My awful past keeps me from writing

I had such a horrible childhood that the anxiety and fear are paralyzing

Published February 25, 2013 1:00AM (EST)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Reader,

This letter is super-long even by my standards. In comparison, the reply is not actually so very long but it is all sort of one long uninterrupted piece, which I hope you will examine structurally and see how I am connecting clauses with semicolons and looping recursions and looping recursions and looping recursions, trying to create an unbroken thread even as it meanders and loops and recurs and recurs and loops and recurs.

Hi Cary.

I'm a big fan of your work. I read all your new advice pieces because, regardless of how I relate to the letter-writer, I always find a ubiquitous nugget of beauty and hope in your responses. When I saw your call for more creativity-related letters, I felt like this was my moment to try and write to you myself.

I'm 28 years old. I've been reading since age 2 and began writing not long after that. I love it with all my heart; it is the craft that defines me. I was determined to be the youngest novelist and be published at age 13, and while I did indeed finish a murder mystery novel (I use the term loosely) by then, of course it was not in any condition to be published. But ambitions for my writing have been high since I can remember. And more than that, no matter what trouble I've faced in my life — and I've faced quite a bit — writing has always been there for me, to save me. But suddenly it's becoming difficult in a new and frankly traumatic way.

I'm a child of divorce. My parents were not abusive but neglectful, avoidant, waiting for problems to fix themselves, and very frequently used my brother and me as weapons against each other. This environment sent my younger brother, as a preteen, into a decade-long heroin addiction he is only now emerging from. Myself, I went internal and found myself in the depths of an inner darkness I had no idea could exist; a darkness I feel will always be trailing me. I was bullied mercilessly in school and came home to apathy. My mother is highly emotional and a narcissist, something I couldn't see until I got out and stable on my own. She was tied at the hip with my grandmother, and when I was a teenager and my grandmother became ill with shingles and various other problems, it finally became apparent that she cared more for her mother than her children. The shingles was terrible for my grandmother. In the room below hers, I would lay in the dark, afraid and alone, and listen to her scream into the night. My mother, a lazy housekeeper as it was, let the house descend into a filth that would later see the Health Department intervene: stacks of unopened mail, torn-up carpet and ruined linoleum floors from my grandmother's diabetic, dying dogs who were too sick to go outside and yet were denied the mercy of dignified euthanasia, rotten food and unwashed dishes everywhere, and a flooded basement that relegated a great many of my belongings and memories to the trash. She would blame it all on my brother and me, despite having never taught us any cleaning regimen, and despite obvious issues beyond our knowledge and control.

My brother escaped into his world of drugs and bad friends, and piece by piece, the valuables in my room were stolen and pawned. I even installed my own key-entry doorknob, which only stopped them for a day. I begged my mother for help, but for the next decade she let my brother and his criminal friends run our lives, creating an unstable and dangerous environment that has given me PTSD-like symptoms and constant insomnia.

When my grandmother finally passed, my mother gave up all pretense of concern for us. Her weight ballooned to over 300 pounds. I made it through half my junior year of high school before I was hospitalized for suicidal tendencies — that hospital stay was the most relaxing and hopeful time I'd ever had in my life. When the Health Department intervened, we moved into the house she inherited from my grandmother, but my brother's demons followed us and his crimes got worse. His friends came in and out of the house all hours of the night. His cars were vandalized and stolen. Once the SWAT showed up in the dead of night, shotguns brandished, looking for one of his friends who'd robbed a local store. All pleas to my mother to intervene, put her foot down and protect her home like a mother should fell on deaf ears; she treated these criminal, manipulative people like they were altar boys, refusing to see the truth of their behavior or my brother's growing addiction. One day I found a bill collection notice addressed to me from a dentist I'd never heard of nor visited. Come to find out my mother, who had always been a total financial wreck, was using my name and Social Security information to get work done, basically committing financial fraud and risking my future before I even had a chance to begin it. I confronted her furiously and she only shrugged and said she would take care of it. My brother, long her golden child, tried to defend her and called me a liar, until she did the same thing to him some years later. My identity was used by one of my brother's friends when she was arrested for underage drinking, and I was followed and harassed by police, accused of lying and hiding criminal activity, until they figured out they had been fooled. Most of those years felt like I had fallen down the rabbit hole. I could go on and on about the stressful happenings of my early life.

My father is a decent man, but he's from an old-school generation that sees women as nothing more than birth-givers and housewives. He found a new family after the divorce, and my brother and I became weekend footnotes in his life. He means well but his personality is completely domineering, and he has no problem lying to people when he deems fit. He doesn't converse as much as he wants an audience, and he is completely hostage to the idea of what people think of him. When, at 23, I vanity-published a collection of short stories and poems just to have a hard copy of my writing before I died, he asked me if the stories had any swearing. I told him yes, absolutely — indeed most of my written and visual expression has been incredibly dark. At this news, he refused to tell my church-going relatives about my achievement, because it would apparently offend them. That's the last we've talked about my writing. My depression kept me from graduating high school traditionally, and when I went back two years later to obtain my GED and passed with flying colors, my father told me not to tell any of our relatives, because he had already fed them a story about my normal, on-time graduation. He has rarely acknowledged my achievements and constantly tries to convince me to just get a 9-to-5 job and “be normal,” and that everything will magically even out if I follow his simple path.

During my teen years, I wrote like a fiend to escape all of this horror and isolation. Once I was old enough to get a job and try to gain some independence, I never looked back, but certainly made mistakes by getting in bad relationships that only stalled my evolution. I have a deep, neglected hole in my heart where my parents' love should have been, and for too long I tried to fill it with the wrong people. I knew I was intelligent and talented enough for college but with no money and so emotionally battered, my initial attempt as a student failed. I've excelled at all the jobs I've had, until I self-destruct, rebelling against the authority and monotony, all the while writing behind the scenes, sneaking short stories into Notepad files and emailing them to myself at home. My last bad relationship actually wound up with me getting married (something my parents were fine to contribute to financially, yet that money was never around when I needed tuition help). It was a mistake and it descended into a fearful situation that I, by the skin of my teeth, pulled myself out of in the spring of 2011. I returned to college, applied for financial aid, and turned my life around. Since I left my husband, I have been drowning myself in the world I've always wanted: pursuing a double major, working for a local magazine as a music reporter, which has given me access to my favorite musicians, and trying to monetize my abilities as a visual artist in the form of gallery shows, festivals and, most recently, a gig as a freelance book cover artist for a small publishing firm. I'm definitely in debt thanks to student loans, but it's my first and only debt -- I've been responsible my whole life about money, and know that this is worth it for a chance to have my dream life. My constant worry for (and frankly, fear of) my brother has ceased; after a few false starts, he's been pulled from the jaws of death and is making a fantastic recovery, and is himself enrolled in college. I am so immensely proud of him and thankful I didn't have to bury him.

But there is still a gnawing dread in my gut, that dark shadow that follows me, warning me that this is all a trick, a dream, a trap that is about to spring shut and seal me underground forever. I am a very anxious woman. I'm not very social anymore and I do not trust easily at all. I'm a lone wolf who would rather play a video game alone or read a book or pursue any number of solo activities than go to a party or a bar. I have good friends but they can't help me become the woman I've been waiting so long to be.

Despite all this advancement, I still beat myself up for not doing more, for all the years I lost to depression and shitty relationships. I mourn for the time I've lost and the things I'll never learn or do. I feel like I could swallow the whole of reality, all its beauty and glory, and still be starving. I have a good man in my life now who helps me deal with this in healthy ways. He is supportive and kind and patient. I'm in therapy for my issues. I've stood up for myself and ceased contact with my life-draining mother until I can get my head on straight about what she did to my brother and me. I'm working hard to undo all the bad habits and lies I've been taught, things that have kept me from taking care of myself. My life is, for the first time, on a hopeful path and one I am proud to say I built out of dust and ashes. But my biggest heartbreak, Cary, is that my writing has left me.

Between writing academic papers and journalistic things, I have nothing left for my creativity. I was a girl who was swamped, simply swamped with imagination and characters and stories, and now I open up that door in my head where I've kept all the secrets of storytelling I've gathered over the years, and it's just a black hole staring back at me. I am completely drowned with fear: fear of failure, fear of rejection ... but more than that, fear of being seen. I've got a project I've been fiddling with for years, a very complex dark fantasy project, and while the world-building has been absolutely glorious for me, I can't sit down and actually write the damn thing because of an irrational fear that, somehow, readers will see my secrets. They'll see that the demons in my book are really demons from my head, acting out a play, telling the world of all the darkness I lived through. They'll blame me. They'll laugh at me. They'll say I am a terrible writer because I couldn't hide myself in my words better. I know deep down — I know — that I am a great writer. I was born for this. I've been telling stories my whole life, and I've been published and affirmed by outside sources. But at this stage in my life, it's not about technique anymore. It's swimming across a far deeper and blacker ocean than I've ever faced before.

I am dying without my writing and yet the idea of swimming that ocean frightens me into paralysis. It's as if now that I'm in the real world, being a real adult, finally free of the bondage of insanity that raised me, I'm too afraid to go back into my rich imagination for fear I will never return. Fear that I will become my mother, a neglectful and apathetic woman who only cares for her self-important inner world. She's already taken years of my life, and my desire to become a mother myself away from me. I can't let her have this, but I am at a loss for what to do to heal myself. Sometimes I sit down to write and it ends in a panic attack. Other times it ends in me researching other writers, jealous of their productivity or fame. This starvation is turning me into an ugly thing. I don't want to write for fame or praise or acceptance. I have better stories than that inside me, and I'm a better writer than to fall for all of that hogwash. I just want my soul back.

With deepest regards,

Lost in Paradise

Dear Lost In Paradise,

There is much in your story to commiserate about and commiserating is important for healing and going into the details of these traumas will be necessary as you heal but mainly I think as an artist that you are going to have to do many things in parallel, some of which have to do with healing as a person and some of which have to do with doing your art and these things will intertwine; while you write you will heal; while you heal you will write; all the while you will seek therapy with a trained psychotherapist; while you heal and write and go to your therapy sessions you will need to cultivate personal habits that sustain you such as careful diet and exercise and sleep habits; as you develop these habits you will work to give your writing a regular and honored place in your routine; as you work writing into your routine you will notice dysfunctional habits in your writing; as you notice dysfunctional habits you will address them one by one; as you address them you will find that reaching out to others helps; as you reach out to others you will form relationships; as you form relationships you will be faced with the problem of how to sustain them; as you sustain them they will stimulate your curiosity about writing techniques and practices and so you will read books that purport to contain helpful ideas some of which you will adopt and hold close and others of which you will discard as irrelevant or not your style; as you learn discernment in this matter you will pass that on to others in the form of suggestions and sharing your own experience; as you find this sharing strengthens you and keeps your anxiety to a manageable level you will seek the perfect writing group; as you shop around you will experience the upset of wanting to be included and the difficulty of accepting rejection and also the difficulty of telling others what they have is not what you are looking for; as you learn to accept rejection and make choices you will sense that you are growing as a person; as you grow you will keep a journal; as you write in your journal you will occasionally look back and see that you are not going through the intense periods of depression and anxiety and hopelessness that you were a year ago; as you note your progress you will talk to your therapist about your family situation and begin to make connections between events that happened long ago and feelings you are having now; as you make these connections visible you will see how they can be expressed in writing; as you do this you may find writing long-form autobiographical nonfiction appeals to you; if you embark on writing autobiographical nonfiction further barriers and moments of intense distress will arise; you may find you can alleviate those moments of distress by turning to other matters for a while, writing about music and the arts, expressing yourself visually and caring for yourself physically through exercise and meditation; as you do this to heal and strengthen eventually you may find it's time to return to the autobiographical work; as the work widens your professional contacts and you make friendships with other writers you will find that employment opportunities arise; as you dabble in writing-related jobs you will find that  some of these jobs catalyze old fears and family patterns; certain people in positions of power will remind you of your mother and your brother and your father; when this happens you will be tempted to flee or disrupt the relationship or you may start acting out in destructive ways; if you are still seeing your therapist you will talk about these things and make connections and find you are calmer after you leave your therapist's office; leaving your therapist's office you may feel like calling a friend on your cellphone and talking about therapy; your friend may suggest that if you are so unhappy in your job you should take your vacation time now before you get fired, or she may know of another job that doesn't pay as well or have as high a status but is a kinder and more sane work environment; you may be buoyed by this phone conversation and resolve to make contact with the person at this other job; thinking about applying for this job may bring back those old feelings of needing to escape your family and your house; you may have to write in your journal before you make that phone call; as you are writing in your journal you may make some crucial connection that makes you feel certain that you have an autobiographical hook that will allow you to sell a book; you may find at this point that you will need to study in detail the process of making a book proposal; reading a book about making a book proposal may fill you with dread and fear and a feeling of hopelessness; your therapist may not take phone calls outside of your sessions and so you may have to just tough it out as these feelings of helplessness wash over you, or you may be able to call someone and have some coffee with them and talk about how hard it is to read a book about making a book proposal and carry out its suggestions and instructions; your friend might not know what you are talking about and it may make you feel small and insignificant and finally angry at your friend for reasons she cannot fathom; you may terminate the social occasion prematurely and go walking in a strange part of town you don't usually walk in; you may pass an art gallery where people are holding glasses of wine and you may think it would be pleasant to go in there and look at paintings and have a glass of wine; the glass of wine may suddenly change your outlook; you may feel a part of things; you may feel this is where you are supposed to be.

All this and more may happen. You will live with feelings of anxiety and frustration but they will diminish as you learn strategies for coping and as you make connections between these feelings and prior events. You will begin to see that what you are feeling is what everyone feels from time to time except some lucky souls learned excellent coping skills early in their lives and continue to use them while others of us tend to fall into the swirling maelstrom of our remembered horrors.  You will bit by bit learn some of these coping behaviors yourself but it will always be tempting to fall into the chasm because that is what you know best and you do it so well. Don't worry. It will always be there for you if you need it. But the world will not open up and swallow you. It looks like it will but it won't. It looks like a chasm but it's not. It's just a mirage. It's how the world looks sometimes, that's all. This will go on for a long time, changing some but always being somewhat also the same. You will have a long and interesting life and some of this will seem strange and distant one day. Remember this. Write about it. Keep going.

By Cary Tennis

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