I remember three holes in the wooden post of my childhood bunk bed. One contained the bolt that connected the frame together and the other two were empty. They were meant for adjusting the height of the lower bunk, but we never did. The empty holes were insignificant to the rest of the room, unimportant to everyone else but me. To me, they were my imaginary hiding place, a refuge I created in my mind. I would imagine myself tiny snuggled up with pillows and cushions and a book that would take me to another world.
I’d go there to escape the yelling and fighting that often happened in our home. I’d zone out and find myself cozy and far away from my parents who barked at me for my irresponsibility and failures. I’d keep my head down, mute out their harsh voices, and withdraw to those small holes of safety.
I learned to survive, to protect myself, to cope by escaping in my mind. As a child, I simply longed for safety, stability, and unconditional love, but as I grew older, I started to want numbness, complete nothingness.
I remember being an early teen when escaping turned into fantasizing about suicide. I was living in Kazakhstan, where our family lived as missionaries. The church office was on the fifth floor of an apartment building, and it was where I went everyday to practice piano. I would be alone for two to three hours putting in the required amount of practice as instructed by my Russian piano teacher. On one of the many breaks I took, I remember looking out the window wondering what it’d be like to fall out– by mistake or on purpose– to the ground below. It was a morbid thought, but when everything else felt out of control in my life, taking my life felt like the one I had full control over.
These suicidal thoughts would come and go like a snake winding its way through my mind. It would scare me too much though to do anything– the process, the aftermath, the grief I’d cause– so I never ended up hurting myself.
I moved back to the States when I was sixteen, and friends, church, and busyness became the new, more socially acceptable ways for me to escape my reality. For years everything felt fine. I went to college, got my masters’ degree, got married, started a life in a new town. I was living life with enough ease, with enough blocked out pain, that I didn’t need to fall back on old coping mechanisms. I was fine.
Until I had my first born.
I thought I was ready to become a mom, but when we had our daughter, I was confused and lost, far away from family and help. The chaos of caring for her overwhelmed me, suffocated me. I felt like a slave to her incessant needs. I’d zone out like I did when I was a kid, her cries becoming muted, but instead of escaping into imaginary nooks in bunk bed posts, I’d imagine myself walking out of the house, driving away into absolute silence.
I thought the snake was dead, but it was only dormant. It got triggered awake by the constant need for attention and connection demanded by my kids. Escape became a daily– no, hourly–coping mechanism. I’d be glued to my phone, the computer, to my social media accounts. I’d make plans and fill up my calendar with coffee dates and play dates instead of leaving room to breathe and be.
I justified the busyness telling myself and others it was to spare my sanity or because I had work to do. But that’s only half of the truth. It’s also because I want to be left alone, because it’s easier to default to despair than to fight for change.
I look back at old pictures and videos of when they were babies, and I hardly remember any of those moments. I’ve slumbered through their lives so far, and by blocking out the pain, I’ve also blocked out the good. Despair seems to have won too many of the battles these past four years of motherhood. I want to wake up and stay engaged. I want more days where I triumph over the darkness that encroaches instead of succumbing to the numbness I desperately want.
There are moments when I can rise above the chaos and the noise, when I can peel off the fingers of despair’s heavy grip on my mind. It usually happens when I look out the window and I’m soothed by what I see— the purple morning glories peppering the backyard wall, the pine tree swaying in the evening breeze. I catch the last beams of the sun as it says good night over the horizon, and I breathe slowly and deeply. I tell myself I don’t have to escape. I don’t need empty holes in bunk bed posts or big windows. I don’t need to drive away into oblivion. I can be here, fully present, feeling joy and pain, and I can be okay.