside the neurons during adverse experiences that aren’t formed during happy times; these chemicals are what make the negative memories last longer.  The neural pathways formed by negative memories are stronger, and harder to break.

Post traumatic stress disorder is like that; it’s the formation of a negative neural pathway or pathways caused by exposure to something from the past.  For instance, there are certain things that just trigger a vise.   Like someone is squeezing the inside of the chest.  My chest.

It’s very difficult for me to explain PTSD to people outside of it.  Really, it’s my brain being scared.  My neural pathways sending me into fight or flight that generally transports me to somewhere other than where the “fight” occurred.  I think of my brain as a bit of a firecracker.  There is only so long that my fuse can burn before it blows up.  Over time, I have grown good at recognizing the signs of an impending blow-up in enough time to escape the situation.  It also occurred to me today that I have become better at managing said blow-ups when they do happen.

Example A.  Sometimes it’s especially bad, as in, something as simple as a touch can push me over the edge and trap me inside of a memory.  And it isn’t just thinking about the memory.  It’s being in it.  One hundred percent, in it.  Breathing it, feeling it.  Reliving it.  These are the ones I really don’t care for, the ones where it’s hard to come back on my own.  When I feel him and want to stab myself in the eye.

Example B.  Last semester, I was sitting in a psychology class doing group work when a guy I didn’t know came up behind me and put his hands on my shoulders.  He wasn’t trying to do anything inappropriate, the rational part of me knows that.  But the irrational part of me ruled at the time.  The snap that occurred was pretty external—I burst into tears and fled.  It took me a good 45 minutes to return to class that day, and what amounted to at least twenty minutes of discussion after class on the floor of another professor’s office.  Not my proudest moment, but I wasn’t lost.

Example C.  One thing after another.  Eyes and hair and hands and touching and noises.    One trigger after another.  Confrontation.  And boom.  I walked into a class to set my stuff down with my hands literally shaking and I felt my chest snap.  My fuse blew.  I walked out; I didn’t cry much.  I got a drink of water.  A second.  I did a loop around the middle.  A second.  And I went back.  I shook for a good two hours.  But I handled.  Somehow, I did that.  AND I opened my mouth and presented normally—because that’s how I roll.

There’s a part of me that wants to shield this piece of me from others, that views this as me not being able to handle my shit.  But there’s another part of me that sees the progress I have made and the battle that I have fought.  That really, it’s not me not handling my shit.  It’s me forming new neural pathways.  Associating my experiences with different things.  Learning that a memory or a trigger isn’t necessarily an electric shock I can’t escape.  What I did today I couldn’t have done last year.  So instead of saying “I can’t handle my shit,” I need to be saying “go me.”  Because I did handle.  I was scared, but I handled.

I’m not sure when I became that person who could almost handle.  But I like her.  

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Failure

There is a voice inside my head that tells me that I’m not good enough.

That came from you.

Do more.

Work harder.

Be better.

You will never be good enough.

It’s funny really.  I’m not sure where it started.  Was it that day that I made the spaghetti?  That day that I worked for thirteen hours setting up fake ghosts and tombstones, that day that I came home and put the water on and the noodles in and then fell asleep on the couch?  The day that you just let them boil dry because “cooking was a woman’s job?”  When you woke me up by dumping the noodles on me?  Was that the first time?

You can’t even do what you’re supposed to do.

I waited all day for supper, and you messed up.  

A good wife wouldn’t fall asleep.

Or was it the day I got fired?  The day that I lost my job because the company had been bought out by foreign men who had no interest in a white female manager?  The day that I came home terrified to tell you because I knew you would think I was a failure?

You must be incompetent.  

Smart people don’t get fired.

You know I can’t work; I have a degree, I have to do this.

Was it the day that I wanted to turn the heat up because I was cold, and you told me no?  The day that you said I needed to make more and work more than I already was if I wanted to have the right to adjust the temperature?

You will never get a degree; you will never go to school.

You will never be anything at all.

You belong here, doing what you’re doing.

Or was it the day I forgot the Oreos for the Oreo dessert?  The day that you made me go back to the store?  Was it that day?

I can’t believe you’re so stupid.  

You need to go back; I certainly can’t.

This has to be perfect, and it just isn’t—you aren’t.

Was it any day?

I am sitting on the couch now, staring into space, a space that you used to occupy.  And I hear your voice inside my head.  It’s been a great couple of days, so it’s funny that I would hear you now.  But there you are.

You touch me with your eyes, your fingers.

I can feel you on me, smell your breath-garlic.

I can feel you.

And I hate you.

But since you’re here.

I have something to say to you.

Screw.  You.

You made me feel like I wasn’t good enough.  Like nothing I could ever do would be okay.  Like nothing I could ever say would make you happy.  You made me feel like I was a failure.  But I am not a failure.  Not by any stretch of the imagination.  I have done more.  I have worked harder than you could ever understand.  I am better.  I am so much better than you.

And I cannot keep renting the space in my head to you.

This has to end.

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