Wakefulness and Werewolves

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. 
Tammy Perlmutter
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23 thoughts on “Wakefulness and Werewolves

  1. “lingering in the in-between” – I know that place, for different reasons. You blow me away how you can bring such exquisite beauty with words into those places of horror and pain. The paradox of the cross, you flood those dark spaces with light. Such a haunting place the “in-between.” Sending you as much love and light as this poor doubting heart can muster. Your last line made me cry – carved into the palm of his hand – thank you for writing your heart. You bring light to dark places.

    • Terri, your words are so comforting and heartening. I am so thankful for people like you who really HEAR and SEE and know what to say. I feel the love and the light.

  2. Oh Tammy, I echo what Terri said. What beauty you bring, even when speaking of something so terrible. I know you still battle demons from the past but the God who brings beauty from ashes brings beauty from even the horrific in your words and in the healing you help others find. Thank you for your transparency and the hope found in speaking the words you encourage others to speak in this space.

    • Nicole, you always have such soul-strengthening words to share. Just seeing your gravatar on the page makes me smile. Thank you for your constant support and presence.

  3. Thank you for your willingness to peel back the euphemisms, to expose your own pain, with the goal of introducing others to the Peace you have found.

    • You are welcome, Michele! I still use the euphemisms myself, I’m trying to expand my emotional vocabulary to better so I can address the darkness in a more helpful and hopeful way.

  4. Tammy, thank you for sharing your hard story and the beautiful way you’re making sense of it. It is a story that will make a difference in the lives of others.

    • Thank you for reading it! And for reminding me that this is about others as well. As much as it hurts to share, the pain diminishes a little when someone’s heart is touched.

  5. Oh, Tammy, I imagine you there in the dark, and I am squeezing your hand. I’m scared before I fall asleep, too.This really resonates with me. I’ve realized in the past few days that I am grateful somehow for my anxiety because as inappropriate as it is sometimes now, it is part of how my body kept me safe when I needed it–and even now, it is like a little barometer of how I’m feeling, whether or not I’m willing to admit it. It insists I have honesty with myself. I’m grateful for your example of leaning into the terror so that it does not overwhelm us.

    • Our bodies keeping us safe–that’s exactly what a friend told me last week when I was in a total state of panic about feelings started to be felt. She said my body did such a good job and worked so hard at keeping me safe that it can’t just let go even when we need it to! Presence, awareness, and engagement.

  6. Tammy, in our knitting group, we talked about the startle response, after one fine lady accidentally “startled” me. It was interesting how this led to paying attention to boundaries, asking before a hug, all about giving space as a friend. Super story … very familiar.

  7. Tammy, tammy, so sorry for what you went through … and yes, remembering makes a small space to enter when you want to explore healing without fear….. go in with your heart, and hold tight to the hand of your sweet younger self… she is always with you… and she survived, too… best, mary

  8. I am always so moved by your story. I was reminded of Tara Owens’ book Embracing the Body where she says that our body cannot lie – it often tells the truth before our mind can catch up.

  9. You are the real deal Tammy. Too right you are showing up and doing the hard work. Thank you for being present here. Hoping that you find a way to loose the power of the memories.

  10. Tammy, I empathise with you, totally. Mine was an older brother. I’d totally blocked it out, from being 9, at the most, to being 43! And then I was incensed, absolutely incensed! And a Christian too but I was still mad. I talked to my brother and forgave him. But still cannot for the life of me understand why, why would my brother want to do that to me?? Might have been misplaced love because, when I was 12, he saved my life through CPR, after I had my first Grand Mal epileptic fit. It makes me very aware that, no matter how serious the sin, God can still use the sinner! Hope for us all,eh?

    • I’m so sorry that happened to you, Andrew. Abuse by family is a double betrayal. And God can still use the sinned against too. Your story will give permission for others to tell theirs, and you will provide a safe place for them. Thank you for reading and responding.

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