Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
At this point, if I’m embarrassed in front of my therapist, it must be really bad.
I have cried in front of this patient, soft-spoken woman more times than I allowed myself to cry growing up. I have cried four or five separate times in one session. I have done everything from the intense-watery-eyed-snuffle to oops-there-went-your-tissue-box and even the coveted why-am-i-not-breathing hysterics. I have talked about problems, fantasies (not what you think, gutterheads), fears, blahblahblah, that I haven’t ever spoken aloud to another human being. And cried about them.
But I found myself embarrassed two weeks ago, unwilling and unable to articulate, gulping big teary inhales and covering my eyes with my forearm.
But let me start at a beginning.
A beginning would be the beginning of my therapy in Philly or, as I like to refer to it, “real therapy.” CAPS is a lovely service, but I spent more time trying to explain that I don’t give a flying fuck if my gender was caused by my daddy issues and what the word ‘queer’ means than receiving any meaningful help.
In September, my freshly assigned Real Therapist, S, frequently asked, “How do you feel?”
“…I don’t know. Um. Annoyed? I guess?”
“And maybe upset?”
I find these questions baffling. I was never, ever, asked how I felt growing up, not about decisions my parents made or getting rushed at by a pretty big dude with his hand raised into a fist. My family didn’t talk about emotions, about how it was okay to feel sad, or angry, and how to hold those things in me. They – we – yelled. Screamed, actually. Slurs, vulgarities, made-up words (“Fonzarella”) that sound ridiculous but translate to shame and humiliation.
So I struggled to answer that most basic question: how did I feel?
Do I feel?
At points in my adolescence, when the abuse was escalating to senior year’s fever pitch, I would just shut down. After the eighth threat of violence over nothing (my hair, my clothes, my room, my telling my mother who ate the entire bag of cookies in a late night binge fest for control and love), I’d just … stop feeling. I practiced a less extreme version of this every school day. I’d come alive slowly on the bus; I would deliberately murder myself when I stepped back in the door.
My parents never knew me.
They couldn’t understand why friends’ families and teachers thought I was funny or cooperative or cheerful. Mom would roll her eyes to the ceiling and sigh, like a racked martyr, “You’ve really fooled them, [Birth Name].”
No, fooled you.
By October, S graduated to asking how a given traumatic event made me feel.
I’d sit on the couch, staring very hard at my lap. I could intellectually identify my emotions (“Well, I must have been scared and angry when he started shaking her like that”), but I couldn’t actually recall them. I can’t recall a lot, in fact. The moments that had frightened me, sent me to that stony, numb place, pushed me into my room or to my best friend’s house… they are like incomplete jigsaw puzzles. Where’s that corner, the chunks in the middle? You look under the rug and even in the trash, but the picture is distorted, gaping, blurry around the edges.
I wouldn’t even admit that in my own diary. Because, oh jesus, the implications.
Finally, three weeks ago, S started prepping me for this fancy form of therapy called EMDR (I privately call it, “Goddamn, I’m fucked in the BRAINZ”). She asked me to make a list of the ten best memories and the ten worst.
I kept putting it off, until I had only forty-five minutes before my train. I dashed off the ten worst easily and then stared at the paper.
I couldn’t remember any specific instances of feeling happy, safe, content. Again, I intellectually knew I had those moments. Just the night before, eating a hot meal with friends — I had been happy and safe and content then. There had to be a thousand little glimpses of something better during my childhood: Gargoyle toys at my fifth Christmas, bringing home my bunny, my first kisses … ?
But I couldn’t remember feeling that way. Nothing at all came to mind. I had to settle on large periods of time that I could fuzzily remember as Good.
None of them involved my parents or their home.
On S’s couch, staring very hard at my lap, I took off the headphones and put down the hand buzzers. S, very gently, asked, “What physical changes do you notice this time?”
“The same. Um. Relaxed breathing, slower. The shivers. Shoulders fell a little bit.”
“Mhm. How do you feel about this memory now?”
I didn’t understand how to respond to that question, so instead: “I get the, um, shivers when I think about it?”
“Yes, those are your physical reactions, but how do you feel about the memory? Happy? Safe? Relaxed? Proud?”
“I,” Oh, how my voice stretched out, like a five year old wobbling on the cusp of a tantrum, “Don’t know. I … can’t remember. I can’t remember what I felt like. I can’t remember — I can’t call back up the feelings, not this entire time, I don’t KNOW. Andicantrememberotherthingstoo.”
My face did something like a Picasso painting before I could hide it. My mouth slid on a slant, my eyebrows knotted up in the opposite direction. For the first time in, seriously, years, I felt a sense of loss. Like, just sad. I don’t have a better description of it than that. Just this aching hole in my stomach, this alarm clock bell of, “I’m broken. They broke me.”
The intense sadness, now covered up by my curled knees and forearms, was joined by anger, grit-teeth “They broke me, they broke me, they took this from me, they stole it, and I can’t get it back, and THEY stole it.”
I made a joke before I left, and I hummed on the way to the station. I didn’t leave my bed for the rest of the night. I didn’t journal for two and a half weeks.
That’s it. That’s all I have to say about it. I don’t have a nice conclusion for you or something I learned or a positive change I made. I’m still fucking scared by what I’ve maybe lost. I’m scared to know it, and I’m scared not to know it. Some days, the things I suspect, it’d be a relief to know they happened — other days, I’m not sure my health will ever be able to handle what my mind [might have] sneakily tucked darkly down.
So, here we all are, strangers in a strange land. You in a column that half-references a topography of trauma, shifts time in shifting space. Me in my own life. A willow tree glowing saccharine neon yesterday fades to dull boot polish today. The rock I sat on has been eaten by slop. Grass shatters from green to stained glass, sweeping into a gale of kaleidoscope butterflies.
They fracture past me.