Anna keeps coming up against shock. First it was the shock of Natalya’s death, and I spent every morning this week working through some part of her death. Then when that receded, it was just shock. It seemed to her to be shock at what she was remembering, only she is not shocked. She knows about all of it. It’s not organized and it doesn’t make a lot of sense because of that, but it’s not especially shocking to her.
At last, she says the shock is mine. I am still shocked.
It seems like I shouldn’t be shocked either: I know all of it happened too. But she’s right. I am shocked.
I have a head kind of understanding of it, but not a deep understanding and there are a lot of details I don’t know that make it real in a way the broader strokes don’t.
The little ones have been asking for pancakes for the last two days. I have been sick and they want Nata to come and make pancakes. Sometimes, they aren’t just asking.
Sometimes it’s more like this.
I want pancakes.
I want Nata make pancakes.
MOMMY, I WANT PANCAKES. I WANT NATA MAKE PANCAKES.
Why Nata not come? Why Nata no make pancakes us? We feel yucky. We want pancakes.
Nata no love us no more?
MOMMY, WHY NATA GO WAY? WHY NATA GO WAY NOT TAKE CARE US?
WHY NATA NO MAKE PANCAKES US?
NATA GO WAY NO LOVE RUTHIE HANNAH NO MORE.
(Cue total meltdown.)
I didn’t know about the pancakes. Not at all.
Anna was out for a while yesterday. She popped out and didn’t really know what to do with herself. She’s never been out when there wasn’t a crisis in her head before, and she’s never had an opportunity to think about what she likes to do. She’s certainly not interested in all the housework that has been neglected this week.
So she thought about reading. She looked at Russian BBC for a while, but that was clearly going to be too hard. Instead, she found a children’s story site that offers audio and text. And we did that.
But it triggered a memory. Not a bad one. Just a memory. But the shock of it was immense.
Natalya read to me. She had two books—I remember that clearly. A small one that I think now might have been a prayer book, but I don’t know. And a thick one with pictures. She read that one to me.
As the memory was starting to come clear a little, I wondered how she could have read to me. Oh, she had one storybook. She just read the same one over and over. It’s not really complicated, is it? But when the memory first started to emerge, I was deeply, completely shocked.
And I think it’s because for a long time I needed to protect myself from the knowledge of how very much my life diverged from what it would have been without any abuse. If I had been born to normal, working class parents and raised in a Southern California exurb instead of born to insane, working class parents and raised in a Southern California exurb….unimaginably different.
There are good things in my life and terrible things and just neutral things, but I want blini when I am sick and being read aloud to in a language I don’t understand anymore (not much) makes me feel completely safe.
The insanity of my homelife meant that the good people in my life, the people who genuinely nurtured me and made me safe were not my parents, they were not even my relatives. My family did not in any way keep me safe, and my time with them was coloured by terror. I didn’t even feel safe at school or at the neighbours’ houses, because then I was just trying to keep it together. I was trying to be functional and normal so that I could do what I needed to do and so that I could relate to other children and have friends. And, maybe more than anything, those bonds were not close. I was not nurtured in any part of the life you expect to be there: family, church, school, neighbourhood. And so they don’t really mean anything to me. I cut almost all ties to my family, I left the church, I don’t know what happened to the neighbour kids I grew up with, and I have more or less lost touch with all the friends I had throughout school. None of that was terribly painful. Cutting ties with my family was purposeful, but it was frightening rather than a loss, and the rest of it just happened.
I was nurtured only in the place where it would seem I was most intensely abused. It’s an accident. I could have not been nurtured there either. But I was. If I hadn’t been nurtured there, I wouldn’t have been nurtured anywhere. I would have grown up in a wasteland of neglect.
I think for a long time I harboured the unexpressed desire to be, as an adult, the person I might have been if none of the abuse had happened. The person I really am seemed to be nothing more than a defective version of that one. But there’s really nothing good or important in the life that occurred outside the abuse. I was going through the motions, and there is nothing now to tie me to it. I have a few bright spots of memory, but there’s no real attachment. I don’t identify with it. There’s nothing in it to calm me down or give me hope through the tough spots.
At the same time, it’s unthinkable to be the person I am because of the abuse. It’s unthinkable that I could live through the things that I did and be affected by them–to have my life completely, permanently altered by them—and yet not be destroyed by it. It’s unthinkable to think I could survive all that and have it leave a permanent mark and yet have my life not be completely ruined.
My first thought about it has been that the mark of it has to be erased. Because there’s no way I can be someone who lived that. “Undo” is the only way to deal with it.
It’s unthinkable to think I could survive it. Survival means your life remains altered. It doesn’t become what it might have been if the horror had never happened. The mark of it on your life and yourself is not removed. It remains. But your life is satisfying anyway.
I have survived.
Life is still very, very hard for me. I still have a lot of work to do in terms of healing from the trauma. But my life is very satisfying. It is not life as a cardboard cutout—which it was for a long time, when I spent most of my time dissociated. It is exhausting, but it is not unrewarding. I am, you might say, impaired in a lot of ways. I still have shit to deal with that keeps me from doing the shit I would rather do. There are many things I’d like to do that I may never get to do because of the shit that needs to be dealt with. And that’s okay.
I am okay.
There are no real models for this. The models for it are busy living their own quiet lives or they don’t exist. I see people either midway through or still trying to undo the past or trying to be crusaders because of the past. I am not a crusader—I don’t have any energy left over for crusading about things. I don’t even have the energy to answer an email sometimes. And I have given up trying to find the “undo” button. There isn’t one.
Life is a chain, it’s a path. One thing happens and that leads to a set of choices that are different from the choices you would have had if it hadn’t happened, and before you know it, you are in a place you can never retrace your steps from. You can never be the person you might have been.
But life can still be good.
Life can still be okay. No matter what happened or how you got to be where you are, no matter how broken you feel inside or how difficult it is just now. There’s still a way to have a satisfying life. Eventually.