I’m not done working through the triggers of my past. When I rain, I pour.
A few days ago, I woke up after a rough night and it hit me, why I have this maniacal urge to fix things for others, the compulsion to feel I should help even when I know I can’t… But to explain this, I need to dig back into storytelling.
And yet, I would so rather forget the parts of my life that weren’t positive, especially the ones that implicate my parents. It would be so much easier than to have to acknowledge the ways that they, however unintentionally, have hurt me. (Dear parents, if your eyes ever land on these words, please know that my need to speak of these things in no way means that I condemn you. I love you both immensely and respect you so much for having gone through much rougher times than I have. I know you meant to give me more than you received, and you absolutely have. And though I wish all the positive rendered the negative disarmed, it doesn’t, which is why I am here, undertaking the delicately difficult task of pulling the veil from what was too painful for us to discuss together.)
Ugh, this is gut wrenchingly hard to write about. My mind keeps trying to evade the subject, and I keep writing and deleting and writing and deleting useless efforts. My sense of preservation is crying at me to stitch back this wound shut. Fuck it.
The matchbox story. The only reason why I know about this is because my parents told this story in front of me many many times. The fact that they felt free to dispense this as good advice shows how they really didn’t think they were harming me with their child-rearing shortcuts. So here it goes. When I was about two, before my sister was born, I started getting out of bed and wandering out of my room in the evenings. Classic terrible twos, when a little one’s sense of self starts to assert itself. So my parents decided to use a matchbox to block my bedroom door. In the story they tell, it took no more than a week for me to battle with this, trying to get out and crying myself to sleep by the door, but after that, I was perfectly trained, going to bed and staying in on my own. I was told this very much impressed all their friends who came over for dinner at our place, and it greatly contributed to my reputation as a wonder child.
I can’t know if the vague memory I have of falling asleep against the door and later being transported back into my bed, too exhausted to protest anymore, is an actual memory or if it’s something I imagined from hearing the story. I don’t actually remember struggling with the door, but to think of myself in that position brings anguished tears to my eyes, and a feeling of compression in my chest. Like I said, my parents meant well. They were so proud and needy of me to be an autonomous well behaved kid. I’m sure I would have different problems had I been raised to be wild but such as it is, I was raised to learn that I needed to deal with my feelings on my own and that above all, I needed to not bother my parents with my needs. Which of course, no one could have known would be the worse possible set up for what happened next.
Mini recap of a big story. My sister was born but couldn’t eat on her own. She was hospitalized and force fed so she wouldn’t die. After six months of my parents taking turns so she wouldn’t be alone at the hospital, they got her in a home care program and she came home to the room we shared, where she continued to be force fed for another three years, every single night. After she started eating on her own, she developed a sleeping disorder where she would cry in her sleep, also every single night, for another six years.
I’m so used to stating all these things while staying collected, but inside all I want is to fall apart, slide to floor and let the cry out of my throat, let the tears flood my face, let my body tell its own version of what happened.
The link between the matchbox and the nightly force feeding appeared to me a year or so ago. That I had been trained to not leave my bed and to not show my feelings, which is what I continued to do, even as my room transformed every night into an intensive care unit. How terrified I must have been and how impossible it was to escape it. How I was later called a perfect child for handling the situation without any trouble, but how it’s all utterly blacked out from my memory, and yet still haunts me everyday.
Now here’s the new piece of the puzzle I woke up with the other morning. My sister experienced the force feeding not as life saving but as torture. She would constantly try to pull the tube going through her nose to her stomach, she had to be restrained, the setup had to be reset after she learned to make herself throw it up. Then the sleep crying was basically her nightly reliving of that torture, her unconscious grappling with what she had experienced. Meaning, I have spent almost a decade of my earliest life listening to someone I love in pain and fear, unable to help her in any way, unable even to fully understand what was happening to her. Every single night, the sound of her calling out, and my inability to do anything about it… Yeah, I’m not so collected thinking about that part.
I read once that some of the worse post-traumatic stress disorders comes from witnessing helplessly someone else being harmed. I myself was not harmed by my sister’s ordeal, but when I think about it, I’m forced to acknowledge that what I went through in witnessing it is pretty brutal. Brutal. Just the word calls a sob out of me.
I’ve spent most of my childhood days trying to cheer my parents up, help them any way I could, and caring for my sister, soothe her any way I could, because at night, I was a prisoner to her never ending trauma. I could have just as well been sleeping in a straightjacket, subjected to her wailing, my own unexpressed emotions every night burnt a little deeper into me. Oh right, and then there was also my mom’s cancer, as well as both of my parent’s own thousand yard stares from their own childhood traumas, to add to the list of things I had to face but could not fix…
I’ve only just started to understand how deeply my personality has been shaped by these experiences. Why I spent the first two decades of my life prioritizing my family, desperately trying to make up for the sense of helplessness I had absorbed. Why that now follows me everywhere I go. Why I’m so unable to control my over reactivity to anyone’s distress. The sound of someone in pain is to me like the sound of war to a veteran. The idea of distress itself causes me to feel distress, having been trained to be hyper sensitive to it. It’s a visceral and paradoxal response, my entire body tensing and paralyzing itself at the same time.
When I’m like this, flooded back with the past, I wonder if I‘ll ever be done with it. Somehow I don’t think I will. Still, I strive to integrate it all as best as I can, release the suppressed feelings, swap repression with awareness, and develop better ways to self manage myself. At least, when I remember what happened, when I tell my story, I find that I can have more understanding for myself, for why I never remember my dreams, why I can never seem to get enough sleep, and why I so often wake up feeling kind of shell shock.