I am grateful for everything I know about the darkness
[note: I was asked to share a story on the subject of gratitude for Storyteller Sunday at United Church of Gainesville on November 20, 2016. Below is a version of the essay that I read there.]
I text my wife while I am at work: I am done making J. go to sleep on his own. We’ve been trying to teach him that he can lie down and go to bed without one of us there, holding him, like a baby, but he hates it.
When I get home I tell him, it wasn’t fair, our making him do that. You weren’t ready. We took away your snuggles and hugs. I hear myself, as if I am some other person, repeating that silly phrase. Snuggles and hugs. I apologize.
No, Mom, he says. ‘No fair’ means you don’t get something you need, like food and a family.
But actually it isn’t okay, and we took those away from you.
(That was, in fact, what he would wail at us, upon waking. It’s not fair that y’all get to be with each other and I don’t get to be with NOBODY.)
So now we let him fall asleep in our bed, between the two of us. We rub salve on him, the way you might with a toddler, bath-soft and plump, before sleep. He is all muscle, though, a wire, bony survivor of a boy. We nest together, like wholesome, crunchy earth mothers. (I am not a wholesome crunchy earth mother) He holds my hand. I reach over and pat my wife.
I am gripped with a terror that goes like this: what if Mike Pence comes for my family. Often I fall asleep while putting him to bed but tonight am wide awake and weary, my heart hammering.
At 3:38 when he screams but does not wake, I think the phrase, calm the nervous system.
Sarah Schulman, in her amazing new book Conflict is Not Abuse, writes that we escalate the normal disagreements of human life when we cannot assess our own role in the situation. When we have an inflexible view of ourselves. A person locked into the role of a victim or an oppressor cannot turn the mirror back on themselves, cannot tolerate being wrong.
The first night, the first week we put out son to sleep, he became hysterical. It took hours to calm him. We found that he would settle down only if we sat in front of the door, blocking both his escape and his access to the dimmer switch. Once we discovered this, he would lie in his bed with the lights dimmed, gently rolling a single car or train across the sheets, murmuring to himself.
For months my heart would hammer when we began the bedtime ritual. I could not enjoy Goodnight Moon or, worse, the glow in the dark book , which required flashlights and pitch darkness. I hate that fucking book. It was a symbol of everything about my life that I hated, that I needed to manage. That I could not control. To this day, because of this book, his love of flashlights causes me an irrational anxiety.
I do not believe that family is a place where we can escape from trauma, or power, or gender, our own parents, or the threats of Mike Pence and Steve Bannon.
Family, like therapy, is a safe place to take risks. To try new behaviors. In therapy sometimes this is called a corrective emotional experience.
When he first came to live with us, the chaos that he brought triggered me. It reminded me—my nervous system—of living with an unpredictable, alcoholic father. The feeling of walking on eggshells. I needed a bone-deep kind of control. I was constantly on guard, poised, ready to grab him from danger. He could not be alone, even for a moment. He did not know how to play.
What Sarah Shulman is asking us to do, what the trauma parenting literature is asking us to do, is to tell and show our traumatized loved ones that they are not in the scary past, but in the safe present. That they can experiment with new behavior, that we will love them through it.
Our first instinct, as social creatures, is to call out for help. If we’ve been taught that no one will come when we cry, we will try to handle it on our own. We will fight or run. If neither is possible, the worst will occur. Freezing, getting stuck.
Part of giving someone this felt sense of safety—because it isn’t enough to say you are safe here, or in this family we do not hit each other, is to show it, through repeated actions over time. Repeating the action is a form of play.
Traumatized people have a hard time being spontaneous, because when you are busy assessing for threat you cannot go with the flow. You cannot just chill out. In children, this shows up as an inability to play. Play is a way of repeating something until it makes sense, to change the ending. To change directions.
I am grateful for the times when I can change direction. I am grateful for my own flexibility, which is hard won. I am grateful, not for my own trauma, but for the things that I have learned the hard way. I am grateful that I can—sometimes—recognize the authoritarian elements in my own self, learned from my own fear and trauma, and stop. I am learning to be wrong.
I knew that the chaos of this small boy would hurt. I held on when I thought I could no longer. I told myself that we would grow into a family, even when I did not believe it. And we did.