Archive for February, 2020

I’ve been open about my journey with mental health issues in the past, so I’m going to write about the anxiety that I’m dealing with right now. There’s a trigger warning here, so don’t read on if you don’t want to know about what repressed memories of childhood abuse can do to a woman in her late 40s. If you can handle it, then go ahead and read. If not, be wise enough not to.

I’ve never been one to hide my past history with depression, and I’ve honestly been concerned lately that I’ve had a slip in that direction, but speaking with my doctor last week has made me realize that it’s a lot more about something else entirely. Anyone who’s suffered from depression and anxiety in previous years will always wonder if the other shoe will drop again. You always look over your shoulder, and you always wonder whether you’ll be ‘safe.’ You always second guess yourself–what you think, what you feel, and how you choose to say what you most need to say. Speaking with my doctor last week about that repressed memory, crying through the telling of it, she just shook her head and said “Of course you’re well. It’s the effects of what you’ve remembered, and the trauma.” More weeping then—and that crappy doctor’s office Kleenex that is useless—and mostly more weeping because it means that I’m still okay…even though it feels a lot like hell right now inside my body and mind.

I’ve always dealt with insomnia, and sporadic bits of anxiety. I’ve also dealt with grief at Christmas time. Usually, those pieces of anxiety are due to grief, over the loss of my parents, who bookended the holiday season with their departures. I expect that sort of slump to always come through late November until mid-January. It makes me nervous, then, when it goes past that timeline. This year, it’s done that. My insomnia has been much worse and the anxiety has ramped up because of it. I can’t really sit still in amidst groups of people, and I feel like running away for no apparent reason. I’ve increased my exercise, which was already pretty intense before this, and now I’m trying trazadone again, to help me regulate my sleeping patterns. And then, of course, there are my therapy sessions, the things I’ve never stopped doing since I began them in 2008 when my mum was fading away slowly and I was taking care of her.

But…I’ve gotten ahead of myself…because avoiding a memory that you don’t really want to remember clearly is something I might have perfected since I first remembered the thing in Newfoundland late last May. It was triggered by a murder that happened in my grandparents’ old house on Bancroft, by a news report I read online while in a different province. Even then, it took a day or two for the memory to rise up from inside. For most of June, I was in a spin, not knowing where to find an anchor. Losing my eldest dog in early July didn’t help. By fall, it seemed, I felt less wobbly.

I have five very important people to thank for listening to me—mostly via text because I couldn’t handle speaking it all out loud—and they will always know who they are. They were lighthouses in a dark time, when I was in a boat without oars or an anchor. They weren’t my oldest friends, interestingly enough. They are friends I’ve only met in the last four years or so. They won’t have known me when I was at my most ill, when I had suicidal ideation because of major depressive disorder twelve years ago, so perhaps our relationships are more rooted in my being more myself. Not sure.

The memory is one that I don’t like to recall. It’s too visceral, and, when I recall it, I feel it in my own body now. My heart speeds up. I can’t breathe easily. I shake. I’m terrified. That’s the whole ‘inner child’ thing. It actually exists. I sort of knew it did, in theory, but until you feel it in your adult woman’s body, there’s no explaining how that smashing together of child and woman sets off a tsunami inside. In the memory, I am little. I am hiding from my grandfather, pressed up against the back wall of a closet, trying to protect my little sister behind me. Somehow, I have pulled the closet door closed, even though there really isn’t a way to do this without hurting my fingers. Still, when you are terrified of being found and of being hurt, you will do things to try and protect yourself, especially if you are small, and especially if you love your little sister.

It is, to be honest, such a small fragment of a memory. You would think that such a fragment wouldn’t be so damning in an adult’s life, but it has been since it surfaced last May. What the emotions mean, because I recall it on a physical, ‘body level,’ is that I knew enough to hide from being hurt, which means that I had experienced it before enough times to know it wasn’t right and I didn’t like it. The memory is of just one time, but feels as if it is part of a continuation. The hiding from my grandfather means that it had happened before.

After the remembering, there have been months of dreading the arrival of other buried memories. The worst one that hangs over me, to be honest, would be the notion of sexual abuse. It makes me feel nauseated when I think of it because it is at odds with my memories of my childhood. The childhood memories I recall clearly aren’t ones of violence and abuse, but when my thoughts shift to my paternal grandparents, the memories and feelings are ones of fear, intimidation, and control. In the memory, I am little. I can remember what I was wearing, and that it was summer, and that I had a scraped knee from falling off my bike in the driveway between my parents’ and grandparents’ houses. In my memory, I am the little girl in this picture.


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For the longest time, I have loved this photo of me. It was taken in elementary school, long before the time when I got to be overweight and bullied, and it’s from before the time I felt ugly in high school and was afraid of boys. (It took me until university to find a boyfriend who made me feel safe enough to really let him into my life, and I never knew why. I blamed myself for the longest time when, really, I should have just blamed my grandfather. He had taught me to fear men from my earliest years, and then…I had forgotten it until last year. Your brain, I’ve learned, is a very complex machine. It can box things up when you’re at risk of falling apart, boxing them up so tightly that you don’t remember them until you’re 48.)

The photo of this little girl, of me, always seemed—for the longest time—to be capturing a sort of idyllic time. I have a copy of it on my fridge, but now I keep it there for a different reason entirely. There is a little girl who was afraid, who didn’t know who to trust, and who maybe still doesn’t even know who to trust now that she’s grown up and has somehow remembered this horrible thing. There is a little girl who is fearful, ashamed, and confused. She doesn’t trust easily. I wish I could go back and gather her up, and into my arms, to protect her.

It likely explains why, as a teacher, I always felt called to try and help the kids who were dealing with hard times at home. There were the kids who were living with parents who were pretending to be happy together (but really weren’t), and there were the kids who were living with separated families with lots of transient, pseudo step-parents sweeping in and out of their lives, and there were the kids who had parents with addictions. There were also the kids who knew poverty all too well, and then there were the kids who self-harmed, or the ones who acted out because they were afraid of bonding with people who might actually not leave them, and there were the kids who were ignored at home and only wanted to have someone really listen to them.

They were the ones who gathered around my desk at the end of a period, or who followed me to my office to borrow a book I thought they might like to read (to escape into), or who would ask shyly if they could share a poem or story they’d written with me because they knew I was a writer. All of them felt like kids I needed to protect. I felt a kinship, and I didn’t even know why then. Now I know why. I was one of them. I could see myself reflected in them. I wanted to help save them, and I didn’t even know that I had so badly wanted some teacher to have seen some clue, some inkling, of what I was struggling with back when I was in elementary school. But, even then, I didn’t really know that I was being abused, which is why child abuse is so deeply and horribly twisted and manipulative. You’re meant to keep things quiet, and this means you likely don’t even know how to find or use your voice as a woman until much later in life.

My parents didn’t know about the abuse. They loved us. If they had known, it would’ve been stopped. At some point, though, my mother stopped letting us stay there when she and my father were out of town on trips to buy stock for their gift shop, so I think—maybe on some level—she must have had concerns about how my grandparents were treating us. After that time, I remember spending some overnight visits to my three great aunts, Norah, Maureen & Clare, at the house that my great-grandfather built on Kingsmount. The Girls—as they were called—were dear to us. And then, too, there were weekends spent at my Gram Ennis’s house on Wembley. Staying at either of those two houses when my parents were out of town on business always felt like a gift to me, a way to not stay at my paternal grandparents’ house next door on Bancroft. Now, after the memory surfaced, I can understand why I have always loved those four women so much. They kept us safe when the alternative would have been having us stay with people who hurt us.

Besides the closet memory, there are other memories: an afternoon when, as punishment, Stacy and I were put out into the back yard and locked out. A neighbour had come to visit and we were told we had behaved badly and so would not be allowed in. We were little. We hadn’t done anything wrong. We wept and wondered how not to upset them again. There were nights when he would stand in our lit bedroom doorway, listening to us breathe to be sure we were asleep. It’s no wonder, I often think now, as I struggle so terribly with insomnia, that I can’t sleep easily as an adult. A whole lot of things make sense to me now, since the memory arrived last spring.

Now, there will be people who will say ‘why would you write this now?’ or who will say ‘your parents wouldn’t want you to air this dirty laundry’ or who will say ‘but your grandfather helped to build a church and made really beautiful furniture.’ I’ll tell you why I am writing this now. When this memory emerged, I wanted to read a voice that would tell me what was going on inside my head, my heart, and my body. I couldn’t find one online. I think, mostly, for me, it is a way to try and exorcise some of the frenzied energy and pain I feel inside myself these days. I know I’m likely on the cusp of remembering something else because I can feel my body wanting to run away from it, but I also know that my therapist has said these things tend to come up when you’re well. All of those years of me being unwell were, I think, a result of this childhood abuse. The years of being obese and caring for others before myself were really ways for me to protect myself from making close connections with people. If I padded myself with fat, men wouldn’t see me, and they never did, or if they did, they were the wrong kind of person for me and ended up being manipulative or deceptive. Not a good pattern.

When I began to heal and get well, I lost weight. I felt more myself. I felt in control of who I was becoming, or in who I was allowing to emerge from inside me without fear. So much of my life was about being quiet and polite, about being agreeable and compliant, that the blooming of my 40s has been a bit of shock to me. My 30s were all about being very ill, and about caring for very ill parents. There was great darkness then.

I’ve lost friends. I know. And I want to say I’m sorry if one of them reads this. Something a person might have said or done might have triggered me, even four or five years ago, and I wouldn’t have known what had caused my reaction or even how to deal with it, so I tend to pull in and turtle when I feel threatened or “less than.” I can’t handle conflict. And sometimes there comes a place where, well, if you feel you disappoint someone, you just can’t try and ‘fix’ a friendship that demands more energy than you have to survive. So much of it seems now to be about energy, and about how balanced things are. I have always been a people pleaser, someone who gives more of herself than she ought to. I have not been as good at receiving, and I think that’s mostly because I didn’t have a healthy role model to show me how to trust others. My parents tried, and I loved them dearly, but there are days when I think they ought not to have stayed together. My parents taught me how to be fearful of connecting to others, to be wary of trusting others. I’m sure, though, some people on the outside will be upset to read this, and maybe one of my extended relatives will be upset with me…but I’d ask them to keep that to themselves. Sometimes, most often I’d venture a guess, what you see outside of a house and family is not what actually goes on inside of it. Social media, even, often makes me think of how Susan Sontag spoke of how people create illusions for others, so that their lives look perfect but really aren’t. Either way, families are complex. One of my best friends still says I am the most open, but also the most private, person she knows. She is likely right. It takes a long time for me to trust someone. These shadows, I’ve learned this year, have long lives.

I’ve told a few more friends about this memory since the fall, sometimes as a way to explain my strange, removed behaviour. It’s just been the most awful journey in the last year, and one I can only walk on my own. People who care will say ‘just ask me’ or ‘reach out,’ but when you’re in the midst of intense anxiety, there really isn’t the energy to do that. Also, when you live alone, you can’t really allow yourself to fall apart. It takes a lot of strength to just be present. Besides, most people in my age group have their ‘person’ and kids, so I worry I’d be the drowning lady in the middle of the lake, pulling them under. Sad, but true. Right now, I don’t trust people easily. Hopefully that will pass too, but it may not, and I may just have to accept that people will disappear again…as they so often tend to do in my life. I feel like the shapeshifter of Irish myth, The Morrigan, a figure I’m most fascinated by. She is powerful and magical, and she walks between worlds.

I’ve taken on too many projects this winter, and that means I’m in a people pleaser mode, which only really serves others, but exhausts me, and doesn’t allow me to fuel myself creatively as best it could. I’ve had to pull out of two things I wanted to take part in next month, but just don’t have the energy to manage, and I had to cancel a poetry visit from a dear friend from Toronto. That one hurts most, because if I felt stronger I could have whipped up an event all on my own. Not just now, though. Not just now.

So. In March, I’ll have one public event, when my new play, “All The Things I Draw,” gets a staged reading at the Sudbury Theatre Centre on the evening of March 20 as part of PlayMine. I’ll be less on social media for a while, mostly because I feel too isolated when I see other people leading really ‘happy family’ lives. I’ll be around, but not as often. I’ll mostly post about writing and art, or put up some of my photos alongside a poem or two every few days. In the next month, I’ll finish writing my play and I’ll keep at my novel. I’ll be with the trees…because they don’t hurt me and they make me feel safe.

April, May and June are busy months for me, and I’m looking forward to book tours and readings in various parts of the country, as well as giving writing workshops. Right now, though, I need to sort out the anxiety and find a centre of calm. I will. I slay dragons when I have to…and Gull is a fine companion for that. The gift of my book of poems last year was a bright spot through darkness, and I’m grateful for the many kind messages I’ve received about the words I’ve written. That what I write…makes a difference in people’s lives…is really lovely.

I’m not depressed. I’m sad, though, and I’m anxious, and I’m angry…that such a memory…after such a long time being buried inside my brain…had to even emerge and throw my life into chaos. And I’m angry that that little girl I knew so well was so badly hurt. And I’m healing through a lot of pain because, as D. H. Lawrence once wrote, there is worth and great value in “coming through it” rather than avoiding it. I’m wrestling with it, from dawn to dusk. For now, if you see me, I’ll likely cry if you’re nice to me, or if you try to hug me. This is mostly because I’m not used to being held and comforted. This is also because I always feel that people tend to disappear…so I am never sure who will stay and who will go. My default setting is to expect people to go. Sometimes this is to be expected…because people will grow away from you. In my life, it has mostly been the pattern…that people have disappeared. So when someone tries to hold me, or gather me in, my instinct is to bolt, to not trust them, to imagine that I must always be strong. If someone holds me for too long, I crumble…and I so worry I wouldn’t be able to put myself together after that.

I would ask, though, that you think of the children in your lives. Don’t always assume that they are safe with people you love or are related to. Sometimes, sadly, they aren’t. Sometimes, the things you most wish wouldn’t happen…happen under your noses…and sometimes children don’t have the words to tell you yet.

Give children love and make them feel so very safe, but also don’t teach them how to be afraid of the world and other people. That doesn’t really help…and can do so much more harm than good when all is said and done.

My wish for this blog entry is that I’ve used my voice and told my truth, even though it still feels shameful to me inside. I also hope that some other woman, in her mid to late 40s, might find this blog post and maybe feel less alone at the very beginning of it all… because the dissociation between what you think is real and properly remembered, and what actually did occur, is something that can tear you apart inside.

I’m working on letting this little girl know that she is safe now, and that she doesn’t have to hide inside my mind or body, and that I’m strong enough to bear the remembering if it means we can walk forward together hand in hand. This sounds poetic and hopeful, but I am well aware that it will be some of my life’s hardest work. My heart is broken…for more than one reason…and I’m trying to put it together one piece at a time, one breath at a time, on my own. People will just have to be patient…with me. Some will stick and some won’t. That’s okay. I’m used to it.

I feel sorry I have to write this, really. I miss my parents and my maternal grandmother, my uncles, and my great-aunts and uncles. The ones I loved most in the whole world–and the ones who loved me most–have died. I hope, somehow, that they would be okay with me writing this, and that they’d understand the purpose behind doing so. They were of Irish descent, so I think they would’ve been fine, somehow…because they were all survivors, spirited to the core, even when their own hearts were breaking, I’m sure.

This is such a long journey…and such a long blog entry. Sorry for that…






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