If only real life were like a cartoon, you know? Where every hurt and every pain and every bit of sadness would fade away like the puff of smoke at the bottom of the canyon where Wile-E has landed. But life isn’t a cartoon, even if it does occasionally play out like a Youtube video snippet of some moment in your memory?
Living with PTSD is like walking in a minefield. And like many things left over from war and conflict, many memories remain buried and hidden; often covered over by less painful or even attractive and pleasingly innocuous things. Like a field of horror obscured by pretty flowers, so to speak. Even attractive things that would normally fill our senses like so many aromas and textures and sounds might act to strip away any defense; leaving the soul bare to revisit a childhood mostly filled with mundane things but also with the horrific memories of abuse and neglect.
And like a minefield whose map has been misplaced, you can never know what new thing will set off the chain reaction of memories that maim the soul. Like a color that reminds you of the ugly, soot stained stucco in the apartment where you were violated as a child. Or the aroma of the Sauerbraten your grandmother cooked on the same weekend where her son raped his niece and nephew? The sound of Dixieland piano that teleports you back to the time when the same uncle played in a local jazz band on the Saturday following the rape.
Recently, with all the publicity regarding the several cases of sexual abuse by clergy, some of the news shows casually mentioned the whole scandalous obfuscation by a young men’s camping program that shall remain nameless; one of those mines in my pasture went off, flooding me with memories of something that had remained obscured for decades.
When I was eleven, I belonged to a troop of scouts that was likely the most unorthodox group of pre-teens that you can imagine. No stellar performers, they, it could be said; merit badges were dispensed like so many passing grades to failing children in a bad school. If you looked up the word ‘underachiever’ in an illustrated dictionary, I would expect you’d see a picture of the lot of us. And like any dysfunctional organization, there were rules almost like the way things work in the animal world, excluding roadrunners and coyotes; there were, however, predators and prey.
On a particularly otherwise uneventful trip to a local campground, virtually all of the scouts save for one had voted on going swimming for the afternoon at the campground pond. At the time, and even afterward, things seemed completely normal but for the gaping hole I had in my recollection of events. I, as the scout who didn’t like to swim, was chosen to accompany the Scoutmaster Emeritus to the local supermarket to pick up supplies. I remember that I could recall getting into his station wagon (Powder Blue Buick Special) and I could recall being back at the camp over an hour later. It struck me as scary enough to remember but too scary to tell anyone that I was missing a whole hour of my life.
The recent articles and stories about the Scout scandal nudged me into the minefield where the memories of what he did exploded. Actually feeling his hand grab the back of my neck and how he forced me. The immediate feeling of fear and shame and utter abandonment that was lost for nearly five decades came flooding back. The look of sheer evil on his face while he presented as a kindly old grandfather to everyone else...Or perhaps not.
Recalling this moment in time brought back more memories. I remember one of my friends in the troop tell me that the man was pretty neat; he even invited a few boys over to his house to watch ‘movies.’ And how odd I felt just noting that he didn’t serve any identifiable function within the troop. To be able to close my eyes at sixty-two and be transported back in time to remember his face; how we all were supposed to present as neat while he seemed to always have a two-day old beard. Thin, graying hair; hastily combed. The ever-present cigarette with ashes inches long.
Odd how the past seems to be when it's viewed from the present and how much more clarity we gain with hindsight; even if 20/20 is helped along by eyeglasses. The predator hanging out, waiting for the weak to wander only a bit away from the safety of the herd. I mentioned to someone recently that between the abuse and neglect I sustained, it felt like I had a target on my back. But in clarity also occasionally comes comfort. The self-perception that went without encouragement seemed to be validated by the evil act; he went after me because I was the most… girlish? (I’ve mentioned previously about knowing I was a girl at five) My therapist explained that my abuser had a sense of whom to prey upon. And I recall that the younger brother of my best friend seemed a bit more like me than any other, and I still wonder what caused him to venture into drug use so severe that it ended his life before the age of twenty.
The best part of it, Mrs. D tells me, is that for all the horror that was playing out, I didn’t fall apart or panic. Sickened, but not to the point of being ill. Saddened but not to the extent of hopelessness, because even as I felt every feeling and recalled so many details, I still was able to stay completely in the present; a victory of no small means for someone with a history like mine.
All this to say that every day is better than the last. Every memory is just that; a mere memory now capable of being stored without concern or anxiety as I grow stronger with each heart beat; with every breath. And I know that this is true and can be true for anyone, aye? And for that, I can be very, very grateful and very, very glad!