I love Christmas. I’m a Christmas nut. Perhaps the result of growing up on a Christmas tree farm. I love the music and the movies and the pine cones on the mantle and the gingerbread cookies my four year old insisted using the cowboy hat cookie cutter for. Christmas Eve is a very special day for me. But it’s also one of the 365 days a year I have at least a passing thought about my trauma. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.
One of my favorite Christmas movies is “It’s A Wonderful Life” starring Jimmy Stewart (who is from my hometown, by the way. I used to volunteer at the world famous Jimmy Stewart museum) as George Bailey. There’s a scene in the movie where greedy villain Potter gleefully shouts “Merry Christmas to you, in jail!” at George. (I’m not going into the context here but I’d encourage you to watch it if you’re curious)
So, I have a Christmas Eve tradition that those of you who haven’t known trauma might find a little… odd. Creepy maybe. Depressing perhaps. I like to shout,
Merry Christmas to you, Jeremy, in jail!
Jeremy’s the one who did trauma to me(read about it here if you like). I’m an anomaly in that my rapist actually went to prison. Not many do. It’s a merrier Christmas this year and the next 40 of them for the little girls he was planning to traumatize. So, I don’t see this tradition as odd or creepy or depressing at all.
Christmas is a season of hope. What was the birth of Jesus if not the creation of a whole new hope for us all? Hope that there is something more than this fallen world. And hope, I’ve learned through my PTSD, is the stuff of life. Without it, we’re not dead, but not really alive either (read about it here if you like). My hope was resored when I recovered from PTSD. I like to think sharing my recovery on here could give other survivors in the purgatory of PTSD have some hope too.
I’m a big believer in speaking your truth, in the toxicity of silence. The time I spent singing/screaming in a riot grrl band were some of my most empowered. Maybe it’s the autism in me, but screaming is liberating for me. When the problems of life seem unsolvable, I scream and it helps. For so many years I was told be quiet about what Jeremy did to me. I was told it would ruin my career. I was told it was my fault, that I was a slut and I mustn’t advertise this. I have seen the damage this did to me and so, I don’t just speak my truth in this season of hope. I scream it.
Joy to the world, you fucker. Joy to you, little girls. There is hope.
After writing a post titled Joy is a Choice, I am now here to write about the fact I am depressed today. Not I’m-falling-into-the-abyss depressed, just glum I guess you could say. I was doing super well the past few days so I guess a bit of a crash was inevitable. Right? Maybe not but I’m going with it.
Christmas is a time to rejoice and I’ve been getting on my husband’s nerves telling him it over and over. He’s been a little glum himself and that’s probably not the best thing to say to some who’s bummed out. It’s probably a little really annoying as all hell. But it’s hard not to say it to someone being grinchy.
I am here writing this because I want to be honest and not just put my best foot forward, to try to make it seem I’ve triumphed over my struggles and am just 100% serene and dandy (no one is. no matter what their Facebook feed says). I am here writing this because life is a process and even though I am depressed, I know I am moving forward.
I know because I was able to say to myself, “this won’t last forever. you won’t always feel this way.” I tend to get so into how I’m feeling in the moment, I am convinced I will always feel that way. I also challenged some black and white thinking I tend to fall into. And even though I absolutely believed the string of horrible thoughts repeating over and over in my brain (in this instance, the recurring theme that I am a terrible mother who has ruined her children. what an awful thing to say to someone, even if it’s myself), I did remind myself that I know intellectually I am not seeing clearly. I am depressed and we have distorted thinking when we are depressed. And then I tried to come up with a counter-argument.
I kept seeing patients and doing some things for home in between. And I think the most important thing is, I went and chatted with my coworkers. Not about how I was feeling, but about the fact it is December 22nd and my husband and I are desperately scrambling to get a Christmas tree (he has since texted me he found one. thumbs up to my awesome hubs who did this with a baby and preschooler in tow no less). We talked about the coincidence the xray tech and I are both from families that grow Christmas trees, about how the nurse feels about his wife being pregnant and they educated me on fiberoptic Christmas trees (bizarre in my opinion and too much like those weird pink Christmas trees in “A Charlie Brown Christmas”).
I started to feel better and decided to make myself eat breakfast. I didn’t feel like it but I reminded myself not eating was not good for the depression. Reminded myself I am a fighter and will not just go into this willingly. Reminded myself even if I’m a terrible mother, I am at least one who refuses to stop trying to be better.
I have to celebrate the small victories, the day to day. I used to wonder how therapy could possibly help a sadness as deep as mine, one which seemed to come purely from the chemicals in my head. One that surely could only be fixed with the right pill. There is no dramatic moment when therapy kicks in and you’re cured. There is a slow process, though, of doing the work. Of facing your demons, yes, but also of learning all these little skills you never learned growing up. Each time I use one, each time I don’t go gently into that abyss, I have to remind myself of how far I have come even if I am not cured. Even if I am a still a little more melancholy (alternating with a little more wound up) than most. And this too I learned in therapy.
This will probably be a somewhat glum Christmas for us since we don’t have family or friends but it will be joyful too. We will laugh, watch our 4 year old squeal with delight when she unwraps her Frozen bike, feel triumphant if we get our 15 year old to smile with the silly games I’ve planned for Christmas day, pop the bottle of champagne I’ve been saving at Christmas dinner because Christ is born and there’s nothing better to celebrate.
Life is hard. We all really do have our cross to bear. Some of us were better prepared for it than others. I am sad when I think I may not be preparing my kids for it. I don’t need them to have an easy life. They’ve already been through enough to have cancelled that possibility. But I want to prepare them to persevere and to find joy amidst it all. And so, I must persevere because it’s never too late.
A new year began in the Catholic church a few weeks ago with the beginning of Advent. Christ is about to be born as he is every year. The rhythm of the year continues. He will be born again in another year no matter how this one goes. It is never too late.
2016 was a helluva whaddayagonnado kinda year. Bernie rose and then had the election stolen from him by corporate Democrats. Trump won, ushering in an age of all out fascism. Brock Turner got a slap on the wrist for rape. Various police got absolutely nothing for murdering people of color. Aleppo. Standing rock protestors getting limbs ripped off for peacefully protesting. Global warming it is now unavoidably obvious is going to kill us all off pretty soon.
On a more personal front (hey, stick with me here. this post will take a positive turn soon. I swear), my autistic legally blind son got horribly bullied in our school district. My other son’s anxiety reached an all time high and his tics escalated to a whole new dimension. My marriage disintegrated, culminating in separation. I had a post-pregnancy hormonally induced mental health episode. My cousin died from mental health problems. A dear kind friend died from overdose. I found out some other beautiful friends from high school are on heroin (and therefore, will die soon enough. opiates are what they are). I broke off with my family. Is that enough, people? You want more? Oh yeah, our four year old still isn’t potty trained…
But here’s the thing:
Millions of people voted for, donated to, fought for a Jewish democratic socialist who demanded universal health care, maternity leave, a $15 minimum wage and a kinder approach to Palestine. If you’d told me in 2015 that would happen, I’d have told you that you were nuts. And even though Bernie didn’t win, he’s still out there fighting like hell. And people listen.
For the first time ever, we actually talked about rape and the disgustingly low conviction rates and sentence lengths, as a nation. Some people even said “rape”. Do you realize how huge that is? (Most of the headlines still used euphemistic bullshit and called it “sex” but, hey, it’s movement).
Indigenous activists and their allies won. Won. The people who have endured the most, who have had the most stolen from them, who have suffered the most violence, in this nation won. Did you expect that? I didn’t. They worked and sacrificed and prayed and endured and… won.
Pennsylvania (my home state) legalized medical marijuana despite the ill informed Pennsylvania medical society opposing it. I did not expect this. It’s huge.
My legally blind son with autism started at a new school (not in our district) where he is thriving. He went to an amazing therapeutic summer camp. He’s made more progress at his new school than he’s made in the past few years combined.
My son with anxiety got a great psychiatrist and got comfortable at his school and is doing a ton better. (and he doesn’t make his “boop” tic unless things are really stressful now. Boop!)
My most recent episode combined with other events from this year caused me to truly shift the way I approach my mental health. I’m now committed to doing every single little thing I need to do to keep myself healthy. No matter what. I’m working through issues I thought were un-workable. I’m feeling more optimistic than I have since I was five. About myself, my kids, my marriage.
I worked through my lack of enthusiasm for Catholicism and have started a whole new kind of Catholicism in our home. I’m reconnecting with the mystical.
My son sang beautifully in his school musical. I had one of the happiest days of my life taking my daughter to the Nutcracker. My son with autism can now get his head wet in the pool without melting down (after 8 weeks of twice daily swim classes at his awesome therapeutic summer camp). My baby turned one and still has the chubbiest most delectable thighs you’ve ever seen. He calls me Mama and loves the water like a fish.
I prescribed suboxone to a lot of patients who hopefully will not die from opiates as a result. I started at a new urgent care where I actually have time to talk to my patients. I had a paper on intimate partner violence published in American Family Physician and got invited to speak at some medical education events.
I’m not going to sugar coat things. I’ve got nothing to say to you about Trump or this country’s refusal to face the racist police violence plaguing us. Global warming’s not looking good either. But, as Howard Zinn said, pessimism is illogical. Amazing things you didn’t see coming happen all the time. Look how many in 2016 alone? And, as my old pastor used to say, God is good all the time. All the time, God is good.
Happy holidays, everyone. Here’s to finding out what 2017 holds for us.
I have been on a diet for a few months now. I’ve lost 30 pounds. Losing steadily week by week. And then a few weeks ago I began to struggle. I stepped on the scale fo r my weekly weigh-in the day after Thanksgiving and had only lost 0.8 pounds. I was upset. I was pissed. This was not acceptable.
I decided I was going to show my diet who was boss. So, I began a fast. I wasn’t not eating at all, I reasoned. And really, Advent is a time you’re supposed to fast anyway, I reasoned. I was, of course, full of shit. I ate very very little for a week and, not surprisingly, when I stepped on that scale a week later I had lost 8 pounds. Eight pounds! In a week! Woo hoo! I’ll be at fighting weight in a few weeks!
I imagine you can guess what comes next.
I continued my oh-so-religious-not-unhealthy-at-all “fast” a few more days and then I crashed. As happens. I ate a whole lotta junk. So, I told myself, well, I’ll just go back to the weight watchers. 30 points a day. fruits and veggies are 0 points. I’ll just go back to that and then I won’t regain the 8 pounds. Still dreaming of the holy grail of being at Goal Weight. I reasoned that since I don’t have any clothes that fit me right now and since I can’t justify buying any new clothes until I am at my end weight, why it only made sense that I really *needed* to lost 3-5 pounds a week instead of that BS “1-2 pounds a week for healthy weight loss” they were always selling.
I imagine you can guess what comes next.
I didn’t stick to my 30 points. I bargained with myself further: okay, self, if you must eat more than the allotted 30 points a day, then at least *record* everything eaten. At least stay on track *that* much.
I imagine you can guess what comes next.
It’s been two weeks of my Angel making various bargains with my Devil. And the Devil laughing as she inhales candied nuts and dairy free egg nog.
I raised the white flag last night and decided to sit down and journal it out and see what’s going on. There are a lot of factors at play: my hormones are out of whack because I’m weaning my son, it’s THE HOLIDAYS and yummy comfort food is EVERYWHERE, being on a diet for 12 weeks is really hard and gets a little old after a while, I worked six days straight right as this downfall was starting (I work 12 hour urgent care shifts so this is no small thing. Honestly, working more than 3 in a row is pretty awful), and I’m pretty damned stressed since this is my first Christmas without my family. Also, my son with autism starts getting a little… shall we say, difficult this time of year because routines are getting out of whack with the holidays. Also, we’ve all been sick with colds (#UrgentCareLife).
But it isn’t just that I’ve been eating a bit more than I should or saying Yes to more cookies passed my way than I’d planned. I’ve returned to an old pattern of eating I’ve had since I was ten. (See this entry for more on that). So, I journaled away.
It’s this feeling that I have this hunger in me that will never be filled. Like I could consume the whole universe and I would still not be satisfied. It would still not be enough. I try and try to fill it. It’s exhausting. It’s a big black hole that won’t go away.
Because it is not something that can be filled with food. It’s trite but it’s true.
It is a hunger so wide and so deep. An ocean. No land in sight. And I am alone on a little boat. You can scream all you want but no one will hear.
It is something that must be filled with love and joy and speaking your truth and having someone hear and knowing you’re resilient and having faith it’s going to be okay. all of it. Filled with my son’s drawings and my daughter’s songs and my other son finally learning addition and my baby saying Uh oh! Filled with God and his saints and Hebrew prayers and oplatka and incense and chanting. Filled with the rhythm of the year and laughing when you really want to cry and doing what’s right even when it’s hard. Because life brings pain but we decide how much we suffer. And joy is a choice.
I am blessed with four beautiful children. I am blessed to be a physician. I am blessed to have been called to Catholicism. I am blessed to live in a warm home and drive a safe car and to be able to buy my children the things they need and some of the things they want. I am blessed to have grit. I am blessed because I am not alone. And it is not an endless ocean. Just puddles we’re jumping through. And in between, we laugh.
I have lost some weight recently. A goodly amount, I think it’s fair to say. Only ten more pounds to go. I weighed 150 pounds nine years ago when my trauma began and by 2013 I was 224 pounds. I ate for a lot of reasons. I’ll tell you about it some time.
Today I am thinking about a picture of me grilling. Well, pretending to grill. It was 2007 and I had left my first husband and was just starting medical school. I was young. So damned young. 28 to be precise. I just knew my soul mate awaited me out there. And I would of course find him on the internet. A single mom going to med school doesn’t have time to go out, so she would of course take advantage of online dating. But, I needed a profile picture. This was before the advent of selfies and not too many of us had a gaggle of carefully angled, flattering pictures of ourselves lying around in our smart phones. I didn’t even have a smart phone. So I asked my mother to take a picture of me.
I wanted to look natural so I said, take a picture of me in the kitchen cooking spaghetti. (Because everyone has a picture of them in full make up smiling as they cook spaghetti. So natural. And maybe I could use it if I ever decided to sell my own brand of jarred spaghetti sauce. Kill two birds with one stone. Bam) Unfortunately, the lighting in the kitchen was bad so we went out on the back patio of my little ranch house in Erie. Unsure of how to keep up the natural theme, I went for the grill. Here, I said, take a picture of me pretending to grill.
And so here I am today, looking at a picture of me with my hair perfectly done, pink lip gloss shining, smiling with my mouth and my eyes (so it wouldn’t look fake. Even though it was). Holding a large grilling spatula in my hand, the cold grill lid opened. No sign of my special needs toddlers to be seen. None of the dark circles I’d soon earn staying up late studying. The flat stare of depression that had occupied my face most of my life, the fear of the abuse I’d lived under, the wide eyes of my mania, absent. I’m beaming with hope in that picture. An endless stream of possibility before me. Faith that I will have a wonderful life. (I did work in the Jimmy Stewart Museum in high school, after all).
I do have a good life now. Nine years later. I have been blessed and I have fought for it. I certainly do not have the life I imagined then, when I was young. How many of us do? I have walked through my darkness these years and come out on the other side.
I am now almost to the weight I am in that picture. And as I have dropped each pound, run each mile, I have thought, this is a victory over my trauma. I have reclaimed my mental health and now I am reclaiming my physical. He can’t take this from me. I am leaving behind my trauma pound by pound. I am escaping a body that is not really mine. Getting back to being myself after so long.
But now I am close to the weight in the picture, to wearing the clothes I wore then, all of which I have saved in anticipation of this day. And I look in the mirror and I have not returned to looking like myself at all. I am not the girl at the grill.
My stomach has gone from that of a 28 year old whose had 2 kids to that of a 37 year old whose had 4 and gained and lost a lot of weight. My face has crow’s feet and laugh lines it didn’t then. And my eyes don’t smile the same. They’ve seen too much to smile so damned naïve. They smile not with happiness, but with the joy that comes from knowing sadness.
I’ll be honest with you, I wish my body looked like it did back then. I’d love to be a good feminist and not feel that way. I know I shouldn’t subconsciously convey such attitudes to my sweet daughter. But, life’s a process, okay? And I wish I was a little firmer, a little perkier. Less stretch marks. Less lines. But I don’t wish my eyes were perkier. I don’t wish these past nine years had been different. Don’t wish I could return to being naïve.
I’ve never believed in regret. It’s never made sense to my logical autistic brain. If you can’t do something over, why would you possibly sit around thinking about what might have been? It is what it is, I often say. Life is what it is.
I have no regrets about choosing the medical school I did. About pursuing the awful man I did. About turning him in as I did. Never have, never will. But I have been continuing to labor under the false idea we get after trauma. The idea that keeps us from moving on, that locks us into PTSD if we believe it enough. The idea that we can make this trauma not matter. That it can become a minor footnote in our life story. That we can go back to being who we were before. Before. Before *it*. You know, that event that doesn’t matter anymore. Even though it’s the yardstick we now measure every accomplishment by. Constantly claiming victory. Telling yourself, living well is the best revenge. Tallying up everything you have that your perpetrators never will. Telling yourself, I’m not like those whiny survivors who blame all their problems on their trauma. I’m different. I have overcome.
The truth is, your life was divided the day the trauma began. There was before the trauma and after. And it drives you mad. You just want that damned line erased. You want your life whole again. A beautiful continuous flowing story arc. With twists and turns and dips and peaks, but unbroken. But that fucking chasm, fault, break, schism, crack, gully, canyon, whatever you call it, it’s still there. Won’t budge. It’s not something you can remove. Because it’s not something. It’s the absence of something. You can try and try to fill it, but it’s still there. Go ahead, dump in food, pills, booze, drugs, sex, work, reckless driving, overspending, self injury, reality television, starvation, obsessive relationships, obsessive religion, hours of staring blankly at walls… It’s still there. Fill it til it overflows. It’s still there. It. Will. Always. Be. There.
The Garden of Eden will not be restored. The fallen world remains.
And that’s okay. Well, it’s not *really* okay. It’s trauma. And trauma’s hell. But… it is what it is. It doesn’t have to be okay. It just is. And you have to learn to accept that it is. Over. And over. And over. You build up a life on the other side of it. You peer down into it and thank God you haven’t fallen into it. That you’re here. Looking back at it as you run, mile by mile.
I swallowed a vitamin yesterday. A really big vitamin. I’ve always been good at swallowing pills. So are my kids. Family skill. (baggy esophagus maybe? we’re not the most coordinated family so it’s certainly not that we have an especially athletic swallowing mechanism). The thing is, Jeremy raped me a lot of ways but the scariest one was the oral rape. Because I thought I would die. He would suffocate me and count to ten slowly and I thought he might just hold me there long enough to kill me and I’d never see my babies again. I felt so utterly powerless. I was so utterly powerless. He would tell me he was training the gag mechanism out of me.
It didn’t work and ever since then, I have had trouble swallowing certain things like big pills. Vitamins in particular I guess since he had me on a vitamin regimen of sorts. It wasn’t something I ever wanted to deal with. I just took gummy vitamins. But yesterday my husband said, these are really good vitamins, maybe you could try and see. And so I did. I put this rather large vitamin and my probiotic capsule and my two medications in my mouth and took a big gulp of water and threw my head back. And they all went down. Down the hatch.
I felt so victorious. I thought, I wish I could tell someone. I was so happy that he’d now taken one less thing from me. I thought about telling people, though, and how I would need to explain that whole oral-rape-until-you-suffocate thing. And then I remembered the whole orally-raped-until-I-suffocated thing. And I felt so powerless. So utterly powerless. There in my living room, my babies’ toys strewn on the floor, the fireplace I love, the pictures of our wedding and our first communion at the Easter vigil and… I felt so terrified and so sad and… I thought to myself, a really awful thing happened to me. A freaky, awful thing. A thing no one deserves. That happened. It happened to me. And it can’t be undone.
The moment passed quickly. In a matter of seconds it was done and I was back to my life. To my beautiful fireplace and crazy bubalink babies and my devoted husband and I stumbling through Catholicism. And now I was doing all that with the benefit of a wonderful multivitamin.
You tell yourself, you need to stop running *from* the trauma and start running *towards* the good things. And the truth is, I do have runs where I think about the healthy habits I’m giving my kids and going on hikes with my husband, maybe learning tennis or kickboxing. How good it feels to be lighter on my feet, to get around easier, to know I’m probably going to dodge the bullet of diabetes type 2 and keep the arthritis at bay as long as I can. But sometimes I think of how far I’ve come. Sometimes I think of him, of her (the head of my medical school), of the sickness in their hearts that makes them do the things they do. Of the happiness they tried to deny me.
They did, in a way. They took from me the naïve happiness I had then. They put a fault in my life. Made it into a before and after. But I have made a home on the other side. I am not hanging off the edge. I am not in the darkness of it. My happiness has given way to joy and wisdom and a greater love than I could have known. The fault is there to stay. And that’s okay. Well, it’s not okay. But it is. It is what it is. And after all, it really is a wonderful life.
My husband is a filmmaker and he made our wedding video. I am blessed like that. He edited it, picked out the music and even hired an animator to make an animated version of the highlights of our relationship. Impressively, he did this while broke and during a really painful separation I had instigated. #MaritalSaint.
We watch it from time to time and we had been meaning to sit and watch it again for the past few months now. Our daughter Lena loves weddings and kept asking when we would watch it. We finally carved out some time to watch it last week. As Lena sat oohing and ahhing over my pretty dress and the “beauuuutyful flowas,” I found myself crying. Which was odd. You see, I am not a crier. I mainly cry when
- flooded with pregnancy hormones
- when extremely exhausted or
- when extremely depressed and heading into a panic attack. When it feels I am falling into the blackness and my world is coming to an end.
I cried several times during the video despite not wanting to do so in front of my sweet, very empathetic Lena. Unlike my boys, she notices any time I am sad or angry. Sometimes she notices before I do. #HighFunctioningAutism. And unlike the boys, I can never lie my way out of it.
I cried as we watched my father give me away and when my nieces walked down the aisle as little flower girls. My wedding was really the last time I saw my sisters and my nieces. I have since then physically seen them a few times, but it was a hollow, awkward exercise. It only served to remind me of what I’d lost.
I watched my two nieces in their pretty little dresses walking down the aisle. The older one was 6 1/2 and the younger one 4 1/2. Smiling and sweet. At the reception the younger one danced with abandon and ran around, often times chased by her father trying to get her to do something. She was quick and evaded capture often. As I watched them, I realized they will forever be caught in this age in my mind. They will never age. Forever sweet, spunky little girls.
I saw them for the first time since the wedding (the first time in 5 years, in 60 months, in 1,825 days) this past summer. 11 1/2 and 9 1/2. They were hard to recognize. They looked so much like their mother now. They looked so grown up. They did not talk to me or my boys.
My boys, especially the Axe, had been asking to see them for five years. He never gave up. He couldn’t understand why he wasn’t allowed. I didn’t understand either and couldn’t figure out how to explain it. I told him, my sister is mad at me and doesn’t want to see us. He asked why she was mad and I said, I don’t know. Because I don’t.
Now, they were strangers.
My sister gave her older daughter my name as her middle name. Because I had helped her through her very long, very difficult, downright heroic labor. It meant a lot to me. An overwhelming lot. I wonder now what she tells her when she asks where her name came from, as I often asked my mother when I was a little girl.
I cried because I will always miss them. Because they will forever be little girls in my mind even as they grow. And that is a very sad thing, to never grow up.
I cried too to see my parents. My father giving me away.
“Who gives this woman to be married?”
” I do.”
But they didn’t really give me away. They couldn’t bring themselves to let me go. They couldn’t stand the thought of letting me grow up. I was forever a little girl to them. *Their* little girl. They could let no one take me away. It did not occur to them I was choosing to go away, that no one was taking me. In their mind, I was theirs and now he was taking me to be his. After all, a little girl is not able to make such decisions.
If they’d let me go, I would have. I really did want to marry my husband and have a home of my own. Every time I’d left my home as an adult I always came back. I went away to college but then transferred to the local school and lived with them. Then I met my first husband and moved away with him and got married. But then I divorced him and again lived with them for four years during medical school. Then I met my forever husband and moved away again. If they’d let me go, I would have stayed with him. But they couldn’t and I didn’t. I left him twice. I left him in a sudden, jarring, couldn’t see it coming way. Twice. And each time returned to them. The first time I physically moved back in with them. The second time, only emotionally so.
And a man shall leave his parents and cleave to his wife. No mention of the wife in that one.
My husband would say to me I was too attached to my family and our marriage wasn’t going to work until I grew up and left the nest and learned to put my kids and marriage first. I kept insisting I had and offered up various bits of evidence to support the patently untrue assertion. He was never convinced.
They had made clear while we were dating they didn’t like him. My sisters broke off with me after the wedding. My parents remained and put up a show of liking him. When I left the first time, it was ay my family’s urging and we sat discussing their true feelings about him. When he and I attempted to reconcile shortly after the separation I kept it a secret as I knew they’d be upset. I was right. When they found out from reading text messages on my phone, my mother kicked me out. Me and my three kids. Me with nowhere to go. I remember calling my oldest sister crying uncontrollably, panicking, terrified. Terrified because I had nowhere to go but mostly because when this side of my mother came out, I felt that black hole feeling. That I was being sucked into the abyss. The world was ending.
Our mothers are the source of life. They are supposed to be the safe womb we can always return to in times of distress. Mine was not. It was in times of distress she was most likely to turn from a seemingly sweet cookie baking, nurturing mom to an ugliness words cannot describe. A cold hate would flow from her and destroy me. My world spinning around me, closing in on me, suffocating me into non-existence. I would go from being a sacrificial devoted mother in her eyes to a crazy, unfit mother who put men before her children. She would threaten to give my ex-husband money to get a lawyer and take my kids away. Crazy. Unfit mother. Woman who puts men before her children. These were the things I feared most. These were the demons that haunted me. Was she right? Is that who I truly was? That doubt, that possibility, was an endless source of shame deep within me.
You never really knew when she would turn. I grew up in a minefield. Trying so hard not to set her off. And always failing.
I remember going back to my bedroom, the room I had slept in all my life, that I had returned to once again, and calling my husband. Speaking in hushed tones and sobs about my mother kicking me out. He couldn’t understand what I was saying. I was terrified for my mother to hear me so I spoke quietly and ended the call quickly. He had no idea what had happened.
My mother soon summoned me to the living room with an offer. She would not kick me and my babies out on condition that:
- I send my two boys to live with their father as she did not have the energy for them. My daughter could remain and she would watch her while I completed residency and
- I was to cut off contact with my husband. Any time we met for visitation with our daughter, I was to be chaperoned by my father. They didn’t want my manipulative evil husband sucking me back in. After all, I was just a little girl and easily tricked.
I agreed, so scared. I cut off all contact with my husband without even explaining why. They soon rescinded the demand I send my boys to live with their father, but not the second. We met for visitation with my father awkwardly standing with us. My husband brought me gifts, sweet gifts. A CD he’d made me. Sweet, thoughtful gifts and cards. My family rolled their eyes and laughed. How could he think gifts would make up for what a horrible person he was?
In time, I began communicating with my husband again and we decided again to reconcile. This time, I knew I couldn’t let them find out as we prepared, finding a house to live in and meeting as often as we could (he was living 3 1/2 hours away). My parents rarely left the house, but in August there was a family reunion they would be at for a few hours. In those few short hours we packed up my belongings, disassembled my boy’s bunkbeds and moved all of it out to the new house, an hour away, where I was completing residency. I left them a note saying goodbye.
Their little girl had once again been stolen.
In time, I unpacked the dysfunction of my family in therapy. I began slowly to set boundaries and view my family and my childhood for what it was. I realized there was no emotional intimacy. I realized I had been raised to trust no one but the family. I realized how afraid I had been all these years of my mother disowning me, as she had other people in her life. I realized my mother and I were enmeshed and yet not close at all. Not in the ways that matter.
I left my husband again this past summer just as suddenly, just as secretly, just as heartbreakingly. We reconciled again. And my parents said they were fine with it, but began to punish me in subtle unspoken ways. But still I kept them in my life.
The breaking point came a few months later with the dog incident I have explained in previous posts. I found after I broke with them, my marriage was suddenly so much better. My opinion of my husband so much better, my love for him unconditional. I was not expecting this. I came to see all the subtle ways they had undermined our marriage while, on the surface, appearing to be supporting it. How incredibly cruel. To me and to my kids. Crazy. An unfit mother. Projection.
I no longer have my family in my life and so I cried as I watched my father giving me away in my pretty white dress. They say in Catholicism that we are not waiting for the world to end when Christ comes. The world ends many times in our lives. When we get divorced, get a bad diagnosis, lose a loved on. It ended for me when I found out my son was sick at 6 days old, when a guy I’d been in love with broke my heart, when my medical school tried to ruin my career for turning in a child molester. The world ends but a new one begins. It prepares us for death, they say. For it is in dying that we are born again.
My world has come to an end once again as it has before. But this time I can see clearly the new world that has been created in its place. My children growing up healthier and happier than I, my marriage finally solid, my body and mind stronger than they’ve ever been, my connection to God growing.
They couldn’t give me away and so now I have left of my own will. I am not a little girl. I have grown up.
I’m working a lot of days this week. 6 out of 7 days. Which when you work 12-13 hour days, is a lot. For me and for my kids and husband. #UrgentCareLife.
I needed to prepare for this by making freezer meals for both this hellish week and then the week after since I’d have no time to make *those* meals as I normally would the week before. Because I’m working 6 out of 7 days this week. Did I mention I’m working 6 out of 7 days this week? It’s kind of awful.
I was making a new recipe for the freezer. One I had never attempted before: chicken cacciatore. As it was simmering, I thought of my childhood, of my grandmother’s house. She used to make chicken cacciatore. She wasn’t Italian; she was a farm wife whose people had come from Scotland and England like the people of Appalachia tended to have done. She always cooked from scratch. Three meals a day. No sandwiches for lunch. It was boiled potatoes and pork chops and sliced tomatoes and fruit and… Something was always cooking, the scents hanging in the house when you walked in the door. She wasn’t much into baking so when we would walk the mile down the road to her house on hot summer days to go swimming in her pool, she would bring us Keebler Soft Batch chocolate chip cookies as a snack. Something we did not get at home. Something we absolutely loved.
I thought back on the chicken cacciatore she made as I watched mine coming along. I felt my heart warming to think mine was turning out as well as hers. And then I thought, my Grandma never seemed to love me. I mean, I’m just being brutally honest here. It sounds awful, but I come from a dysfunctional family where I just had no emotionally intimate connection with anyone. It astounded me when I grew up and found out how other people felt about their grandparents, the close bond they shared. Not so with me and mine. I had just assumed that’s what a grandchild-grandparent relationship was *supposed* to be like. Turns out I was wrong.
So, why was the chicken and peppers boiling away in our cast iron skillet making me feel all soft and gooey?
I thought back on my grandmother’s chicken cacciatore and my mother’s snickerdoodle cookies. The peanut butter bread my mother made for us with raisins that made a smiley mouth and two mini marshmallows for eyes. The trips to McDonalds with my mom when my sisters were at school, just me and her. I told myself that food was her way of showing love. But it wasn’t. It was the desperate attempt of a little girl to believe her mother loved her in a way she definitely did not. Children are completely dependent on their parents for their very lives. They have to believe in them, in their love. And so I found a way.
What I didn’t realize until that moment in the kitchen next to the hot stove with the chicken cacciatore wafting into my pores, is that it wasn’t love at all. It was just food. And for all these 37 years I’ve been alive, I have comforted myself with food because, to me, it is love. Not a symbol of love, not a sign. It is literally love. When you’re upset, you should be able to go to your mother to be comforted. I never could. But I could eat chocolate. I could pour my sadness out to Little Debbie cakes and my anger into Doritos.
If your parents don’t comfort you when you’re young, you never learn to comfort yourself. Not in a healthy way, anyway.
For me, food has been my answer to sadness, worry, uncertainty, joy, anger, boredom, frustration. It’s been my self care and entertainment. It has been my secret, my rebellion, my hiding place, my distraction.
I remember being 10 years old in 4th grade and we had to all cross the road to the YMCA and take swimming lessons. I felt horrible about my body. I thought my thighs were just massive. I couldn’t stand the thought of being seen in a bathing suit. I’d never been made fun of. But the idea was there because of what I heard discussed at home as well as the messages we get in our culture. I began looking for excuses not to participate. I would forget my clothes on purpose. Say I wasn’t feeling well.
There was a vending machine at the Y that we were forbidden to use (this is in the days before there were vending machines in schools). I used to try to be the first one out of the locker room after class so I could quickly deposit my quarters to get a snack size bag of Keystone Party Mix. A compilation of pretzels, cheese covered tortilla chips, barbecue corn chips and cheese doodles. I would hide it away in my bag and save it for later. I would take it back to my bedroom and eat it in secret.
My parents found out I was missing swimming class and sat me down and asked me why. Was someone picking on me? No, I answered honestly. But I knew I couldn’t tell them why I was really skipping class. An unwritten, unspoken rule of the family. Don’t have negative emotions. Don’t expose your vulnerability or they will pounce. Everything. Is. Fine. And so I said what I was supposed to. Made up some unbelievable excuse which they readily believed. Everything. Is. Fine. After all.
My Keystone Party Mix comforted me. My Keystone Party Mix was the secret I kept from them. It was mine and mine alone. A protective wall. The more they know about you, the more they will hurt you. Reveal as little as possible. Protect yourself.
Hail Keystone Party Mix, full of carbs, … protect us, Mother.
That was the beginning of it. This is the end.
I know I deserve more now. I deserve love. And food is not love. I am finally able to eat healthily and be happy. I am able to comfort myself without turning to cake. I can get angry with my husband and not stop off at McDonald’s on my way to work for a Sausage McMuffin. I can make it through a boring, frustrating day at work without noshing on candy all day. I can stop after a handful of chips or a single brownie, because I am not empty and searching. I hope I am giving this to my children too. The ability to sit with the hardships of life, to turn to people who love and support them, to know they’re worth more.
I do cook for my family because I love them. I work urgent care for them and clean for them and kiss boo boos too. But I do not offer food as a substitute for love and compassion, emotional validation and open, safe, discussions. Sometimes our family *isn’t* fine. Sometimes we’re a wreck. No, like, a flaming tire fire kind of wreck. And that’s okay. It’s life. It is what it is. We all have permission to feel whatever it is we’re feeling at that moment. We’re allowed to have boundaries. I hope they like my cooking and the birthday cakes I make them, but I hope that’s the least of what I mean to them. They deserve more.
I am wearing all black today. I am in mourning. I am not going to make a joke about my goth days in high school. I am not going to compare the title of this post to that awful made-for-TV movie from the nineties starring Tori Spelling, “Mother May I Sleep with Danger.” This is no joke. This is not a nightmare we will wake up from tomorrow, a bipolar fugue we will not remember when it ends and we find ourselves far from home. It may be the 1930s.
I do not use the word evil lightly. A lot of people have referred to Hillary Clinton as evil in this election cycle. I am as big a critic of Bill Clinton’s policy and Hillary’s record on free trade, her foreign policy, and her “super predator” comments as anyone. But she’s hardly evil.
For four months, I slept in the bed of a man who can rightly be called evil. A man who loved raping and torturing little girls above all else, who admired Hitler, who raped me again and again and again and threatened to kill my children. A man who disturbed even the seasoned federal judge and the FBI agent who were involved in his case. He was a medical student on his way to becoming a doctor. Nobody suspected. None of us even knew such evil existed as it all came out, certainly not that our fellow medical student possessed the evil.
Trauma changes you. It changes your relationship with yourself, with your family and friends, with God, with the world itself and every person you encounter day by day. They say the fundamental experience of trauma is the feeling you have been abandoned. By the people you love, by the ones who were supposed to protect you, and by God himself.
My Ordeal changed me in so many ways but one of the worst was the knowledge of just what evil exists in our world. Evil I did not know existed. And I had not lived a sheltered life to that point. I was not naïve. And yet I was. My fear now is that we as a country are being naïve. Despite our very violent history.
We cannot underestimate the possibilities of this new world. We cannot afford to be naïve. I do not know what will happen but I know it could be very, very bad.
A few years ago we were at a festival at a place called City Island in Harrisburg. Our three sons went off on their own while my husband and Princess (still a baby) and I stayed and chatted with some friends. Eventually two of our sons came back, but not the third. Our legally blind, autistic son was not with them. They told us they’d had some kind of fight with him and decided to leave him. They were too young to know not to do this. Too naive.
My husband and I split up to cover the island looking for him. And as I looked in booths and the dense woods that framed the island, pushing Princess in the stroller, terror went through my body. My mind went to Jeremy. To the people he talked to on the internet who also loved raping and torturing children. Who sent him images of their horrific acts, recorded in stills and movies. The ones presented at trial that took any remaining innocence from anyone in that courtroom. I cried as I looked. I pictured what might happen to him. Things that are worse and more common than we allow ourselves to believe. I didn’t want to scare Princess, but I could not hold back the tears. My husband found him and I ran up to him, shaking and crying and finding it hard to bring the oxygen into my lungs.
I do not know how so many people at Penn State stood by while little boys were raped and did little or nothing. I will never comprehend that. The coaches, the janitor, Mike McQuery whatever the hell he was. I could have been killed. My children could have been killed. I laid down my body. I laid down my mind. I lost seven years of my life to PTSD. So did my children and husband, lost seven years of me being truly present in our lives. I have no regrets and never have. Not for a second. But I know the men of Penn State are much more common than people like me. And this election confirms it.
Evil can flourish, slowly, insidiously. I see friends who loved Bernie so much now so glad they voted Trump. I can see the mainstream Republicans now falling in line or being eliminated (we’re assured by Trump’s people the are making “a list” of “his enemies”). I can see the inevitable persecution of journalists and violent crackdown on peaceful protests. Hate crimes and sexual assault rates rising (if you don’t believe me, look at what happened in the aftermath of Brexit). Muslims forced to wear badges identifying them (yes, Trump said this).
You think I exaggerate. You think this couldn’t be the 1930s. And I hope you’re right. But I know in my bones you probably aren’t.
God bless and protect the Union.
My husband and I are trying to get out and meet new people, to try to make some friends. “We’re putting ourselves out there,” I said to him as we discussed it the other night, “so to speak. It’s kind of like dating. We’re trying to find another couple to be besties with so we have to be more social and put some feelers out.” He looked a little annoyed, or maybe mildly disgusted. Sort of like the face you make when your stomach is slightly off and you’re trying to figure out if it’s going to pass or if it’s the beginning of a full on GI issue.
I took the first step for us (just as I did back when we first met) and found a get together for us with other 30-something couples with kids at a nearby pub. It’s other Catholic couples so I figured I could pique my hubs’ interest with it and I was right (this is, in fact, even more complicated than dating as it turns out. It’s like I’m a matchmaker *and* I’m dating. This analogy is getting a little cumbersome). I checked with our babysitter and she was free the night of the cas’ soiree so I entered it onto our family scheduling app and we were all set (It wasn’t actually that simple because nothing in our chaotic life is that simple, but we’ll leave it at that).
A few days later, we were driving home from our Saturday evening marital therapy appointment where we’d spent an hour making a family genogram (don’t ask), and my mind began to wander as my hubs drove the minivan down 376 as Soldier Boy made explosion noises behind me and the Baby tried to decide if he was going to cry or fall asleep. I started thinking about what I would wear when we went out to the pub in a couple weeks. I’ve been losing weight lately and I thought of the clothes I haven’t worn in a while that will now fit. I mentally assembled an outfit from med school and paired it with a pair of boots I recently bought. I pictured my hubs and I alone in my car (not the damn minivan, thank you very much) heading out and what nice compliment he might pay me. And then I thought of what I might say to him.
“Do you remember this outfit? Remember the last time I wore it?”
The answer is not our honeymoon or our first date or anything other such romantic thing. The answer is actually that I bought this outfit at the Millcreek Mall in February of 2011 while we were in Erie for the trial of Jeremy Noyes. The man who put me through my Ordeal.
I did not think of this moment, of telling him this, with sadness or anger. I actually thought of it with a slight small on my face.
Jeremy’s trial started on February 14th. It was my hubs Eric and my first Valentine’s Day as a couple. We spent the week up in cold snowy Erie. Jeremy had fired his attorney and chosen to represent himself. He subpoenaed me to testify. I’m not sure which is worse: having to be questioned by your rapist in federal court, or all the time before it that you spend imagining what it will be like. We spent the whole week in Erie, waiting for it to be my turn to testify. Eric was allowed to sit in on the trial but I was not since it could affect my testimony when I was called to the stand later on.
I only packed one suit but I thought I might need a second if my testimony took more than one day. So, as Eric sat taking in images and words at that trial no person would ever want to, evil hard to imagine, I went to the mall. I bought more than I needed, more than I should have. I bought a really, really pretty top. A flowy translucent top with corals and browns and turquoisie blues in a muted floral design like the impressionists, Manet and Monet and all that. It was so pretty. The trial was so ugly. So I bought it even though I was broke. I’m not sorry I did.
We stayed at a nice hotel that the government said they would reimburse us for. We went down to the nice restaurant in the nice hotel one night. I don’t remember which night. The night before I testified? The night after? The night in between? (I was right, it was two days of testimony so I really *did* need that second suit. Not everything else, but, the suit yes)
I don’t remember which night it was but I remember getting ready to go downstairs and making him laugh. I remember sitting there in that nice restaurant in that nice hotel in that pretty flowy top eating a lovely meal with my lovely fiancé. I remember he ordered us dessert and we shared it with two forks and it tasted better than I thought food could. I remember laughing. I remember his eyes. His mouth when the corners turned up. We were still there. In Erie. At a horrible stomach turning trial of a sociopath child predator. We were still there, but for a night, it was a little less. A little less there. There, but better.
And so, almost six years later, when I sat in the mocha colored minivan, a wedding and two kids and a hell of a lot else later, I thought of wearing that top again with the corners of my mouth turned up. It didn’t make me think of my trauma or sitting in that courtroom as Jeremy said the worst things imaginable to me. It made me think of that night. Of that respite, of the soft lighting and the attentive waiter and the clean linen table cloth on the little round table we sat at together. It made me think of all the years and all the hell he’s stood by me through. Of this most unusual life we’ve had together. Of the sweetness that comes with the bitters.
We had watched a documentary about a Holocaust survivor the night before. Made by a man Eric had made films with in another life. And the survivor in the movie told a story of starvation, of being moved from camp to camp. And on one train ride they all looked so malnourished these village women threw food onto the train, whatever they had with them from the market. And so, they had things like flour and sugar and lemons. And at one stop, a man got snow off the ground and brought it on and they made lemon ice with the lemons and sugar. The survivor in the movie said how much he loved lemon ice for the rest of his life. How could that be, I’d asked my husband. Eric had made a lot of films with survivors and he said, yes, he’d heard that many times before. He said, the lemon ice was the first thing he’d eaten after starving for so long, why wouldn’t he love it now? I said, “I guess if I was more like him I could take fish oil capsules.” But I can’t.
Jeremy made me take fish oil capsules. I can’t take them now. I can’t even take vitamins. The body remembers. The esophagus remembers. Remembers the other things he forced down my throat, remembers not breathing, not knowing if he would ever let me breathe again. Eric says I should try to overcome my aversion to fish oil and I say, No. I have overcome a fuck of a lot in the past eight years. I’m just gonna take fish oil as a loss. I’m gonna pass on conquering that one.
But sitting in that mocha minivan, I see the fish oil capsules are not my lemon ice. The flowy top is my lemon ice. I see now how he could love lemon ice. The joy and the beauty and the bodily memory of quite a different kind.
Life is not simple. Is not, yes or no. Good or evil. Would that Eric and I hadn’t spent our first Valentine’s Day together in gray snowy Erie at the trial of a madman. But there was beauty there too. There were lemons and sugar in that snow too. There too.