One of the things I have been thinking about this week were my expectations for my life as a teenager. I was thinking about this because of C and her new boyfriend, who says he will love her forever. All I have been able to think of to tell C about this is that she should take things slowly and allow herself the time to develop her own ideas, her own dreams and desires.
It’s not really an adequate response, but I am not sure what to say. I am worried for her, but I don’t want my worry to infect her. My worries come from missteps that led to assault and to death. They are real worries, but overblown. And I also don’t want to send the message that your body is bad, your sexuality is bad, your desire to be love and be loved is bad. She has opened up to me in a way she hasn’t in a long time, and I am not unaware of the ease with which I can break her trust.
When we are kids, we promise forever when we don’t have the faintest idea how long forever is. The boyfriend is responding, however unconsciously, to his own fears of abandonment. He doesn’t want to be left, and so the best thing he can offer C is his promise not to leave her. In that way, their deepest pains match. It’s a very young kind of empathy—assuming someone has the same mind as you do.
Anyway, it made me think of my expectations when I was her age. I remember them somewhat precisely, because we did a kind of budgeting/career path unit that involved planning our ideal life. What kind of salary do you need for the life you want and will your dream job provide you with that? My plan was entirely de-peopled. No partner, no children. I thought I might get a dog. I was 14, I suppose. A bit younger than C. And yet I envisioned an adulthood for myself where I just worked hard.
It’s evident now why that would be—that I had experienced too many losses and it wasn’t necessarily that I was protecting myself from more losses, but I was in a sense trapped in my own mind with those losses. How do you invite someone into your experience again when what you are experiencing within yourself is something no one can stand?
Until I wrote that out just now, I never quite grasped that. When the backdrop of your life involves so much loss, you compartmentalize those losses in order to maintain at least some semblance of having an inhabited social landscape or you get rid of the people and engage with yourself. It’s a shitty choice.
I didn’t really stick with that—I did at some point try to have a long-term relationship, tried to settle down into something resembling a family, but at that age, the losses were very fresh and very devastating to me.
So I have been thinking that many of the things I think I remember really did happen. Nata really did die, and other people I remember less clearly died also. There were murders and there were deaths and I saw them. And I need to come to terms with that. I cannot go on ignoring or trying to purge myself of it or trying to forget. I need to remember and I also need to think what it means to remember.
Someone who thinks, when you have experienced very intense horrors, that that was the past and has nothing to do with the present, and the thing to do is move on, “normalize”—that person is an idiot. There has to be some coherence, and there needs to be a smooth flow between what has happened at various points in the past and what is happening now. I have never quite articulated that so clearly for myself before.
Anyway, I began to read about the Holocaust, because surviving the Holocaust is the only lens through which these issues seem to be discussed. I am not trying to put my suffering on the same level. There isn’t really a comparison. But it’s been studied. It’s been written about and maybe feelings are feelings, regardless of the degree of the horror.
I was reading about the intergenerational transmission of trauma—an article mentioned the “memorial candle” child, who is the offspring of Holocaust survivors who feels most burdened by the need to remember. I feel that way. I feel burdened by the need to remember. I feel that very intensely. I need to remember. I need to honour the memory of people who suffered, who weren’t perfect, but nurtured me. I need to remember the people who taught me to be decent in the face of indecency, honest in the midst of corruption, kind in the midst of brutality. If I had been without them, I don’t believe I would have survived. My body might have, but my humanity would not have.
But I also can’t live in a box full of sadness and mourning.
I was thinking about this more because of C. We don’t really have a lot of contact. I end up having a brief phone exchange which is pretty much how are you did you eat dinner a few times a month. We have some brief chats which can mostly be summed up as I love you we are still connected you are not bad. But I do think I might affect her. I think my attitudes and beliefs are likely to leak out, and if I am trapped in a perpetual state of mourning, that will have an impact on her. She might grow up to feel loved, but in some way doomed, as though life has nothing to offer beyond tragedy, even if she does not know what that tragedy is.
In other words, I need to work my shit out.
There is something else I have been mulling over, which has to do with her boyfriend—this worrying boy who believes he will die without her. He chats with me regularly now. I don’t know where that will lead. I have been telling him C will come back. I know you miss her, but she will come back.
That’s something I needed to know. I would have needed to know that just because of my unreliable mother, but I would have needed to know that after the first death I witnessed, which I do think was when I was about three. I don’t think I really remember any of the details, despite the story I’ve told on here (which may or may not be true). I am sure only that I hid. That it was very frightening.
I really needed that to not happen again and I needed to know it wouldn’t happen again. Anyway, I have been thinking about this boy’s fears. Once you open yourself up to the happiness that comes with attachment, you understand the potential for loss, and you have to live with that. I have to get my head around the people who died being as full of life and joy and potential as C is. I have to somehow process the idea that it would be terrible for me if she died. I have to understand that potential for the end of that happiness and the way it feels as though life itself has switched off and left you in the darkness. And I need to do that so that C does not experience me as someone perpetually worried and fearful.
It probably isn’t my main struggle. My main struggle is really shame. That comes from my mom. It’s less dramatic. It’s pretty much she just never liked me. She looked at me and saw someone she didn’t like and I don’t know why. I don’t know why she is like that.
I was chatting with C this morning. I said in eighth grade whenever I saw you, you looked as though you felt you had done something bad. Do you remember that? She said no. But I persisted. I said do you feel when you meet me (when we chat or talk or whatever), that you did something bad.
So I feel that too. I begin to feel the happiness of connection, and I feel very deeply ashamed. It’s automatic. On Monday, taking a package to the post office to mail her, I felt it so deeply I dissociated through part of the walk home. I felt it and just kind of observed that I seemed to be in shock. There are these two emotional currents: the shame I have about connecting and also the terror I have about the vulnerability of my source of connection. She has blood in her veins and organs nestled within the cage of her bones and she can break and if that happened, the lights in my life would go off again entirely. I somehow have to come to terms with that.
The thing is I think she has experienced abuse that made her feel that she would break. It’s not entirely dreadful or damaging that I would see her fragility. She feels it too. But I need to see it and also feel this is okay. It’s ok for you to be vulnerable, because no one is going to hurt you anymore. You are safe. But I can’t really provide that kind of safety for her. I am not there to protect her. I don’t have the power I would need to have in her life to prevent her from being assaulted by her parents.
I just know my fears can’t leak.