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All story, all the time.

Thursday
Mar142013

the enduring power of story

The lump of a thing slouched in the curve of my torso as I dozed. A dog? We were in a hotel; our dogs were at home. A travel bag left on the bed? That didn’t feel right, either. Reaching in the dark, I prodded the thing and felt a doughy blob that jiggled and heaved at my touch, except it was too heavy for me to budge, so I tried to scream for help. It came out as a weak moan, barely able to wake my husband who lay next to me. Finally the thing sighed deep as if to say, “Oh, all right, I’ll leave,” giving me a good pinch with strong, marshmallow fingers before rolling off the bed.

It was a nightmare of course, of the type I’ve not had in years, and then mostly during my early recovery from sexual abuse. The nightmares were variations on the assault, a reliving of that original terror as my subconscious sought to rewrite the story of the trauma. It’s a story I’ve told and re-told myself, and others, in order to defuse its power. Over the years I’ve incorporated it into the woman I am, and while it’s one story of me, it's neither the only, nor the major, story of me. 

Survivors of sexual assault may have reactions years after they’ve processed their trauma and moved on. Triggers are typically times of transition – marriage, pregnancy, sending kids to school or college, for instance. I’m not a parent, so none of those situations apply. 

But tonight I was able to stamp a label almost immediately on the cause of this nightmare: Powerlessness. It was such a textbook psychology case – complete with a miniature of Dan Aykroyd’s Stay Puft Marshmallow Man symbolizing my inability to act – that later it would make me laugh. The only thing missing was the thought bubble over my head. Except it had nothing to do with my abuse. I was in Austin to speak at an event, and no sooner had I arrived there than my sister texted to let me know our mother was in the emergency room. Mom’s Alzheimer’s has developed slowly. She’s had a couple of falls, and several infections, but never any other injury or illness that would land her in the emergency room. I’m all too familiar with the setbacks that hospital stays mean for dementia patients; my mother-in-law never walked again after a hip replacement. Knowing this, I felt the need to be there with my mom, to do what I could to make sure she retained as much functionality as possible in the wake of whatever illness she was battling. But I was hundreds of miles away.

“Let me know if I need to come home. I’ll leave immediately, get on a plane from here,” I messaged my sister. She told me to stay put for the moment, and I tried to get some sleep in case I had to catch a flight in the middle of the night. But that was difficult; when presented with a problem, I need to act. I’m not good at waiting; it makes me feel helpless. And sometime as I waited for the next text, powerlessness used my past trauma as a door into my dreams and jammed its fat self on the bed with me. Twice I woke up pushing him away.

My mother spent only the weekend in the hospital and I was able to delay going home to her. But the nightmares were a lesson in the endurance and power of story. I’ll get to that shortly, but first, there was something else I realized about myself. I don’t like ceding control any more than I like waiting. I need to see what’s coming down the road all the time. When in a restaurant or theater, I sit where I can see as much of the venue as possible, and never with my back to the door or in a spot I can’t quickly escape. I’ve always attributed the need for a 360-degree view to my years as a photojournalist – needing to be able to see everything in order to best compose photos, needing a quick exit in order to make deadlines. But, now, I wonder; does this need for control stem from my earlier history?  

Maybe (again, could this be any more textbook psychology?), but that matters less to me than story’s lasting power. Throughout my life I’ve returned to favorite authors and characters, never failing to glean something new from their story. In the same way, my personal story returns to me and shapes itself to key moments challenging and teaching me something new each time. Once, I wished the story of my abuse had never been written, but as the years passed I learned to make it my own. In re-telling it I’ve not only diluted its power over me, but I’ve turned the tables and given myself power over it. Like Aykroyd’s Ghostbusters character, maybe I’m learning to give powerlessness a shape I can deal with, even laugh at, so when old trauma rears its head, I can recognize and put it in perspective.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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  • Response
    For the duration of my life I've come back to most loved creators and characters, never neglecting to gather something new from their story. In the same way, my own story comes back to me and shapes itself to key minutes testing and showing me something new every time.

Reader Comments (4)

Thank you for sharing the effects of sexual abuse that you've experienced. It's good to know that I'm not alone.

March 18, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterliz

Thank you for dropping by. As long as I can talk about this issue, you will never be alone. If you'd like to read some of what I've written about this experience, check out the essays on the writing tab of my website. Writing about it makes me feel less alone, too.

March 18, 2013 | Registered CommenterBeatriz Terrazas

You're right - no matter how far in the past a sexual assault (of any kind) is, the effects of it never fully disappear. Compartmentalization is only partially successful, at best, but we deal with things any way we can. It takes a special kind of bravery to write honestly about personal pain. Your writing is fearless and unforgettable. I'm sorry for your loss, B, but I know Nina still lives in your heart.

March 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSami Swan Thompson

Hi Sami, thanks for dropping by. And yes, Nina is with me forever.
Beatriz

April 1, 2013 | Registered CommenterBeatriz Terrazas
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