Every day, there is at least one moment—sometimes a long moment, sometimes a moment that lasts hours—when I think I will absolutely break. And I don’t know in those moments how I will go on even thinking, let alone teaching a class, let again making dinner, or trying to calm down enough to fall asleep at night.
There are a lot of days when I don’t know how I can go on not killing myself, because the urge to die is so overwhelming and I know, actually, that I don’t necessarily want to die now. I am merely remembering wanting to die at some point in the past, and it’s a point in the past I need to understand better, and the only way to do that is to turn the event over and over in my mind until it starts to become something. And that means grappling with the feelings of it. It means remembering that feeling of wanting to die and not dying. It means no matter how I feel, I have to keep breathing. It’s hard. Lately, it seems very nearly impossible.
So this is where I am. This is what it is like to be me on a regular basis. I don’t know that it will always be me, but it is me at the moment. It is me today, and this week, and this year. It might be what it is like to be next year too.
I have been thinking about this loneliness and about the loneliness that lies deeper for me, that feels at the very core of my experience, which is the loneliness of having had friends who would quite literally died for me, who saved me again and again and in the end did die for me.
All of a sudden—I was 13—and I didn’t have those friends anymore. One day, I had friends I seemed to be connected to with electric wires—pulses being sent between us all the time—and the next day, I had literally no one I felt cared about in a genuine way.
I am remembering the loneliness too. That’s a part of the experience.
And that’s me too. I have to grapple with a loneliness I think few people can even really imagine, because there is that contrast. There are lonely people and alienated people, but I think it’s unique to highly abusive situations that you go from intense connection to nothing just when life would otherwise get bearable again. I was left with that: less terror, but no connections.
I am trying to think how to approach that kind of loneliness. It’s a loneliness that remains, because I have this daily experience and this story that just feels outside the realm of what can be comfortably shared a good lot of the time. It just creates a gap between me and what seems to be the rest of the world.
I often think the way to deal with that is in part to become extremely good at explaining my experience to someone who might not understand. I write this blog, I practice explaining it. Maybe it’s working. I don’t know. I think it does help.
But I also realize as I am typing this that the person I am exists in relationship to all of these things that happened to me. You don’t need to wonder perhaps what it means to be someone who lived when other people you loved died. You didn’t grow up in close proximity to a serial killer. Maybe, your childhood didn’t feel something akin to a genocide and you don’t ever need to think who am I given that someone died to save me, but I do have to think about it. I do have to think what the meaning of my life is given that so many people who didn’t survive helped me to survive. But I do. I have to do that. Right now, I have to do that every single day even though the pain of even thinking about it feels unsurvivable. Because I need to know.
Many people can put their past in the past, I think. They can go on with their lives with only minor tinkering: the past did not fundamentally change their identities, or it need not do that. I think mine does. It’s not just that I have to grapple with this phenomenal degree of loss, but that I need to position myself in terms of who I am as someone who lived when nearly everyone I truly loved died.
I think one aspect of all of this that is so difficult is the past, as painful as it was, is not only pain now. It is also so much of what I am proud of. I am proud of the people we were despite the positions we were placed in. I am proud of our ability to maintain our dignity and our humanity despite our dehumanizing conditions.
I wonder if that’s what people want to mean when they talk about being a survivor rather than a victim. The trauma remains as a part of one’s identity, and yet you now have a different relationship to it. It seems like the people who talk about being a survivor don’t really know what it means though. They aren’t necessarily victims in their own minds, but the transition to “survivor” very often feels forced, as though you must position yourself as someone who is proud of what you have done. I am not proud of myself. I did my best. Sometimes it wasn’t much. Sometimes it was terrible. It’s possible that at times what I did was stunning. I was a child, after all. Your childhood wasn’t an endless string of shining moments either.
And it seems to me one difference between what I think and what I feel I have to think given this cultural emphasis on being a “survivor” is that I didn’t survive because of what I did. That played some part in it, I suppose, but I survived mainly because of what other people did. I survived because the people I knew were unimaginably brave, they were unfathomably generous, and relentlessly nurturing. Without them, I have no idea what would have become of me. I would certainly be much more broken inside than I am, and very likely just dead. I am awed at what one person did for me, but more than one person saved me.
So I am not so proud of myself. I am proud of everyone else. I am proud of the difficult choices people made every day that maybe they didn’t always make perfectly, but on balance were oriented towards a stunning degree of altruism.
That is who I am. I am someone who has to make sense of these things.
I think for a long time, I have felt I could not be that person. It’s impossible to be someone who saw six of her friends murdered on six different occasions, or saw their corpses, or who had some kind of direct evidence that they were really and truly dead. All before I reached high school. I have to somehow contort myself into the person I might have been had these things never happened. I am starting to see there is no way to contort myself that far.
I have an idea that this is part of my loneliness: I have kept trying to be someone I am not in order to live, because I thought that was the only way I could. I thought I had to be someone who could put it behind me. Well, I can’t. I can only live with it nestled inside me, as a part of my identity. I don’t have it all worked out in terms of what it means, but I understand now that it is important. I need to remain part of the “us” we were while adding to myself the other “mes” I might be. I need to retain a sense of our values and our ways of doing things. Just as you might look back at your dysfunctional family and think there are some things that need to change in you because they aren’t working, there are things I need to change, but there are these other things I don’t want to change. There are these other things that are good or neutral or just reminders of happy times—like still wanting to make Christmas pudding if you liked that. I’m working on this, but I think I’m kind of getting a line on it.
I can’t ever let them go.