I’ve noticed, over the years, that winter is not a productive time for my blog. Last winter, it was effectively buried under hospital visits, Thing1’s blood tests and my tears. This winter I’ve been buried under a project I’ll be able to describe in more detail later, and the burying has helped me see winter as something every bit as valuable as the spring months that usher in seasons of intensifying creative output because in that beautiful darkness, I don’t hibernate, I germinate.
“So the question becomes,” my mentor asked, “what happens to learning, what happens to development, when we experience trauma?”
For some years, now, I’ve had a pretty good idea of what happens to development, so when my new friend and mentor where I am learning to work with survivors of abuse answered, “It stops,” I had to hold myself from nodding a very unprofessional, enthusiastic ‘YES!’
I’ve written about the fact that many years ago, I was on the receiving end of a home invasion that was part of an armed robbery. I was hanging out with people I shouldn’t have been, and I spent years berating myself for ‘allowing’ it to happen in an effort to explain why I was letting my own development stop.
Right after it happened, I went to a friend’s house and, being too ashamed to admit that my own shitty judgement had played a part in my being in the wrong place at the wrong time, decided to camp out in ‘no place’. I hid in their basement for weeks. Knowing my keys had been in my stolen purse, I only went to my apartment to feed my cat – even after changing the locks – and then to move my stuff out when I moved to another apartment.
I moved three or four times in less than two years, trying to outrun anyone else who would point a gun in my face and cause me to wonder if I had put on underwear without holes in it, if it was better to be shot in the back and be paralyzed or in the head and just be dead. I wouldn’t go to restaurants, and I was terrified to be alone. And, in all that running, there wasn’t a scrap of development.
I was thinking of that last week after talking with my mentor, thinking about how we help other people kick start their emotional and social development after a trauma when my news feed started flooding with a story about an active shooter drill at a public school in Indiana. The ‘trainers’ had taken teachers into a separate room, told them to kneel down, and then shot them with soft pellets, performing a ‘mock’ execution that left some of the victims physically injured and even bleeding.
I’ve seen commenters trying to justify terrorizing teachers as way of ‘teaching’ them the value of fighting back (even though it sounds like that wasn’t part of the exercise). Each repeat of that story, however has taken me right back to that dirty carpet with a gun pointed over my head, wondering what – besides not being in the wrong place at the wrong time – I could have done to change the outcome. I am all for teaching people how to survive and, when possible, to fight back, but lessons should build up, not tear down.
After spending years ‘blocked’ by trauma, seeing how it closes down growth in others, I worry that, along with any trauma caused by playing out their potential deaths, the ultimate lesson those teachers will take home is that being in school, growing children, and doing their jobs is simply putting them in the wrong place. That seems like the wrong lesson.
My mom will mix up my and my sisters names is talking to us. She’s done it since we were kids, and we usually get a giggle. Every once in a while, though, I’ll call Thing1 Thing2 or vice versa. The giggles ensue, followed by a rejoinder of, “You’re becoming Grandma!“
This morning I wondered if I really am becoming my mother, and today that possibility, rather causing concern about my mental faculties, gave me comfort.
“I don’t think I’m ever going to be a writer,” I said to a friend, explaining that there are times when I change or don’t write things at all, even if someone has hurt me because writing – or even speaking – too candidly would damage relationships permanently. So I hold back – at home, at work, in life.
And, often, I think “I’m becoming my mother.”
Growing up, I remember watching my mom hold her tongue in arguments which she could have ‘won’ or at least fought more valiantly with a quick retort (answers I was often dreaming up as I listened). I would tell my sister that I wished Mom would “fight” more when we heard stories of a person who was making her worklife miserable. But now I’m starting to realize Mom wasn’t cowering. She was letting the words slide off the armor she had built up, keeping and even gained friendships as she navigated situations.
This morning my friend mentioned that she walks that same line at times. She recounted a conflict in which a dear friend had said hurtful things to a family member. She knew she could confront the friend but that it would irrevocably damage the friendship, so she kept the peace and navigated the situation between both people as best she could, ultimately preserving the friendship and the family.
The first rule of writing is being authentic. It is infusing words with so much honesty and life that when you prick the page it bleeds. I tend to bite my tongue, sometimes until it bleeds. The irony, of course, is that often my contortions to do no harm are miscommunicated and/or misinterpreted and cause hurt anyway, but still I bite. Sometimes, when my tongue is sore enough, I paint. It gets a lot of thick color on the canvas, but it makes for a lousy writer. But, hopefully, someday, it will help me become more like my mother in the best way.
I’ve seen this picture more times than I care to count.
It’s the photograph on the wall outside the CT scan unit at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center where I have waited a half a dozen times as Thing1’s colon — and now the space where his colon used to be — was scanned for abnormally abnormalities. He was having pain last Friday, and, as the pain worsened, we called the doctor and were sent to the ER, hoping it was ‘just’ food poisoning and not something related to his rearranged plumbing.
A few hours later, we were sent home with a mostly clean bill of health – the new plumbing was still holding up, but there were some new growths on his liver that needed to be checked out — and a reminder that, even though we had removed his diseased organ, he still has an auto-immune disorder and likely will for the rest of his life (Lord keep that pre-existing condition coverage in place).
He had other worries that weekend. Saturday, he, for reasons that they can each describe on their own blogs someday, broke up with SuperGal. The ultimate reason was, as her mom and I ultimately concurred, the one that separates so many high school sweethearts in their first year of college — they’re growing up and little apart.
The Big Guy and I, while unconditional supporters of Thing1, still care very much about SuperGal and her family. We know they will be healing on their end of town, and we’ll be missing them on ours. When the weather warms, I’m hoping the two of them will grow their way back to each other as friends — as they have been since they were small.
Thing1 will make the journey up to Dartmouth by himself this month for the follow-up. We started planning for him to take over the navigation last year because growing up, as he was reminded on Friday night, isn’t about the end of childhood and challenges. It’s about understanding that there will always be new ones, and, sometimes to keep growing, you need to do handle them on your own for a bit.
I was about to slam the laptop shut Sunday evening but remembered it wasn’t mine just before I closed it with enough force to break the screen.
“Ugh! People suck!” I yelled at the wall of books across from my desk. My last chatter had come to the tech support queue ready to do combat, spending the first few minutes of our session telling me how horrible our software is. I’ve done this job long enough to know the only way to cut the RED wire on AN EXPLOSIVE PERSONALITY USING LOTS OF CAPS is to kill it with kindness. That strategy stopped the ticking long enough to diagnose and resolve their issue. I typed, ‘Have a nice evening’ before reading, not a thank you for rescuing un-backed up data but a parting shot at our developers’ mental faculties.
“You okay, Mom?” Thing1 peered into my office, hanging on the door frame so that only his head and shoulder crossed the boundary of my work world (The office is a happy place – my studio/study when I’m not working, but, during the work day, I have seriously considered posting a sign over the door that reads, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”)
“Fine.” I sat rubbing the computer glare from my eyes, contemplating what kind of junk food would be best for a post-battle binge.
“I meant are you okay for our hike?” He asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m thinking about skipping it.
“Are you sure?” There was concern but not reproach in his voice. Thing1 stood up to his full height and slid over the threshold. As the family personal trainer, he takes the encouraging approach to getting the best performance from his team.
“I just wanna sit on the couch and munch on something,” I said. I knew as soon as I sat down, all creativity and activity would cease for the evening. The couch is an anesthetic, and food is the beer chaser. But after a day of snark, my first instinct is to go for the buzz.
But Thing1 was determined to get us out the door and hiking.
It’s still cold and icy out, but each day we walk to the town hall and back, we all get a bit stronger. He runs ahead of us and then back to walk for a bit. Thing2 tried to keep up with his brother.
Between sprints, we talk. We talk about the 5K, about relationships, and the latest Marvel movie (Thing1 and Thing2 are planning to go together – it’s one of the few mutual interests that doesn’t recognize age barriers).
It was lighter but still freezing when we got back. Our cheeks were red and we all knew our legs would be sore later, but our heads felt clearer. There was the kind of serenity that usually only comes with meditation.
Somewhere on the muddy, icy road between the brisk air and probing discussion of how to build a perfect PC, we became devotees of walk therapy. I know I’ll want to vegetate on the couch again tonight. But I also know can count on Thing1 to pull the three of us back up the driveway for another session. I’ll grumble, but I’ll go because in the end, I know we can’t afford not to.