So I want to start this post by stating, right off the top…today’s second attempt at obtaining an MRI failed. It failed badly, but not as badly as the attempt a few weeks ago- that one left me shaking and with tears leaking out of my eyes for over 3 hours.
Don’t get me wrong, although I lasted perhaps 10 seconds rather than 3, and even managed a moment of “It’s only 10 minutes, I may be able to get through”, by the time they pulled me out and unlatched the frame holding my face in place, I was still crying and wretching and hugging myself tightly. I leaned my hives-covered body against one of the two very kind and understanding attendants and tried to explain.
But there’s only so much you can pour out when you are panicking, only so much coherence in place when you have a double dose of anti-anxiety medication in your system – medication you only need for events that you know are going to be triggering and awful and without medical assistance would cascade through your mind for a few days, or weeks, until you found equilibrium once again.
After all, to tell it all means starting at the beginning, very far back. That’s what I’m going to do tonight, because telling is the other part of healing.
I’ve been told that children don’t really form memories until they are at least 3. I disagree with that. Trauma makes very early memories form, makes them crystallize and coalesce and become a touchstone in your psyche.
My earliest memories start at 17 months, although back then, I don’t remember being scared of sleep. That fear didn’t come until around 2.5, and with it came a fear of being restrained. As I recall, my mother often pinned me down, her arms heavy across my tiny torso, to make me lay still so that I would stay in bed and eventually sleep.
And as she held me there, she would talk to her god. And she would talk to me, and she would explain how I was bad…so very, very bad that I had demons. The demons might be inside me, or they might just be clustered outside me making me do bad things, and she knew for sure one of the demons lived in the room I was in because it used to be my cousin’s room and she had demons, too.
She would explain that she was praying for me to die, that night, in my bed.
Because after all, I was too young to really know her god, and her god would let me into heaven because she, my mother, was such a righteous woman.
If I lived to be 7 or 8, all bets were off. I’d be responsible for my own soul, then, and no matter how nice I tried to be, I was carrying around those demons and I’d be carried straight to Hell by them if I lived to be too old.
I prayed to die, too, those nights. I didn’t tell her that I wasn’t praying to her god, that I didn’t believe in her god and that I thought her god was mean and nasty and cruel. I prayed to my God. He was nice.
And I would lay there, still enough to convince her that I’d finally fallen asleep like the good little girl I wasn’t, still enough that she’d finally lift her arm from me and I could take little sips of air.
Until I finally fell asleep, I’d think of stories about being far away from there, stories about my REAL mom and my REAL dad finding me and rescuing me. They were always sorry, these real parents that never existed, and they always told me I was good just how I was. I didn’t worry about the demons when I thought about them.
But I knew that wasn’t the truth, so before I let myself fall asleep, I would tell my parent’s god I was sorry for thinking of a lie, and if he did decide to kill me that night, please don’t be mad about the stories, I was trying to be a good girl. “Lay not this sin to my charge” I would quote, over and over like I heard at church, but silently.
I didn’t dare say it out loud. Little girls, bad little girls who talked after lights out because the demons they had made them do bad things, got paddled. That hurt as bad as being told I had demons, but it hurt differently. Sometimes when I wasn’t quiet enough, after I had been hit and hit and hit and said sorry and told their god I was sorry and hugged my mom and said sorry again and finally laid down and cried myself to sleep…the mornings after that I couldn’t move very well.
So I was as quiet as possible, laying in my bed, wondering each night if that was the night that one god or another would take me away, and if they did, would they think my mother was nice enough to let me into their heaven?
By the time I was 7, I had learned new things to be afraid of.
I learned that if a boy holds your arms where you can’t move, or if he tells his friend to hold your arms where you can’t move, that it’s about to hurt very badly in places that you know you aren’t supposed to talk about or look at or touch.
And each time I would struggle, each time I would manage to free my arms and fight by scratching or slapping, I knew that the boy would present his shredded torso to my mother, who would reach for the belt or the paddle or the yard stick with a barely concealed smile.
Back to the bedroom we would go, where I was expected to sprawl, spread-eagled, facedown on the bed as I confessed to my demon-inspired crime of trying to hurt another person. Sometimes I’d try to tell her “I fought because he was about to really hurt me! I told you how he hurts me!” and I’d twist my neck around to try to catch her eye, try to make her see that I was telling the truth. She’d let that odd little smile quirk around her lips as she lectured me on being a lady, and how two wrongs don’t make a right, and how no matter what was about to happen, my job as a lady was to never, ever fight back.
So I would go away. I would go far, far away, a trick I learned when I was 3. I would step inside my head and I would take pieces of myself and I would line them up in rows, spread out across space, each piece still tied to the present but each piece taking just enough of the pain so that the part of me that was there on the bed could survive.
When I was 3 and a half, I remember thinking “I could stay this way. I could go away like this and she couldn’t hurt me again.” And then I argued with myself, because I knew that it was important that I be able to tell my story one day, that grownups may not care what was happening to me then but one day, maybe, if I could get through it and tell, one day somebody may care.
After it was over, after the piece that didn’t really have to feel had said again that she was sorry, after that piece had kissed her mother and hugged her and told her god that the piece was sorry, after that piece choked down the sick feeling and kissed the boy and said she was sorry for fighting, then she would go outside to her favourite tree and climb high in the branches, stretching her arms and dancing to the limbs where the boy wouldn’t go, and she would call the pieces of herself back to her.
She would sit on the tree limb, dizzy with trying to keep the pieces of her in one place, and breathe and breathe and breathe until she became me again.
By the time I was 8, I had learned to fear closets and dark, tight spaces because people could and did hide in them.
I had learned to dread sleep more than ever, because what if my mother’s god finally heard her prayer and killed me then? But I was 8, and I still had demons, and now I wasn’t saved because I didn’t talk in tongues at church and so I’d stay awake as long as I could, bargaining with her god with promises of being better the next day, of not being so sassy, not letting her see that I thought she was dangerous and crazy and wrong, not rolling my eyes if I had to read the section in our assigned Bible reading about the evil woman dragging a man down, or a dog returning to his vomit, or the part where the woman was chopped into pieces and spread over the land.
I have a picture of me from this time, sitting on the ground outside our home. I was curled into myself, chin on hand, back mostly to my father’s camera.
When the film was developed, he said “You’re always sitting like this, so sad and by yourself and not being part of this family! What do YOU have to be sad about? You have a good home with godly parents and brothers and a good church.”
And my mother turned and said, eyes alight, “It’s because she’s Eeyore! You know, from Winnie the Pooh? She’s our Eeyore, always so gloomy and sad and moping around for no reason. She just has this gloomy little cloud that follows her around all day, being sad when everyone else is happy.”
After I was married, years later, I threw out the Eeyore shirts and Eeyore mugs and the reminders that I was, in their eyes, just a gloomy little donkey.
Somewhere in storage I have the woodburned, handpainted piece my father commissioned for my high school graduation, of a girl sitting on a swing, her back to the artist, gazing out over the hills. “I thought of you when I saw one like this,” he said, explaining the only gift he ever chose for me, “Because remember how when you were little you’d go sit in a tree with your back to the family? This just seemed like you, every time I turned around you were facing away from us being sad.”
That was years ago, 23 years ago, to be precise. It’s been many years since I’ve been under my parent’s roof, years where I’ve settled into a very healing marriage.
Years of therapy, years of wise counsel and of awesome friends and of people who listen and care even when they can’t understand or relate.
Years of settling into and living with the knowledge that I don’t have to scatter myself in many pieces every time I am afraid, that it’s safe to stay in my body, that no matter what, my life is good and I can stay in one piece and be me, be all of me, and be ok.
I no longer whimper in my sleep and rub my throat, although I also do not sleep well. I still sleep on my side, curled into a ball, protecting myself, holding myself together, when I sleep at all. And my husband knows to never, ever, ever wrap his arms around me from the outside, where I can’t instantly move my arms. No matter how much healing I achieve, how much health I seek, some things will probably always be a trigger.
And that brings us back to today, to the attempted MRI, in itself needed to assess the damage done while my mother tried to drive out the demon named “Rebecca’s Determination to Survive”.
I explained in the briefest of terms to the kind and caring staff:
- Sexual abuse survivor
- Physical abuse survivor
- PTSD that will be triggered by inability to move my upper torso, especially my arms
- Inability to breathe when laying on my back, especially when feeling vulnerable
So they used the most open of frames, and they gently clicked it around my head and face, and they let me breathe. They asked about warm blankets, and provided them when I ok’d it.
They slowly slid me into the machine, promising to be right there and not leave until I told them I was ok.
They recommended that I try to “Imagine yourself far away, maybe on a beach or someplace that makes you happy, like you aren’t even here at all.”
They turned on the fan, and they turned up the lights, and I finally was deep enough inside the machine that we could begin.
And I laid there, vulnerable, unable to turn my head, and I tried to set my arms by my side. The machine curved, and I pushed, and I couldn’t convince myself that my arms were free enough to keep me safe.
So I opened my eyes, and saw their very kind attempt at providing a focal point for people in the machine.
Winnie the Pooh stickers, glistening in the light, marching across the curve of the machine. Eeyore. The sad little donkey that I was not, and never had been.
And I knew.
So I signalled for them to pull me out, and I sat up and I cried and I shook for a minute, and I found my voice.
“I can’t do this,” I said, “It’s not going to work for me. I’m sorry to waste your time, but I am choosing to NOT dissociate to survive this. I can, but I’m not. It’s not healthy for me to go there. I’ve spent too much time working to be present. Too many years of finding out how to be whole and healthy. I’m not endangering that just for an MRI.”
And they patted my arm, and they told me it was ok, and they arranged for me to have the MRI while under sedation at some point in the near future – deliberately choosing chemical unconsciousness is not the same as letting myself be the scared little girl, breathing deeply in the tree and making sure all my pieces made it back.
I don’t look at today as a failure. Instead, I’m viewing it as a success.
I didn’t let my fear keep me from trying, even though I knew it was more than likely going to be deeply traumatic and dredge up some nasty memories.
I advocated for myself, openly and honestly.
The medical staff showed respect, and understanding, and empathy.
My husband – who has missed his second day of work to drive me 3 hours for this attempt, weeks after the first one – said “You tried. It’s on them to find a way that works for you. You did the right thing.”
And while I don’t expect to sleep well tonight, or any night, I do expect to continue to sleep safe, in this home I’ve created with this loving family I’ve made.
And at this stage in my journey, that will be enough.