Tag Archives: memory

The Quiet Game

I started playing the quiet game when I was really young. I remember this one way I used to play where I would ride my bike up and down the sidewalk in front of my grandma’s apartment building and pretend the bike was a horse. The handlebars were the reins; the seat was the saddle. I’d had my first taste of riding real horses that summer I think, and I was greatly disappointed I couldn’t ride them every single day. So I made it work with what I had.

The point of the quiet game was, obviously, to be quiet. It was a silent purple and pink horse, probably a unicorn based off my knowledge of my obsessions at that age. I was a silent rider.

There were other variations of the quiet game. Sometimes I made up imaginary friends as I lay on my bed with hands on my chest and my eyes closed in the posture of a corpse, characters with awful lives that I would then write stories about. Sometimes I played the organ with headphones in and mouthed the words to songs. Most of the time I just read books.

I taught myself to talk when necessary, and it was hard because I wanted to talk all the time back then. But it wasn’t always right. That was a painful lesson to learn. There were some things not meant to be spoken out loud. I had to swallow them. I had to be quiet.

The quiet game proved useful in adulthood. Our marriage counselor told us to “never let the sun set” on our anger, so every night my then-husband would spend his traditional twenty minutes in the bathroom doing skincare and teeth cleaning before getting into bed and waiting, quietly. He too played the quiet game, only he played it differently. He played with expectations. I played for protection.

“I’m sorry,” I told him automatically, every single night. I knew what he wanted. I knew what would happen if I didn’t say it.

“Good,” he would smile, nodding his approval as we clasped hands resting on the mattress between us. The same routine every night before bed.

I never knew though what I was saying sorry for. I just knew that I was. Sorry. Or rather, that I was supposed to be.

I went to that other place in my head, to that little girl riding the bike-pony, that little girl playing organ and mouthing the words while everyone slept, that little girl who dreamed up fictional characters just to solve someone’s problems, even if those problems were only on the page and not in real life. I became that woman who would do anything to be quiet and I stayed her, because I had so damn much to say and none of it could ever be said.

There was so much I never said to him, so much that wasn’t appropriate to speak out loud, not then. Why was I always the one to say sorry? Why did he never apologize? What exactly was it that I was so sorry for, every night? Why was I automatically less than he was? Why did he claim so hard to follow The Bible in public but yet he never prayed a single time in private the entire duration of our marriage? How could he claim to be ruling me, controlling me, biblically when he never, ever prayed? What kind of person was he?

What kind of person was I for staying quiet, for playing the game, for never saying a word?

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The Stain

My students were a rowdy bunch, a consequence of teaching drama–and not a bad one, just one that tried the patience sometimes. Especially when I had to drive them places. The youngest was eating pomegranate seeds that Thursday night that resembled reddish purple unpopped popcorn kernels. It became a fun game to squeeze them between his second finger and his thumb so that the juice would drip out into his mouth, sometimes missing and gracing his chin, his coat, my car seats. Pomegranate juice seemed small in comparison to the rotting pumpkin I’d once kept in my car trunk for over a year, but it bothered me for some reason–which is how I found myself in the garbage the next day, on my hands and knees, scrubbing the backseat of my car with Lysol wipes and hoping the dumb stain would come out, but knowing it was already set.

It’s funny, really, how quickly stains work sometimes. They hit the fabric and it’s sink or swim; either in or out. And if it’s in, god pity that fabric. The fabric didn’t ask to be stained. It didn’t ask for that pomegranate juice to spread slowly and mingle in with the gray threads. And yet there it was, a stain I hadn’t gotten to fast enough because I’d been driving that had now permeated and completely altered the makeup of my backseat. I thought about replacing the fabric, or buying covers for the seats. I never did.

I asked him, once. What I’d done to make him hate me so much. He told me I was a stain, that I had brought my blackness in and ruined everything. When he bled me there, when he ripped me apart in that backseat, the pomegranate stain was the least of my concerns. There it was, this bigger, darker stain, and I stared at the pomegranate blotch and it stared back at me and I felt the change within me, the volta, as I ripped apart and came together. His stain bled into the fabric that made me me, and I came out different as it permeated and completely altered my being.

There was a bigger stain now, darker, one I had no hope of ever erasing. The game then became living with, managing, the stain. I had to live with the stain, as you do, because there would be no replacing, no covering, no changing. You can’t reverse when it’s your true self that’s stained. But you can grow. Grow, and change, and own the stain and make it a part of you. Find others with the stain, stand together, make a union and be strong until it’s not a stain at all, but just a thing that is carried.

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On Memory

I remember A, remember hanging out at school and sleeping over at her house on the weekends. She and her twin lived down the street from me, and I remember being one of the only people who could tell them apart. I didn’t think it was that hard; they didn’t look alike at all to me. I remember that A was involved in the first real lie I ever told; I said I was going to park by myself when I was really going to the park with A; I don’t remember why, but I wasn’t supposed to play with her. I remember being grounded for two weeks and thinking it was the worst thing ever, that I was going to die. I didn’t die, but it certainly felt like torture.

I remember when A died, though, for real. She was barely 21 and fell asleep behind the wheel driving home from a music concert. I remember thinking of A’s sister and how terrible it must feel to lose a twin. I didn’t reach out to her because I was too afraid. I don’t remember the last time we all spoke; I don’t remember seeing them after seventh or eighth grade, even though they still, to my knowledge, lived in the peach house down the street. I remember wanting to go to the funeral but intentionally not going; death scared me, and I didn’t want to see my childhood best friend that way.

I remember the first funeral I ever went to, for my grandfather. I remember that the coffin was closed and I couldn’t see him, so my little kid brain didn’t think he was really gone; why would he be sleeping in a big wooden box in the dark? When my goldfish died, we flushed him down the toilet. I remember wondering if dead people also got flushed down the toilet. I remember saying that out loud and getting shushed repeatedly by the embarrassed adults around me.

I remember the next funeral I went to. I was a youth leader at the time, and it was for a student who had been killed in a drunk driving accident. I was sixteen years old; she wasn’t much younger than I was. I remember that the body was pale and glassy white like wax, and I remember bursting into tears and fleeing the funeral home as quickly as I could, hiding inside my mother’s red Camaro before collecting myself and going back inside.

I remember that, when my son died, I discovered that dead babies get kept in the fridge of the hospital because the morgue drawers are too big; when he died and the nurse took him from me, she suggested I spend as much time as I could with him while he was still warm. I remember understanding why everyone shushed me at my grandfather’s funeral when I asked if dead people got flushed down the toilet, suddenly embarrassed for my little kid self after years of forgetting.

I remember my son’s “funeral,” in the basement of my in-law’s house. It was dark down there. I remember thinking my son was in the dark too, just like I was, as I set up rows of tan metal folding chairs and stuck a box of Kleenex at the end of each row. I remember that people were late, and I thought that if he was alive, they might be on time; I remember wanting to start without everyone there and then shutting myself in the bathroom until those invited all finally appeared.

I remember that everyone at my son’s funeral cried but me. I remember feeling like I should cry, a good, ugly, ridiculous cry, to just hash it out, but I didn’t, because i don’t. I have never been a crier.

I remember my grandmother’s husband coming up to me after the funeral and telling me that my son was in heaven, but that it was okay because he was going to die soon and would be there to take care of my son. He swore up and down that he would be the first member of the family to be reunited with my son, and he was right. I remember I was teaching a piano lesson when they called to tell me he had died at home in the condo he shared with my grandmother. I remember my fingers freezing on the suddenly cold piano keys, my student staring up at me as I sank into guilt over not visiting him. I remember that I didn’t visit him because his dementia made him forget everything, forget my son was dead, and it hurt too much to re-explain that every time I saw him.

I remember that memory is funny, that thinking of one thing can lead to another to another to another, and I wonder how my grandmother’s husband’s memory went the way that it did, and if mine will go that way someday too. I remember, and I write everything down.

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Only Motion

I see you, often.

I look at myself in the mirror; my heart beats in an effort to escape my chest. I want to escape me too, but I can’t. Breathe in. Out. Rinse. Repeat.

I touch the steering wheel of my car and it feels cold under my slick palms. The sun is up; I have places to be. But I find I can’t move. Some days it is hard just to get in, to admit how close you were. Are. It’s hard to admit a very real struggle, a solid weight that sticks inside of me and refuses to let go. There are more ups than downs on some days, more downs than ups on others. The bad outweighs the good too frequently. I think that it will always suck, that I will never be okay. That I will never be over you. I will always drag this shadow behind me.

It starts with the fingers. Always the fingers. That’s how I know it’s coming, when I feel his fingers. Caressing me. Moving up my arm like a spider. Next the feeling of his mouth on my ear. The feeling of his breath blowing inside. I know that if I don’t do something, it will get worse. I will get lost.

I see you, often. On the stairs, on campus. Down the hall. In the Subway line, ordering a pizza. In the parking lot, getting into a truck. In the grocery store, picking out the perfect carton of eggs.  There is a certain verisimilitude to your form—your face, your hair, the way that you stand. But then when you turn, it isn’t you. You don’t see me. You never did, really. But I see your face, everywhere. On the mailman, on the librarian, on the kid who sits across from me in Arthurian Lit. You are everywhere to me, but I am nowhere to you. Nothing. I imagine where you are now, what you are doing. I wonder if you ever think of what you did.

Remember the plan, I tell myself. Remember what it’s for, why you are still moving forward. The only thing to do is ride it out. Ride it out. Ride it out. Wait for it to stop hurting. Wait to not be scared. Remember that I am safe, that I am real. That though it feels like drowning, it’s not. It’s not.

At night, there is a scepter that haunts me sometimes, the ghost of you. Words and emotions and feelings that have no place and no home. They weave in and out of my blankets, through the pillows, into the nightlight and out into the void. There is a gaping wound somewhere that I can’t see, a wound that tries to heal and then rips open again, and again, and again. Little things. A sound, a touch. I imagine it like a scab, something that hardens and then gets ripped away just when it is about to heal. I imagine that it will never heal, that it will bleed forever. I am afraid to believe in good things I know are within reach.

Your words echo and warp, twist in my head and mix with my own words. I’m not worthy. I don’t deserve this, any of this. I should try harder. I should be okay, just be okay, all the time. Never not okay. I should count the good things and be grateful to be alive, but I can’t right now, I can’t see that when I see you. Your fingers. Your eyes.

There is a hawk that glides over the road on my drive home. I don’t see its wings flap, not once, as I drive down the highway. It simply glides over the road, eyes forward, passing over life. That’s how I am—my life passing by beneath while I glide overhead. Unable to touch it. Unable to connect with anything. Unable to voice when I get lost because I am so happy for the moments when I’m not lost that it’s hard to admit the fall. I am in this phase now of moving forward, yet thinking about the past. Because in reality, there is no forward. There is only motion. The past is always with me. You are always with me.

I see you, often.

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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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Today was a great day.  I went to an awesome lecture.  I wrote a pretty darn fantastic paper.  I hung out with T online, played Pokemon, and relaxed.  It sounds incredibly cheesy, but I thought about life and where I’m at now; it occurred to me that I’ve come quite far.

Me three years ago.  My ex and I were just starting to tell the general public we were expecting a baby.  I was happy to be pregnant, but not happy to be with him.  I was never happy.  I was quiet; I followed along; I did whatever he told me to.  Until our son died.  And we fell apart.  I left.  Yes, I left.  And I felt guilty about it for a long time.  I felt guilty that Carter died.  I felt guilty that I couldn’t keep him together, that I couldn’t keep our marriage together.  I felt guilty that I wasn’t good enough, because that was what I heard from the people around me.  It was all my fault.  It was because of me.  I was the one who was wrong.

Me this time last year.  I remember the moment that it clicked, sitting in D’s class.  The moment when I realized that my goodness was not determined by the people around me.  Whether I am “good enough” or not comes from inside of me.  I make my own choices.  I’m my own person with my own ideas and my own thoughts.  My failures are my own, yes, but so are my successes.  And there were many successes I gave myself no credit for.  I started to try.  I spoke.  I was me.  I had the right answers, my own answers.  I had my own path.  I was myself.

Me last semester.  I lost my grip.  Like a cat on a screen door.  I just stuck in with my claws and held on as best I could, because he was always there inside my head.  All of the progress I had made was negated because of one thing.  One.  I stopped talking to people.  I stopped being me.  I let myself be the shell again because it was easier than trying to conquer what had happened.  The tape played again:  It’s all my fault.  It’s because of me.  I am so, so wrong.  I became convinced I had never had the right answers and had never been myself.  Or any of those things.

Me now.  I realized today that I’m actually talking.  I’m opening up to people on both a personal and academic level.  I’m sharing little pieces of myself wherever I go, letting a select number of people in.  I’m learning how to talk, how to be myself.  I’m getting better at it every day.  I’m shy, but it’s okay.  I’m okay.  I am making connections and doing more socially.  Instead of just being the cat who hangs on the screen door, I’m legitimately climbing.  Up and out.

And then I came to my room tonight to go to bed and I saw this.  This memorial.  This is all that I have.  A couple hospital bracelets and some papers in a box.  And underneath, on the shelf, all of the papers and ugliness of the last couple years.  For one day, I didn’t think about him.  I didn’t think about the past.  I didn’t think about them.

This was a good day.  But I’m forgetting him.  I’m forgetting them.

I can’t forget when I’m the only one who remembers.

If moving on means forgetting, I’m not sure I want to play this game.  I’m not sure I can.



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