There’s a heaviness in the air. Storms blow through, and in between the sky is steely and dense, and the humidity is so high you have to chew each breath to swallow it down.
I feel as though the air is crushing me, pressing on my chest, blinding me. But everything is fine, I say, and I believe it. I’m laughing. I’m going out with friends. I’m occasionally accomplishing tasks. I manage to cook, and even eat most days. And then that heaviness gets to me and all I can do is cry. I snap. It feels like it comes out of nowhere. It comes from everywhere. It comes from the clouded sky, low, overlapping clouds drifting overhead that turn every sunrise, sunset, and minute in between into the same greenish haze of relentless heat, with breakthrough showers and drizzles and cloudbursts, and no relief. The days disappear into each other.
But when the sun shines, it’s worse. It burns, it blinds, and it exposes. Under the blaze of its rays I sit in front of the DSW and sob and scream and puke into an old Culver’s bag while my daughter cries in the back seat. She listens to my friend on the car speaker, telling me to name five things I see, four things I can hear…
“That’s the thing you tell me to do, Mommy,” she says, in between her own bouts of tears and mouthfuls of the popcorn I fortunately brought along. I apologize to her over and over for having to watch me and hear me like this. I have never been like this. I have no idea how I became like this. I have no idea what kind of person I am, if the kind of person I am is one who cannot handle the world enough to take a breath and keep going in the face of suspiciouslly operose obstacles.
It doesn’t matter that I don’t remember to do these grounding exercises on my own, my friend tells me that the important thing is that I called for help, and it’s on the way.
When the gloom returns it feels eternal, cloying and inescapable. Thunder rolls through, lightening flashes, and the kittens wake me by leaping in panic onto my face and chest each time the windows shake. They wake me from dreams I can’t remember, but I feel the dread and anxiety of them lingering. I think of the days after my second rape, hiding in my apartment and waking up screaming with the memories of nightmares so vivid they become tentpoles of my identity. Only now, I have no identity. I can’t write about dreams I can’t remember. I can’t paint representations of anxieties I don’t understand. And in the meantime, I look up at the unchanging color of the sky and find myself shocked at the number of hours that have passed.
My social media tells me all about what happened “one year ago today,” and without fail, it’s a photograph of me and Mike, along with the updates I sent over and over again. The optimistic tone, the cheery exclamation points, all of it a massive lie of omission. I read between the lines now and remember the torment. The terror. The pain of watching the most important person in my life suffering. I remember encouraging him to smile, even when he didn’t feel like it. “It’s not for you,” I said. “The kids will see it,” I said. And although he was in pain, although he was afraid, although there was not a single thing in this world that made me genuinely feel like smiling, I smiled, and he smiled with me. I took picture after picture until I had one where the smiles looked real. Sometimes we laughed. Sometimes the smiles never even came close to his eyes.
I didn’t say that he was suffering when I updated people. I knew the only thing keeping his suffering from overwhelming him was that I was there, telling him it was going to be okay. Telling him that things would get better or they would get worse, but they couldn’t stay as they were. “Smile for the update,” I would say. “Smile for the kids,” knowing the first time somebody showed these pictures to them, he was likely to be dead.
From what I remember of last summer, the air was breathable and thin and the summer was light. I only remember spending a few moments watching the rain, a few quick runs between the hospital and a hotel room. The hotel rooms all blur together. But I remember the derecho. A clear sky, then wind so hard and fast it blew down houses completely, then clear skies again. That was what last summer was like. Horrors, and the calm between.
Now the sky is heavy, the air is heavy, the world is heavy. Each day brings another little torment, but they’re mundane. Last year it was pulmonary embolisms and cataclysmic pain and Covid scares and Shana’s death and Mike spending more and more and more time in the wheelchair he hated and less and less time able to see me when I helped him stand. This year it’s the exterior of the house rotting off, the furnace and air conditioner blowing up, my new insurance provider making it impossible for me to get a test that costs three times more for me than it did for Mike, thanks to the inscrutable evil of the American healthcare system. My esophageal implant being moved around by the eventual MRI, before they could scan my brain, and then sitting at home and watching the bill come in anyway.
The word “forever” pops up in my mind, and it terrifies me. I never had to consider “the rest of my life” before, it was only, “the rest of Mike’s life.” And now, that’s where I am. I am beginning the rest of my life. I am at the end of my mid-thirties and as society continues to tell me, life begins at forty. I have a few years to wait until my life begins, and that feels about right. I feel a few years away from having any sense of what I’m doing and how I am.
Or who I am.
I remember the month after my suicide attempt, hiding in my room and learning to paint. I wonder if transformation is ever less than traumatic. I am not who I was before I was raped and attempted to kill myself. I am not who I was before I was raped and stalked. I am not who I was six months ago.
A woman on the phone tries to calm me down while I scream and weep. She’s not trained for this. She’s the scheduler at the MRI suite, but she understands that in between the panicked phrases I’m shouting at her, “My husband died of brain cancer in January,” “That’s my nine-year-old crying in the back seat,” there is a world. “You’re so strong, I can tell you’re so strong,” she says. I collapse against the steering wheel and cry harder, wordlessly, my chest heaving and glasses pressed into the bridge of my nose. I sob under the weight of the air and the sun and the clouds, and my daughter cries, and the woman says, “I can tell you are so strong. I can tell your daughter knows how strong you are.”
I don’t know what that means. “You’re so strong” is a phrase I’ve been hearing so long, but it means nothing. How is it strength that I lose days, a whole week sometimes? How is it strength to stand numbly and write checks for siding and furnace fans and cars and MRIs I didn’t actually get when I haven’t been able to work in over a year? When I haven’t even opened my email in a week? When I haven’t managed to eat anything that didn’t come from a drive-through or a foil bag in days?
What does it mean when “You’re so strong” just informs, “You are still breathing and sometimes you shower and sometimes you laugh and those are basically all the requirements for meeting the definition of living.”
“You’re the strongest person I know,” some people tell me. Many people. Is this their way of congratulating me for not dissolving into the air? For not erupting in flames, or melting into a puddle of grease beneath the ceiling fan, my flesh collapsing around my bones like my insides are a black hole.
At the same time, some people treat me like an idiot child. Like I’m incapable of managing the simplest organizational tasks. Like a helpless fuck-up who wound up with no job and constantly mounting bills and an army of fatherless children, with no capacity for self-improvement. And that doesn’t feel right, either.
I am trying to find who I am. She is a beautiful woman. She is tattooed and smart and funny and quirky and sometimes her wit is like a knife and makes people wince when it cuts. Sometimes she is so full of love and joy that her smile brings people to tears. Sometimes she is so sad that she manifests bouquets of white lilies and nobody walking past her can continue without asking, “Are you okay?”
Sometimes she’s fine. Sometimes she’s reckless. Sometimes she’s lost in the haze of the thick, grey air. Sometimes she wonders if she always knew what the cacophony of birds that sing at 4am sounded like, begging the sun to rise. Sometimes she confuses a white car parked down the block with a snowdrift and doesn’t question the presence of so much snow in the overwhelming solstice heat. Sometimes she sees the rain coming down in sheets and walks onto the yard to stand in it until she’s shivering, completely aware of every place on her skin the ran touches, free of the expectation to be better than she is, stronger than she is, whoever she is. Sometimes she wonders if she ever knew who she was.
For now, she’s a stranger. My friends remind me this is disassociation. It will stop, they tell me. I’ll be back. But I won’t. As the apps assert, there is no going back. The past is like the sky, no matter how used to it you are, how deeply you look, you can’t hold onto it. You can’t touch it. It grows and roils and shifts and you remain with your feet on the ground and your lungs breathing in air that is tainted by it, but keeps you alive all the same. And life is, overall, good.
If strength is continuing to stand with the weight of the sky upon you, goodness is the early morning birdsong. Goodness is the rain soaking into the flowerbeds, and the grey-black sky turning grey-blue again with the sunrise. Goodness is being awake to watch it turn momentarily pink in the east in the hour before the gray settles in again, and to know it’s beautiful.
If it is strength to have the millstone settling upon you and not to become dust, than it is goodness to stand in the rain and not be washed away.
“I know you’re so strong,” the woman said, listening to my heart crush into itself.
I wanted to tell her, “You know more than me.”
You can read more about dealing with traumatic stress here: Colposcopy and the Hippocampus, or, Your Stress Is Killing You
Read my most recent post here: Somehow the Same Old New Thing
Our gofundme is still active: Love for the Grovers
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