Growing up in a sexually abusive home means my memory is sketchy. I don’t remember full stories like my little brother. I love to listen to him tell about our shared life, the good parts. He was mentally present. Instead I have snapshots, quickly grabbed photos in my mind that tell the bits of the story I can handle. Many years of therapy have created even more distance between those snapshots and my feelings. Of course horrible counselors insisted I dredge them up and attach emotions to them before I put them away for good. Mostly that works until a nightmare insists I’m not free of those memories. Until the devil himself decides my sleeping hours are his playtime to create such unrest I wake afraid. I awake so unsettled I want to hide again, put on heavy layers of dark clothing, ignore the birds singing their joyful songs, cower under blankets. I can’t hide from my own memories.
We read a book to Plum often about going on a bear hunt. He is afraid of bears. I have explained that bears understand our sign at the front door that says, “Be Nice Or Leave.” He believes me because he needs to. The book finds the family facing tall grass, mud, a forest, a snowstorm. The refrain repeats with each obstacle: we can’t go over it, we can’t go around it, we have to go through it. Together they handle what gets in the way of their goal, until they find the bear. Then they run back through each thing to the safety of their bed. The bear who has been following is left to trudge back to his cave, quite dejectedly. I tell Plum the bear only wanted to play and maybe have a bit of hot chocolate.
I think I need to go through the obstacles again. I want to go around, over, skip them but I can’t get to the damn bear if I don’t just go through. Except I don’t want to find the bear. I want to be left alone. I want to avoid the adventure and let the bear stay in his cave. Yet bears in caves are much scarier though than bears who want a bit of your warm drink, bears who travel over tough lands to play with your Legos. Bears who’s eyes shine in the dark seem so much bigger. Maybe if I travel a bit through all the mud and muck and memories to find the bear, the bear will let me get some sleep.
So, I remember. I remember not just those horrid times as a child but the horrid times as an adult when I felt like a child. I specifically recall sitting at the bottom of the stairs in a filthy apartment looking down, saying no. He was already at the top, saying yes. I said no. He came back down and grabbed my arm and pulled me up. Up to the end of my career, to the end of my marriage, to the end of being present for birthdays and Christmases and everydays with my children. I sat on those steps as if I was 3 again, as if I was 4 and my father had called me home from a play date while my brothers got to stay outside and my mother was at work and I had to go into the bedroom with him or into the shower and I knew I couldn’t make it stop. I sat on those steps until I didn’t and I was upstairs. In that time of climbing step by step my life was over and I don’t even remember climbing. I got to the top somehow to a stained mattress with no sheets to a room covered in old food in wrappers in dark in horror. I see her, I remember the crashing against her body. Then someone comes in and asks if she is ok. Why is she crying. He is gone then. It is over. I am over.
Climbing those stairs took me not closer to heaven but actually straight into the depths of hell. Every choice after was worse than the one before, choices made that never felt like choices. Survivor statements have awakened the national consciousness lately, outrage at light sentences gaining momentum for change. Stockholm syndrome means you will say anything to appease your captor in order to survive, captivity may be an emotional state. I lost my daughter as I climbed those stairs even though doing so was the only way I knew to survive. Every choice afterward was the only way to save her and my son, saving them for a future that now doesn’t include me. Without being 3 year old me how can you understand 27 year old me who didn’t know how to run? Who only knew how to be silent and go into the bedroom when my father told me to, to go with the man my father told me to, to go, to go, silently.
I want to yell at my daughter that she is so strong because I made her that way. That I taught her to stand up and fight and to yell and to tell people to go away if they hurt her. I taught her those things so that she would never ever have to be silent. Now she is silent to me. She may never understand but at least I know she was always safe from ever climbing stairs or going into bedrooms where horror awaited. Maybe it isn’t about the bear, maybe it isn’t about the mud and the muck and the snowstorm. Maybe it isn’t even about the nightmares that steal my rest. Maybe I just want to find my way around, though, over this estrangement to get to my daughter. I want her to read those survivor statements and see her mother. I want her outrage to include empathy for the lost little girl that I was, even when I was an adult. I want her to travel over, through, around her own mess to find her mother again and see that I am not a scary bear. I am just the same mom waiting with hot chocolate.