Some things mark you; a tattoo, holding your first niece for the first time, getting your front teeth kicked out by an ice skate, seeing the northern lights across a hay field. On our honeymoon I swam over a jellyfish which left a spatulate, purple ghost across the tops of my thighs. A lifeguard poured vinegar over my legs which made the marks sear. During the week we’d rented a windowless Jeep and drove up the coast, drank sweating margaritas watching birds play hide and seek in the tropical canopy and threw ourselves in crashing waves from the shores of nameless beaches. Endless good abounded but the scar is what showed most. It felt like an insult or punishment against the love we were celebrating mostly because the world says you can’t have both. Nature is more holistic and thankfully a better teacher. On the last night of our trip we out ran a rain cloud, laughing all the way from the resort to a beach bar half a mile down the shore line. The sun was literally setting behind a clear sky ahead of us while it torrentially down-poured several feet behind us. Anyway, I loved all of it.
Once a year for a few years my extended Irish-Italian Catholic tribe would rent a couple of units at a condo resort in the White Mountains. I’m glad for the long connections which extend out over 3 or 4 generations. They taught me diversity, potluck etiquette and the comfort of simple traditions like Mabel’s sherbet punch and the blue tinted glass dish which always contained plain M&M’s on New Year’s Day. We were getting ready to swim in the hotel pool. I was excited because my mother finally let me get a two piece from Ann & Hope that summer. It was a black and hot pink Body Glove with a little zipper in the neoprene top. I loved it and liked me in it. While I was getting changed I noticed the spots and almost started crying. My period wasn’t on a schedule and I was hoping to make all the development stop. I was dancing 6 days a week and had started purging before class. The family crowd was rumbling in the hallway holding stuffed tote bags full of every kind of pool crap imaginable. I peeked out of the bathroom door and whispered to my mum who loudly asked “WHAT?!” I whispered again with the eye roll face and mouthed “I just got my period.” She half announced it to my aunts and promptly threw a tampon at me from across the room. “Hurry UP! Let’s GO!” What the flip am I supposed to do with this thing? My heart started pounding and a dread spread across my back in the form of hot waves. I knew it was broken but didn’t want to put something in there and had more than a few questions about the implications. Hello. We’re Catholic. Is this legal? Like, with God? What if I don’t want it in me? Is there a chart or a map or an alternative? Who could I ask? This was before Google and Jesus listened to me but wasn’t talking back. If I didn’t use it I couldn’t swim and if I didn’t hurry up there’d be a scene. I did my best to wrap my head around the whole geometry of the process, took a deep breath, cried a little and just did it. As I was walking out of the bathroom my nose started bleeding which I didn’t realize until one of my aunt’s shouted “She plugged it up!” I stuffed a tissue in my nostril, pushed all my feelings way down and walked out with my humiliating family.
New Hampshire has moody weather so by the time we made it to the pool it was cooler and afternoon clouds were hovering. Despite all that I still wanted to swim. I stood up to my ankles on the steps obsessing about what would happen when the thing inside me got wet. I was the oldest of the cousins so there was no girl my age to ask, except Gina but since we only saw each other once a year or so, I didn’t want to go there. The little kids were being little while the grown-ups drank wine coolers and beer and ate french onion dip on giant, fried potatoes. I zeroed in on an old lady slathered so thickly in SPF she looked like a human glue stick. She was wearing a canvas hat, tiny black circle sunglasses and opaque, flesh-tone nylons. There was something so depressing and closed off about her it prompted me to take a few steps forward, away from fear. No one else might’ve noticed it but I thought that could be me someday if I don’t get over it. Of course, then I couldn’t put a name to what I was experiencing. My life is full of good things, but the one big thing in the context of unintentional circumstances that scared the absolute shit out of me left its marks.
Hypervigilance keeps you safe. So did corporal deportation. I had this magic ability to leave my body as a way of not seeing or feeling what was happening to it. I pray never to remember all of it. Is that wrong? I’ve forgiven the past but it has this obtrusive habit of bullying its way into an otherwise peaceful Sunday morning with my husband and our dog and strangling the contentment right out of me. I’ve tried Xanax, weed, meditation, deep breathing, eons of psychotherapy, exercise, yoga, hot yoga, prayer walks, guided imagery, a (rigid) balanced diet free of processed chemicals, white sugar, lies, joy, a starvation diet, a faith practice, getting one and a half master’s degree, hypnotherapy, positive self-talk, CBT, DBT, EFT, The Sedona Method, Byron Katie, Eckhart Tolle, Rick Hansen, a boat load of Buddhist teachings, prayer circles, youth groups, retreats, 1000 bible studies, cutting, non-violent communication workshops, relationship seminars, aromatherapy, and doing literally every, single thing I ever thought I was scared to try just to prove that whatever happened all those years ago wasn’t going to dictate my life. Guess what? Sometimes, despite our best and most concerted efforts we’re vulnerable to our own humanity. Society doesn’t give us permission to be works in progress so I’m declaring it here. Integration might be part of the process of becoming whole again and it takes as long as it needs to.
Maybe it seems unreasonable or unfair because we assume everyone else has their shit together? Sometimes I feel pathetic and think if I just tried harder I could exorcise the demon once and for all. That’s what they say at church, right? Pray harder. Am I faithless every time I’m overtaken by an uninvited thought, memory or sensation? Some Christian notions are a tall order but a nice idea. Colleagues who know my story keep gently nudging me towards EMDR. It’s an intervention that supposed to wipe the windshield of our deepest, scariest memories clean so we’re never afraid again. I’m trained in lots of modalities but always considered EMDR the liver and onions of interventions. (All the minions just cringed. It really has helped lots of people.) I tried it once and had a powerful, not great response; the room started spinning. I braced myself for soul-puking, called time-out, gave my therapist his final check and haven’t been back since. Can’t we live alongside our vulnerabilities or are we required to scrub at the charred scars inside our head till we’re deemed ‘perfect’? People get sick of hearing it from me. I can almost track the chapters of my life by my ailment obsessions…AIDS, stroke, lip cancer, kidney cancer, throat cancer, deep vein thrombosis (The ER nurse just started hugging me when I’d come in. It was sweet. I still really wanted an MRI.), a brain tumor, an eye tumor, an adrenal tumor, pancreatic cancer, skin cancer, diabetes…truthfully I’m too scared to tell you my latest hang-up. I never got any of those things and as my sister has rationally pointed out, if I acquire any sort of ailment we’re fortunate to live in a country where an array of medical options exist. My behavior is an insult to those with real physical illness. I promise to place myself at the front of the crazy line as an apology. The worrying has stolen chunks of my life and ruined otherwise good times. In part, I go on living as courageously as I can to jump up and over the mental barbed-wire. When do we get the day, peace, sanity, integrity, wholeness back? It boils down to restoring a sense of control and level of safety we didn’t have then but could have now.
During my divorce I peeled off the comfortable numbness of codependence. It was unconscious at least to some degree. I hadn’t realized how much it was protecting me. I knew I was tired of hiding behind this person, his insults and addictions, but I wasn’t fully prepared to face certain truths. It was all there laid out in a brand new, empty shell of possibility. In order to see and welcome what was good in me I had to first face the things that hurt, the things I hated, all over again as an adult. I was 19 when I met my ex-husband and thought I’d done a decent amount of work during college and graduate school. Nothing compared to the next level of knowing which came during the process of Dissolution…dis-illusion. That’s what divorce papers actually say. It was a raw time. Sitting in your vulnerability as a child is different than sitting in vulnerability as an adult. I remembered more and was now seeing my life through a less tinted lens. Thank god for my sponsor; an earth angel who taught me healthy love and boundaries. Each time I stumbled over something new, she was there to emotionally hold me down while I screamed. Tenderness and non-judgment have been the most helpful. I often forget to practice them with myself, other times I simply lack the patience for something that feels exhaustively over and done. The western world dictates consumption which distracts from the pursuit of wholeness which is the thing we’re hungriest for. We’re sold the idea we can buy, lie or deny our way past the past. Eventually we discover the truth about becoming whole is found in our broken parts.
If you decide to live a God-loving life don’t fuss, don’t worry about what you’ll eat, what you’ll wear or how clothes will hang on your body…don’t worry about your body…there’s more to life..look at the birds, free and unfettered, careless in the care of God. -Matt 6:25 ish