My husband made me cry on our honeymoon. We rented a house that was set back from the road and surrounded by trees. The second night we kept hearing noises on the roof. Since we are people who consider the next block over from the ghetto the country, we were a little spooked. We were watching TV when Mike decided he was going to check it out. He gets up and climbs the stairs.
I feel a hand on my shoulder and I jump off the couch shrieking and start sobbing from terror and shock. It’s a hillbilly with a sawed-off shotgun. Or the werewolf from Stephen King’s Silver Bullet. I hate the country. It was maybe 20 seconds. To me, it was like 5 minutes, I had spaced out. Mike had come back down the stairs to ask me something and touched my shoulder to get my attention.
Mike would laugh at me over the years at how easily scared I am when he opens a door that I’m near, or interrupts me when I am concentrating. But then it got worse. And it wasn’t just Mike. It was people who came up behind me and said my name, or put their hand on my shoulder. Someone walking in the laundry room or kitchen when I have my back to the door. I would yell and hyperventilate and the poor person who caused it would feel terrible and helpless.
I didn’t know what it was or what to do about it for years. It was finally an avalanche of trauma that forced me to get help. The counselor suggested that it sounded like I was experiencing PTSD.
I knew what the letters stood for and I knew depression was involved, but I didn’t know much else until I researched it. Everything started to make sense. The hyper vigilance, overactive startle reflex, the panic, the insomnia, depression, anxiety, fear. It was all neatly encapsulated in those four consonants.
But there was nothing neat about it. I spent the next four years alternating between numbness and dread. I was regularly engaged in Catastrophic Thinking, imagining worst-case scenarios so I would be ready if any of those eventualities came to pass.
I’ve recovered from many of those thought patterns, and my fear these days is more subterranean, it’s not in my face, and sometimes I can’t even recognize it. But my body does. It’s been trying to tell me this for years but I haven’t listened.
I have insomnia. I’ve had it since I was young, the natural consequence of upheaval and chaos in my first decade of life. The problem is that it makes EVERYTHING worse, my depression, anxiety, energy levels, thought processes.
My counselor is hardcore. She reads my body language like she is fluent in it. She asks so many questions, one of the latest is “When do you feel the most anxious?” I tell her, with little hesitation, right before I go to sleep. My shoulders are hunched up to my ears, I’m curled into a ball. Then the images come, a whirlwind of foster parents and foster homes, schools, friends, enemies, boyfriends, girlfriends, occasional flings, shadowy streets and alleys, dark churches, ghetto bars, dance clubs, classrooms, the memories slam into my chest like a medicine ball of shame and fear.
I linger on my answer and it comes to me. I’m ten, it’s bedtime, I’m lying on my side, falling asleep, a foster father “tucking me in.” He comes to me. Under the guise of paternal affection and comfort, he takes advantage of my terror, my silence, and he takes advantage of me. There’s no way of putting it politely, but the English attempt to in their use of the words, “interfered with.” Even “molested” is a word you can get some distance from, it’s a euphemism that holds more meaning than you would think possible in four measly syllables.
He is what I am protecting myself from during those moments of wakefulness and nodding off. He is who I am thinking of, remembering, fearing, when I am frozen with anxiety, choking me, paralyzing me. He is who I am waiting for, even if it is just in my flashbacks, the darkness and quiet is trigger enough. I distract myself with hours of reading and watching Netflix till I am nodding and yawning and absolutely certain I will fall sleep without lingering in the in-between.
This revelation has made the beginning of a difference, I’m more aware of how I am feeling, physically and emotionally, when I lie down at night. I know why my body is clenching up and extremely wakeful. I know what may come next, the triggers, flashbacks, and memories. My counselor tells me not to fear them, not to fear him, to engage the memories to take away their power. Some nights I do this more successfully than others. But I’m showing up, I’m doing the work, and I’m choosing to be present rather than detached, and trusting that the only hand on my shoulder is the one I’m carved into.
Writer at Raggle-Taggle
Tammy Perlmutter writes about unabridged life, fragmented faith, and investing in the mess. She is founder and curator of The Mudroom and co-founder of Deeply Rooted., a biannual worship and teaching gathering for women. Tammy is a member of Redbud Writers Guild; writing blog posts, personal essays, flash memoir, poetry, and even preaching sometimes. She's an urban beekeeper and lives in an intentional Christian community in Chicago with her husband, Mike, and daughter, Phoenix.