I used to have dreams all the time where Boone would come back. He’d break down the front door and I would have to flee out the back with the baby, run down the alley, seek shelter at the collective Hawthorne House down the street. I imagined myself hiding as deep in the belly of the house as I could manage. My friends would be at the door, negotiating. They could hold him off, I reassured myself. These dreams spilled over into waking life. I replayed them over and over in my head, as I walked down the street, as I drove home from work, as I stirred the onions. I had different ones, too. One for the coffee shop, one for the grocery store. They became my daydream nightmares, these were the musings with which I would occupy my mind when it needed occupied.
I finally started seeing a counselor in September just after Joseph was born. It was a free service provided by the Knoxville Family Justice Center, and the wait list was long. My counselor gave me a word for my day dream nightmares: Paranoid Fantasies. She also gave me a name for what I was experiencing: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
At other times in my life I have rebelled against diagnoses. It can be defeating and even dehumanizing to have your experience labeled so authoritatively: You are depressed. You have an anxiety disorder. The language itself takes the healing out of your hands and suddenly you must trust the authority of the counselor or the prescription to fix you. But this time, the diagnoses was affirming, in the same way it was affirming when the adviser at the Family Justice Center said definitively, “What you are describing is abuse.” You are not over reacting, you are not attention seeking, you are not making this up, what you are facing is real and heavy and other people have experienced it too.
When I was most truly in danger, I was so protected from my own emotions that I simply didn’t experience the appropriate fear. Once I was safe again, my heart still carried around all that unprocessed & unfelt emotion. Thus, the nightmares. An outlet for appropriate fear. For the same reason, I found myself living out fights we never had, pouring in to them every ounce of anger that got swallowed as so many stones into my belly. It all poured out of me, and once it was gone, so were the nightmares, so were the daydreams. They had finished serving their role.
A few weeks ago, Boone came through town. He stayed only one day, and did not attempt to see me or contact me. But only the fact of his presence kept me up all night, worrying which heavy and blunt object I would reach for (at the time we were then living in South Knox County, and escape to a friends’ house was no longer viable), planning which interior room I could hide Joseph in.
I have a tending to want, even to expect, that healing be linear. I want to check the box off and move on to the next step, someday reaching a finishing point after which I will never look back. But of course this is not true of any of the processes of the earth, and it certainly is not true of the human heart.
Christian Wiman writes in his essay entitled The Limit:
It did happen, though. It marked me. I don’t believe in “laying to rest” the past. There are wounds we won’t get over. There are things that happen to us that, no matter how hard we try to forget, no matter with what fortitude we face them, what mix of religion and therapy we swallow, what finished and durable forms of art we turn them into, are going to go on happening inside of us for as long as our brains are alive.
And yet I’ve come to believe, and in rare moments can almost feel, that like an illness some vestige of which the body keeps to protect itself, pain may be its own reprieve; that the violence that is latent within us may be, if never altogether dispelled or tamed, at least acknowledged, defined, and perhaps by dint of the love we feel for our lives, for the people in them and for our work, rendered into an energy that need not be inflicted on others or ourselves, an energy we may even be able to use; and that for those of us who have gone to war with our own minds there is yet hope for what Freud called “normal unhappiness,” wherein we might remember the dead without being haunted by them, give to our lives a coherence that is not “closure,” and learn to live with our memories, our families, and ourselves amid a truce that is not peace.
In July of 2008, a man entered the sanctuary of Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church and opened fire, killing two people and injuring many more. It was and is still my church. This was my first significant experience of a violation of my safety, of my safe space, of my sanctuary.
Many years later I had a dream. I was holding a delicate white porcelain vessel, a sphere with a small circular opening. Inside it replayed in miniature, eternally, the scene in the sanctuary that day. Everything was red. With gentle fingers I was darning over the opening with a thin red needle and thread, lovingly enclosing the scene inside it’s vessel, where it would play forever.
Last week my mom, Anne Whitney, shared with me her beautiful piece of writing about that day in July of 2008. She told me how she was surprised how the feelings all came back up as she wrote down the words, even eight years later. She ended it by saying:
And so I hug my daughter. And I play with my grandson. I laugh with my friends. And I go on living.
I’m still a beginner at this. I’m still working out how to transform my trauma into workable energy, how to keep my fingers gentle as I darn over the opening. I don’t know if I’ll ever get rid of the nightmares for good. I do know that I’ve come a long way in this process of healing, and I also know that I will continue to carry these porcelain vessels for as long as I live. These are my responsibility now, my work to carry, and the darning may go on for a very long time.
It was Dorothy Day who said: No one has a right to sit down and feel hopeless. There is too much work to do. She was referring to activism and the fight for justice, but the longer I live the more I am sure that our fight to heal our world must be rooted first in our fight to heal ourselves. And so I go on working, and so I go on living.
Red Heart Mending No. 2, Lauren Hulse, Charcoal on paper, 2013
The full essay by Christian Wiman here.
Read Anne Whitney’s full piece entitled that summer.
This post inspired by the word: Nightmare