How do I get through this?

I'm doing OK now, but I have flashbacks of my scary, painful past.

By Cary Tennis

Published February 18, 2005 8:01PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I apologize in advance for the length of this letter; I tried to be concise, but I kept going back and adding details that seemed important until I finally had to cut myself off. I should probably try to whittle this down, but maybe it's best to give too much information; you can always edit, but it's hard to add more. Right?

[Dear Reader: The letter that follows is unusually long, and seems a little disjointed at first. But it seems to finally come together, like something out of Faulkner. OK? -- ct]

My dad was an alcoholic; he was intelligent but mostly belligerent and spanked me often with a belt in variously humiliating ways (naked often and to the point of bladder control loss occasionally). I used to pour out his beer and stand in his closet and touch the belt -- the usual things for kids in those situations. He repeatedly told me I was fat; I wasn't. I am now, and it started roughly in junior high. I spent lots of morning hours curled up in a ball on the bus while the other kids spit on me, dreading pulling into the school where I knew the situation would only get worse. From Day One of socializing it was pure hell; only the complexity and cleverness of the insults changed.

I had some boyfriends and more than a few close encounters of the sexual kind, but the guys were only sleeping with me and in most cases not publicly acknowledging me; I didn't go on an actual date until I was much older.

I grew up and lost weight and made some friends and started having fun for what felt like the first time. I moved to a large city with a few friends. I fell in love with my roommate; she was everything. I never would have mentioned or acted on the crush, but she had a few drinks one night and said something indicating a mutuality, so I took her up on it. I was in a state of happiness, or at least pleasant suspension of disbelief, for a few days. Then she sent a terminating e-mail. The epilogue: Several nights later, I went to dinner with my parents and was roughed up by the police while trying to get home. I showed them my student identification and out-of-town driver's license and tried to explain that I had simply gotten lost walking back to my car, but they held their service revolvers on me while a female officer snapped on a latex glove and searched my entire naked body, anyway. Finding nothing, they detained me on the sidewalk and made fun of me. I was obedient the entire time, except for refusing the offer of a ride home. As I walked away, a sergeant yelled after me, "I hope you get fucking killed." I felt so helpless. I made it through the night and burst into relieved tears when I saw my parents the next day. My father looked up the address where I had been in my phone book, yelled at me for being in such a bad area so stupidly, threw the phone book at me, and left. I moved back to my hometown.

Shortly after, at 23, I met a guy, 20, who seemed to possess charity and a good sense of humor and a certain quirkiness and all those other universally admired characteristics, and we started going out. Or, rather, we started having sex and spending most of our time together. I got pregnant almost immediately, much to the dismay of this boy and his family, not to mention myself. We were both potheads when things started, but of course I straightened out immediately upon discovering I was pregnant. He didn't; he left. He contested paternity when I applied for state medical coverage. He came back, he left, he came back. Our son was born and he refused to put his name on the birth certificate: the beginning of a long series of refusals to participate. I ended up in a women's shelter, then in terrible government-subsidized housing (the girl in the next apartment was recently released from prison for, as she put it, "stabbing that bitch in the throat 'til she couldn't talk no more"), going to school to try to finish my degree and get out of my mess. I lost all my friends; I irrationally feared losing my son due to an imagined accident or poverty-related removal from the home or any of a million other things. All while he played and escalated his drug abuse, incorporating a vast array of substances: marijuana, cocaine, methadone, hydrocodone, crystal methamphetamine, flunitrazepam, et cetera.

I spent a long time in the viewing area staring at his body, at what the autopsy had done to it -- the visible glue and stitches on his eyelids, the auditory canal that swirled down to a stitched, pinched sock, the scar peeking out from the back of his neck, along his hairline. Probably I should have skipped that part, both then and now, but it sticks out, and it's connected in an important way that I can't quite elucidate. I'm increasingly and somewhat disturbingly obsessed with death and the grotesque. I used to be such a brave, bug-eating tomboy; maybe that's the moment the bravery went out the window. The whole thing sometimes feels like magical realism gone wrong, like it's so bad it wrapped around itself and became comedy, the way liberalism and conservatism and libertarianism and communism all eventually go full spectrum and bite one another's tails. I still can't quite get my mind around the idea that I used to fuck a body which is now decomposing next to the highway under a rock, that the son I hold and love is genetically half dead man. I once became spooked because a friend continued to wear borrowed shoes after their owner died. I keep going back and forth between a pair of shoes and a whole organic living incredible beautiful person and realizing that my abject horror, were I to feel it, would make me lose my grip entirely. Sometimes I think I have post-traumatic stress disorder, or that I am going crazy in an ambrosially subtle way in which I miraculously manage to function on a high level but am rotting on the inside like a naughty tooth.

I married a great guy who, knowing everything, wanted to be hubby and dad, and is intelligent and interesting in his own right; my son is lovely and ridiculously bright and oh so impossibly funny, and, thank goodness, was small when all of this happened and remembers nothing of the bad stuff, nothing of a time when his sweet dad wasn't in the picture; I am successful in my career and love what I do. But I mostly don't feel any of it. I am still living and reliving and dissecting the minutiae of every past injury like a stock ticker, and I can't seem to stop.

I'm 28, an only child, a pretty good mom in spite of how backwater trash motel all of this this must sound, adored by my husband, pathologically messy, a frequent puker, morbidly obese, blue in a red state, terrible at finishing things, introverted, abnormally self-conscious, normally a better writer than this for all that it matters anymore, and neither happy nor depressed. I'm lonely and feel some sort of critical disconnect with the world in general and my life in particular -- that is, I am desperate for connections, but view my husband as needy (yes, I see the conflict of logic there) and those who extend friendship as having a misplaced interest in me that will result in an injury to them that I must protect them from by not participating. I loathe myself, alternately feeling guilty for the mess of my past and emotionally retarded for the guilt. I can cry buckets over this, over any small injury to my son, over an Italian husband who commits suicide the day before his wife comes out of her four-month coma; and yet somehow I don't feel anything at all. Sometimes I think everyone could just curl up and blow away and I'd keep trudging back and forth to work and making rent, barely registering it; I also think that if one little bad thing happens it might make me totally fall apart. My head is always filled with scenarios of death and fear of death, especially of my nuclear family.

I never felt any of this before the event that dare not speaketh its name. My days go by so quickly now, and I don't know if it is due to age or lack of interest. It's Monday, it's Wednesday, it's St. Patrick's Day, it's New Year's Day; welcome to your late 20s, tomorrow is the day we overwind all the clocks again.

My experiences with therapy and psychotropics have ranged from dismal to insulting to bizarre, and I tend to do much better simply reading a book on my own. What I really need is to have a best friend to go through all of this with, and to have a mutual assistance bank from which to draw, but of course that didn't happen, and maybe I resist friendships -- resist fully engaging -- now because I am afraid I will dump all of this on the first person who takes me in. Sometimes at work I can feel my chest surging like a handkerchief on a string with the need to tell someone absolutely everything, even if it is just the guy who replaced the ballast in my light fixture, or the woman who is really nice to me when I walk across the building to get coffee or throw up.

Gah. This really seems like it's not fixable. Perhaps to you it will seem like a simple, transparent thing?

Help me, literate, over-pondering, prose advice man.

Somewhere, Something Went Wrong

Dear Somewhere, Something Went Wrong,

I get all the incandescent letters, don't I? I get all the strange envelopes with no return address containing prose that explodes like magical snapshots. Well, lucky me. If I follow correctly your flashy incandescence and your coy indirection, you're saying that after a childhood filled with your father's physical abuse, tinged with sexual overtones, you fell in love and had a child and the father of your child committed suicide (or overdosed?) and today, though haunted by flashbacks of horror, you are alive and married and a pretty good mom, and as you look at your life and how the past echoes through it for the most part you are not doing that badly. You say you are morbidly obese and that does not sound good, but you have a powerful personality and a powerful brain.

As is often the case with letters such as yours, you have not really asked a specific question but have instead made a desperate, complicated gesture like a woman standing on a highway caught in the headlights; as I pull over I read in your face a knot that took years to tangle and would take many more to undo, working slowly at night under great magnification.

So my story is that I pulled over and let you in the car and brought you home to the family and you slept on the porch and the next morning you woke up and couldn't quite remember how you got there, and then you heard the sound of children playing so you wandered down to the playground.

(Years later I may look back at this and wonder why I kept seeing that playground; what is it about you that seems to want to go to the playground? Is it to recapture a childhood? To find a safe place to mother your child?)

Every time I pull into a new town I look for the door to the mercy room. (That's what letters like yours are, they're new towns I find myself living in like a taciturn detective tracing a runaway.) In every town there must always be a room filled with exquisite mercy, a muscular mercy that holds at bay the largest horrors, the torturers and their teachers, the killers and their hammers, the execrable fathers and their fathers' fathers. There's always mercy but you can't always find the room where they keep it. Is it the same room where they keep the death? Some people think so. Thinking mercy and death are the same, they go down to the Bridge and lean over at the water and think, Down there, in the cold, distant water, outflowing toward the Farallons: There's the mercy I seek! Off they fly, canceling all further appearances on "Larry King Live." But that's not really mercy, that's just a cancellation. I mean mercy in the here and now, the kind of mercy that lets you keep going.

Where do you find it? Sometimes, as you say, in books. Sometimes in dogs. Sometimes in cooking a meal. Some of us need it more than others. Some of us have a lot of pain so we need a lot of mercy. Maybe you'll find it in that friend you were talking about. Yeah, it's scary to think you're going to unload your whole damn horror story on the first person who says thank you. But get yourself a friend. You can do it. Get yourself a friend and slowly tell your tale.

About that playground I keep imagining: Sometimes I wish all the people who write to me lived on one street and their kids played at the same little neighborhood park so we could all just go and sit together and not necessarily have to talk it all out and not pretend that a bunch of words is going to fix it. Words can do a lot and I wouldn't be writing if I didn't think that. I'm sure you understand it's a lot more than entertainment for me. At the same time, I get done-in, just like the next guy, and that's why I'm sitting in the playground filtering sand through my fisted fingers onto my shoes, not really noticing that the little grains are going under the tongue and they'll be scratchy when I walk away, still unable to say much about what you've told me.

I love just sitting with somebody who's going through it, because what else can you do? We'd just sit there in the playground section of the park -- thanks for bringing a kid along as a ticket of admission -- and I'd look at you and know that you're seeing that body in the viewing room again, like a flashback on "Profiler," and we'd just sit patiently on the bench while you do your viewing. Yeah, she's looking at snapshots from the morgue again. OK. It'll be one of those days.

People get through this stuff, they really do. I've seen it. Too bad you're not a celebrity or Larry King would help you get through it. You'd get booked on his show and they'd give you Pepsi in the green room and they'd do your makeup and then you'd sit with Larry and perhaps he'd ask you, as he did recently one of the Rhode Island nightclub fire victims, "So, what was it like, being in a coma?"

Larry King, bless his heart, summing up our perplexity.

These things we go through, how do we get through them? I don't know, but we do.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

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