Some stuff

I woke up sad. Well, not woke up that way. It surfaced after maybe a half hour. It must have been there, but drowned in sleep. So I spent the morning in a kind of dreary limbo, overwhelmed with sadness, as though a blanket of despair had fallen over me.

It’s interesting what comes out of these things though. A failure, actually. I felt responsible for Ksymcia’s death. In my mind, at least, it was my job to make her happy. If she succumbed to despair, it was my fault. I didn’t make her happy enough. I was five years old. There was no logic to it. Just I loved her and I didn’t want her to die.

I think it cropped up again, very forcibly, because I told C I love her, and so I feel more responsible for her. I felt responsible before and now, it is like boulders on my head. If you think about what I felt I needed to keep Ksymcia safe from, the sense of responsibility as being like boulders is about right.

Translated onto the present, it means I have to keep C safe from all the Internet predators that seem to keep cropping up, and this ought to be easy except it’s not. And I need to be with her, because if I am not there, she might get sad and kill herself. Now, C is not sad. She’s really quite cheerful most of the time. She might have problems at home, but these days I don’t really think so. Not more than anyone else does, anyway. She’s really quite fine. But if people are constantly in danger of suiciding in some 5-year-old part of my mind, then I can start to understand. It’s an impossible task to keep someone safe all the time, even if you are grown, and it’s impossible to be with them or check on their well-being all the time. It was impossible when I was five, particularly given the conditions I lived in, and it is still impossible.

But the people I love now are not in such terrible pain all the time. They are not being tortured. They are not separated from their families and everything they once loved. They have tough times, but nothing like what people faced when I was a child. Most people are safe from that level of despair.

Five words

On Friday, someone posted porn on C’s Facebook account. It happened during 2nd period, when I was free, and sitting at my laptop. So I took it down, but then I went to look for her. She was in the computer lab. I went in her empty classroom and checked the class’s schedule. So when the bell rang for recess, I went down and met her leaving the lab. I led her away from her friends a bit.

“Do you have friends on Facebook you don’t know again?”

She seemed to know exactly why I was asking. I guess it’s not rocket science. My face plus the question and it’s clear.

She said something unintelligible about it not working. I never quite figured out what she meant by that but, anyway, I let her go. She had added 50 friends the night before, but she didn’t have 700 friends she didn’t know. The odds of having more problems before she could look through her friends and unfriend them seemed lower.

I found her again at lunchtime, after she had come back from eating lunch at home. She was chasing her little sister across the assembly ground when I saw her. I called her name. I said I wanted to know how it had happened, forgetting that is how Country Xers scold. It is code for, “You ought to be ashamed of yourselves.” I suppose she took it that way, because what I got first was an indignant rush of words. Not indignant at me, but at sort of the world. I stopped her. “I need to ask you questions so I can understand.”

So I asked her if she had added the 50 friends. No, 20 or 30. Not 50. Which made sense—I do look at her page sometimes to make sure all is okay, and I look at how many friends she has to see that she is not being indiscriminate again. Usually, they tick up gradually. One here, five there. The night before, she had added a lot. I think it was 30. Then in the morning when I woke up again, it was suddenly 20 more. The first burst of friends was hers. The second was not.

“Who knows your password?”

Two friends, plus me.

But her password was incredibly easy to guess. It could have been anyone who wanted to play around with her account and knew one or two things about her. I said we had better change it. She asked me if I would do it for her. I said I would. I asked her about looking through her friends again. She had National Language homework to do. She would do it herself on her phone after school. “Do you have balance?” She said yes. So I left it.

Later, I left her a message on Facebook just saying not to trust so much. Some people want to take advantage. I just felt so scared for her. The internet is like opening a door on the world, and it’s not just that it opens up a door to a world that is sometimes evil and preys on the vulnerable and trusting, but that her world is so very, very small. Here, in Country X, she knows less about what is out there waiting to hurt her than most 7-year-olds in developed countries.

When she came online after school, she just agreed with me. And I said five words then that I hadn’t said before. I said, “I love you very much.”

“Me too madam.”

I felt relieved then, that what I had said wasn’t totally out of line, but maybe a statement of what was already evident.

I didn’t reply though. I just felt it. The relief of it, but also the warmth.

Then after a while, I asked her something else. I can’t remember what, and it disappeared out of the chat a bit later. I think somehow it never reached her.

Then, suddenly, “Why u r nt giving dam madam.”

I was beside myself. I mean, what had I done? What exactly did it seem I didn’t care about. But actually “not giving damn” means ignoring something you don’t want to hear. I had learned this indirectly from her friend, the school captain, the night before in the course of listening to a tale of failed romance. I hadn’t quite internalized this.

So I was upset. I mean, on all fronts, because it made what I said seem very different. Maybe it ought not have, but it did, as though I had accidentally asked her to be my girlfriend, she had said yes, and I had then fallen silent.

Anyway, I asked why she was angry and why she thought I wasn’t giving a damn. Oh, I was supposed to say something, but she wasn’t angry. Instead, she wanted a recharge. I don’t actually know why asks. She claims to have money to repay me, but then forgets to give it to me. I suspect she isn’t allowed to go down to the shops unless she is being sent specifically on an errand. I had actually offered to do this, indirectly, so I did that.

But in the morning when I woke up again, she hadn’t unfriended anyone. Later, she asked if we could it at school. It takes a long time on a phone.

So she came early to school and we did that. I didn’t, then, feel as though I had said something wildly inappropriate to her. There was a change, but it was subtle, and it wasn’t that kind of change. I just had a feeling of earnestness and a deep and authentic respect.

It reminded me of Nata, how I felt like glass in her hands. I don’t think I have had that feeling since. If I ever got that sense from anyone, I shut it down.

I have been working at letting that feeling just be inside me, because I think I need to. It is intimately tied to so much of the trauma I experienced. The girls I loved were hurt in front me, I had to hurt them, they had to hurt me.

It turns out that respect is an important part of love: respect for the person’s uniqueness, their feelings and what is comfortable for them, their autonomy and their dignity. Love isn’t just warmth or desire. It is also this feeling of appreciation for the person and a sense of their worth.

And that is what is completely missing from life if you have as your parents a psychopath and a narcissist. It is something I experienced in a brothel, but not anywhere else very deeply, and it seems to me when I left my friends there, I thought it could never happen again and the world I had left them to live in was not only cold but without any sense of sincere respect or appreciation for me or anyone.

I can feel it again now because of a 13-year-old girl.

I did it

Ksymcia died on the 14th of August. I was sitting on my bed yesterday afternoon, recovering from a nap. And that thought just popped into my head. She died on August 14th, and it was in 1978. I had only just turned five. You wouldn’t think I would know the date but, of course, I did. When the person you loved most in the world has died, you remember the date. If you don’t know what day it is, you go and look at a calendar, or you find someone big to ask. And you remember that day forever. No wonder the last few weeks have been so hard.

It’s comforting in a way. No wonder teaching has been so difficult for me. No wonder my classes have been acting up. I’m not a terrible teacher, but the trauma isn’t just being gently explored. It has been dragged up forcibly by the date. And there is so much of it. So much of it was completely new. It’s a wonder I can function at all.

So I feel relieved. I lived through the anniversary of it. I lived through a year of anniversaries I didn’t even know about. I lived through the anniversary of Nata’s death, a spring full of losses—the anniversary of my relationship with Nata, her proposal, Veroushka’s birth and her removal from us—and then Ksymcia’s death, and a million other traumas those events connected to, plus trauma memories triggered by daily life events and not any specific date. I’ll have to keep living through them, I imagine. The triggers don’t just disappear after one go-round, but they do get easier to deal with.

I did it. I was strong enough to do it for one year. I am strong enough to keep doing it.

A part of the relief about it is that, although it is hard, it didn’t wreck my life to remember everything. My life became difficult to manage at some points, but it never became entirely unmanageable.

Sometimes I get the idea that we are a bit delusional about this kind of thing. We think if we just try to deal with trauma, we can do it, but it is not automatic. It’s not that the feelings seem worse than they are. They are every bit as bad as we think they are going to be. In some cases, they were substantially worse. But, over time, you can build skills for managing them, and it starts to get a bit easier. If you were raised by what I think of as empathically-impaired people, you start out having fewer skills, and what you need to do requires more skills. These skills can be learned.

It’s not like you have a wound that needs to heal. It’s more like you have a stallion to learn to ride. Well, people learn to ride horses. Some people work up to learning how to ride spirited, difficult ones. It feels like that to me, anyway, like a matter of learning a kind of coordination between what starts out as almost two creatures: my mind and the trauma. The trauma is a bit tamer now, but I am also a better rider. I don’t get unseated so easily, and I know better how to calm things down.

The unexpected part of this is that I now feel I have roots and an identity. I don’t have my identity sorted out, but it feels as though something is there. And it also feels as though a lot of mysteries have been solved that have to do with me and who I am.

My parents really did not raise me. I am not who I am because of them. They were people whose house I lived in, but the bond I had with them is really not like the bond people have with their parents. It is not even like the bond people have with terrible parents. It is different.

I was raised by children and by teenaged girls. The most important figures in my life were Ksymcia and Natashka. It affects who I am in more ways than it would because there is this difference of culture and language. They ate different foods, their speech had different sounds in it, they expressed affection and disapproval differently, their body language was different.

And, in the case of Natashka, there was an entirely different expectation about assertiveness. I went home to my parents and was expected to behave as a doormat. The 2x2s are very arrogant doormats. It’s an odd juxtaposition, but there it is. We are better than everyone else, because we behave as though we have no rights. That was the ethos at home.

But the Russian girls were very confident. They were assertive. I can remember that feeling in my body. It is there not just in words, but in the posture I remember having there. And then I had to go to my parents’ house, and adopt an entirely different posture, a “meek” one, a “quiet” one.

This explains some things to me about myself that really aren’t exactly about trauma, but because of the relationships that formed due to the specific circumstances of the trauma. One of them has to do with a sense of being foreign. I feel an intense kind of loneliness and even a kind of culture shock because of the trauma: that’s a part of the memory of both Ksymcia’s and Nata’s deaths. I had to leave my whole world behind, and not just that one person. But I also feel like an outsider in my own country all the time. It’s a strange feeling, and one I could never adequately explain before. People I don’t know ask me where I am from, or they guess where I am from and it is some other country. I have been asked on the bus, prior to being asked for directions, if I speak English. It is an odd experience. But there is clearly something about me that feels to other people—and not just me—vaguely “other” in some way that cannot be pinned down.

Accent-wise, I am something of a chameleon. It’s not strong. It’s subtle. I think this happens to other people too, but it happens to me because I have no sense that an American accent is “my” accent. It’s just something I did as a child to be like other people, like adopting a submissive posture around the 2x2s. It didn’t become “me” just because I did it all the time, and so as an English-speaker, I never really know who to be. There is kind of no “there there.” There is no way of speaking that feels “mine,” and the result of that feeling is an accent promiscuity, because that’s what I was always doing: imitating the accents of people I did not feel a part of. I speak English like it is a second language and not my mother tongue, and I am just trying to use correct pronunciation—correct being however the people around me are speaking.

This is, of course, weird, because I no longer speak anything else fluently. I barely remember Polish. I just have this emotional response to the sound of it. I remember a bit more Russian—I think if I were surrounded by Russian, quite a lot would come back to me. But I really only speak English. I have lost all the languages of my childhood that give me a sense of comfort and home and familiarity. But they remain a part of who I am.

The weirder part of this is that, although we grew up in the same house, I had an entirely different childhood from my sister. We share some of the same traumas. She is probably more in parts than me: she has suppressed nearly all of the memories of trauma. But my dad’s bizarre sexual fetishes and his pseudo-religious rituals, she experienced too. That’s all she experienced though. No one made milk soup for her, or prepared tea from a samovar. She doesn’t have all the other stuff. She had only my parents, and not a 12-year-old mamusia, not a puppy pile, not any of the other stuff that I had—the good and bad of that other life she played no part in.


I dreamed about Ksymcia last night. I didn’t have nightmares for once, but I did dream.

We were in the US, riding a bus. I was explaining the route to her, that it looked straight on the poster of it, but it is actually nearly a loop. That was all.

When I woke up, I thought maybe I had dreamed of C, but then I realized they don’t look exactly the same. Ksymcia has a slightly narrower face than C, but the eyes were same colour. I have wondered about that, because sometimes I think Ksymcia must have had blue eyes, but I can never see them in my mind. I never have a picture. But in the dream they were the same colour as C’s—a light brown. And maybe they really were brown.

I don’t know what the dream means—if anything—except that in the morning, when I remembered it, I felt so sad to be without her. I have been thinking since last night how these girls I loved never got to grow up or, if they did, I didn’t see it. Their futures were cut off, and I never saw what kind of people they were able to become. It is not like watching my students begin to become less wobbly dough and more clearly their own special selves, or become different people. The school captain, who was sometimes arrogant and too talkative in class has become obedient and quiet this year and C is more assertive and commanding. So that is one thought, just that I didn’t get to see this when I was a child. I didn’t get to see how all of us turned out and what became of us, because for most of them, that’s all they got. Just those years.

My other thought has to do with culture shock. I experienced it as a child first when Ksymcia died and then when Nata did and I never went back to Yuri’s place. I hadn’t fully appreciated—I hadn’t wanted to appreciate—how much I identified with the girls in that place and how much it felt like home to me. And although I spent most of my time in mainstream culture, it was not my home. I know as a foreigner a part of how you cope is to spend a certain amount of time retreating from the new culture, and carving out a space where you are in some way surrounded by all the old things. It is why foreign enclaves exist and why there are ethnic neighbourhoods. It is not just out of fear of what is different, but a necessity. It helps us cope with the stress of being “other.”

So I had that. I had this place I could retreat to and be comfortable in my own skin again, where I didn’t feel like I was pretending to be someone I wasn’t. Then I lost that safe place to retreat to. Of course, in so many ways, it was not safe, but in that way it was.

When they died, I stopped having any place to return to. In so many ways, I no longer had any home to go to and this has been a massive part of the trauma memories I have, this sense of being uneasy in my own skin, and as if I can’t breathe.

The third thought I have had has to do with the survivability of everything. It seems to me I have had the idea that I could not survive any of the things that happened to me, and that it simply not possible to have them there as a part of me. Nothing good can come of that. It’s as though they could either be consuming or disappear into nothing. Well, that isn’t true. I have flashbacks about something or other almost every day. It’s not as though it’s all behind me now, and I can move on. I still have to deal with it. And that may not last forever, but it is how things are now, and I am mostly doing fine. I have to carve time out to process it, that’s true. I can’t live like other people at least appear to, who mostly are trying to cope with the day-to-day stresses and not murder and rape and trafficking.

The school captain

It has been an odd two days. I had a terrible day Tuesday. All of my classes were horrible. The principal was sick, so we went to his house and I went although I was dead exhausted and wanted to go home and cry, because it was a go home and cry kind of day. Then my friends wanted me to watch a football match for a while. I somehow relented. I suppose because I never do anything with them. I just go home. So I stayed for maybe 15 minutes. By then, it was nearly 6 o’clock.

When I went home, I found I did not have my house key. It is a hard thing to lose my housekey. It is either in my purse inside my backpack, or attached to a plastic clip in my backpack. But maybe that day I was carrying it in my hand on the way to school. Anyway, it was gone, and it seemed to me someone had taken it, and I felt deeply betrayed, because I had told my students to take something out of my backpack for me earlier in the day and they could have taken it from me then. I assumed they must have.

I went back to school just to be sure I hadn’t left it on my desk though. It wasn’t there. I met the girl’s school captain as I was coming back from my fruitless search. She was locking up the school gate, and I told her what had happened. She seemed to be worried about me. “Do you have a friend to stay with you?” I don’t know why she thought I needed a friend, but it seemed to trouble her. “I will stay with you.” I told her no, it was okay. Then she invited me into her house. I sat in the livingroom with her parents who don’t speak English, but that I see all the time. I guess her mom likes me. Anyway, I sat there while she did something in her bedroom. Which turned out to be packing her things to stay the night at my house.

Sometimes, there is this weird sense here in Country X of being an adult who is being shepherded about by children. C does this, but she is mostly focused on lint. It is maybe the odd part of being a foreigner. You are somehow inherently incompetent and must be looked after , but the children somehow do it more than the adults. Maybe the children love me more.

That aside, we went back to my flat and she helped me sort how to get the lock off. I sawed it off with a hacksaw blade from my landlord’s shop. Then she made tea and dinner. She had a question about her math’s homework, and she wanted to find a Korean song for a dance performance on Youtube. We did that. I tried to entertain her with some photos. She chatted on Facebook with C (they are good friends). Eventually, it was time for bed. “Where would you like to sleep?”

“With you, madame.”

Evidently, this is done. She slept in my single bed next to me while I mostly didn’t sleep. And in the morning, I got up at five and did my chores while she went on sleeping. She woke up maybe at quarter to seven. She put her National Dress on and then put mine on for me, because actually I haven’t worn National Dress with a belt for a long time, and it’s hard—my other outfits have Velcro and clips. I can’t remember how to do it really. If I did it myself, it would take 30 minutes again. She did it in about 1. Then she ate and we left.

At school, I met C as I was just arriving, and I answered a maths question. The bell rang, and we went our separate ways. Wednesday, unlike Tuesday, was a good day, mainly because I complained to 2 out of 3 class teachers about my unruly classes. I guess it was time to call in reinforcements.

Something else happened, which is that I got really angry at C for being late and not telling me. I think that was Monday. I talked to her about it, but I didn’t really feel better. The following day, it did help, because then it was clear to her what was expected of her so she could do it. I have told her she needs to tell me when she will be late, but maybe not in an entirely clear way or maybe not in a way that led her to understand its importance. And maybe I didn’t take the initiative either, because I was trying to tolerate the fear that she has died when I don’t see her instead of trying to relieve it. Now in the mornings, I ask C if she is coming when she doesn’t tell me—she has been having problems getting her sister ready for school, and her sister cries if she can’t go with C. The communication is reassuring to me. I think maybe it is mostly reassuring because it reminds me that I live in a world where I can be away from people and still know how they are. Leaving Yuri’s place was like leaving nowhere. There was the 7:30 pm call from Nata, but it couldn’t always be arranged, and nothing else but that strict coordination could be done to stay connected. The connection was severed as soon as I drove away in the car.

This brings us, I suppose, to Wednesday. As I said, it was a good day, but I hadn’t slept much and I was again completely exhausted. I was literally on the point of going off to bed when there was a knock at the door. The school captain again. She wanted help with quite a lengthy English assignment. We did that for a while. Then I told her I needed to go to the shops. There was nothing to eat in my house. We went, then on the way back picked up some greasy, fried things for dinner. Which incidentally, had a cockroach crawling around the edge of the dish they were kept while we were buying them. I did not get sick.

Oh, but what I didn’t say is that she came immediately into my bedroom and began to take off her National Dress. She didn’t have any other clothes to wear, so I gave her mine. Going out to the shops, she wore my jacket, because she was cold. It was like a door had opened the first time she came to stay in my house, and now I am her relative or something. It is entirely different from when the other students come to my house, who ask for permission to use the toilet. Which doesn’t mean she is rude. Just she feels totally she knows where the boundary is, and the boundary is in a place where she can use my things.

So it is Thursday now, and I slept better last night, but I’m still so tired. And I wonder what the day holds for me.

Here and now

It seems to me in the evening that it’s possible for life to happen now. I mean, it keeps feeling unreal, as if it is just not possible for life to continue on past my childhood. It’s not even a matter of here I am in Country X doing things I might never have considered before, but that anything could have happened at all. There is a major disconnect in my head.

And just today it seemed a little like, “Okay, this can happen. This is possible.” It’s possible even for something to happen in my life or for me to make choices that aren’t reflective of grief, as though maybe I had come out from under the weight of it just a bit.

This isn’t, I shouldn’t say, one of those cognitive-driven thoughts. It’s an emotional thought. It seems possible. I am not telling myself it is possible and trying to demand some kind of compliance. Just I can kind of see how, as difficult as it is, it is possible to have something like a full life after my childhood.

I think it must mean the edge of the pain is off a bit. It’s still hard. Don’t get carried away. It still hurts. It still hurts so much I really can’t handle it and I switch. But it seems to me it has to hurt less, or this wouldn’t happen.

And then it started to seem like maybe I could have happy moments here in the present too.

It started to seem like I am located exactly right now, as a person living here in Country X in 2015 and struggling with the effects of trauma every single day. Not someone in the trauma not, and not someone in Country X without trauma, but someone here and now trying to cope.

I think that’s good.