Memoirists are often held up to harsh light. The needle-prodding into what is truth, what is your truth, what is the one and only truth? And what are our memories but perceptions? I am going to trust my language, trust my memory that abides more by flashbacks in body and cognition. I can tell you I will honor my suffering, I will trust that what I went through is worth writing about and I only know that because it has kept me awake at night for over fifteen years. My mind is wired against what is expected of nonfiction writers, so I will tell my story as I have seen it and felt it, in a sort of peripheral blur of cognitive, emotional, and physiological flashbacks, along with so many moments of clarity that I could never outrun. I know what happened happened, because my body remembers it the way you might remember the feeling of water holding your body up in the ocean, the way your grandmother’s arthritic fingers traced circles on your hand and back when you were young and maybe afraid; the way rain smells on the street and the vision of those drops on the blooms by the back door where you retrieve your newspaper and Spring fills you and in that moment–you may have missed it–but you were existing between two spheres, coexisting in the memory of the fragrance of lilacs in rain in May while simultaneously putting your body in the present moment of something new.
That is how I work–I am between those spaces yet in both at the same time, so that part of me steps back and watches on the fringe, curious.
Like the time I smelled ici perfume at Macy’s about ten years ago and it pleasured my sense of smell while at the same time triggered an old emotional state and fear response because I suddenly was aware that I had been wearing that perfume on the Sunday afternoon after church when my stepfather told me he didn’t see me as his real daughter but rather as an object of desire he would try to control himself around.
I exist between those spheres often, experiencing myself in my own skin–hungry but gentle for this day, these moments-yet with the irreparable and inexhaustible tripwire my brain has been redesigned with and an almost unadaptable psyche with a body that remembers and reads my past in words I had never been able to create back then. My eyes know what they saw, there is auditory, and my body knows the things it felt physiologically and psychologically–the emotions made their way out much later. It’s interesting that it’s in that psychological trauma that that is where the damage comes in–because a girl that young has no autonomy, no identity quite yet. I learned to live in many different places inside my mind. And to me all along, I believed my mind was not separate from my body.
My experience in my skin becomes…–even if say I were on that porch with you in the morning, getting the paper and smelling the rain and flowers, it becomes not a transformation but more of a mutation I am acknowledging. Like you on the porch remembering that wonderful smell and vibrancy of spring and rain from your entire life, while also existing in the present–taking the paper, going inside, holding in your mind the framework of what you held there moments ago, with perhaps an additive from the memory. My experience with things so basic and constant like the skin on my body are the very things that trigger my mind, body, and emotions into coexisting with the past, a very immediate past becoming present. I cannot to this day draw circles on my hand with my finger because it starts as a comfort when I feel I need someone, and my grandmother used to trace just so, but the actual contact, because I am aware of it, I am aware that I am deliberately doing something to calm myself, and that is enough to transform the room. I become utterly awake to what covers me and what doesn’t, what exposes me–and it’s not so much my body and skin as it is my dignity; it feels like an attack on my core. I grow a little small, yet I can ground myself well enough to stare into my surroundings, even respond and smile at you. You won’t notice I am going through this, I’ve had years of practice. But that danger, I don’t think that feeling ever leaves people who suffered so–I cannot remember precise details or name it, but my body knows the language so well. I didn’t have the words for it back then, and you can be certain that my voice was taken before I was old enough to even realize it.
I think it’s well, curious, that the very thing he used is also almost a metaphor to my mental dysmorphic tendencies. I was in front of his camera, exposed. Exposure. But maybe in my child’s mind anything that reflected myself back at me was numbing. It still can be sometimes. My face in the mirror–I’d stare at myself for long periods of time in my early and mid teens and then again in my late twenties, and I’d see nothing. I didn’t see flesh and bone and blood. I was not developing into a woman. The shame maybe went so deep all that time because my own self was captured on camera, and it was out there, there were strangers as well. I think when you live so much between the past and the present, slipping through the cracks of both, and learning that you’re going to do that for a while, no matter how hard you work at getting better, because, with gentle acceptance, you have to know the survival skills you’re using are your own, and you’re still here, with both feet on the ground, even if you’re not entirely there. When these triggers come it used to be hard for me to notice them, because I’d dissociated all my life. And now it happens in a slip and then it passes and I come back, and I find myself watching other people not for how to act and what to say and do like I used to, but I am watching out of sheer curiosity–that other people can be programmed to be so…definite and real. That there are currents out there that go unperturbed and stay steady at the helm. I like knowing that–that I wasn’t all wrong and backwards and afraid all this time for nothing. That some small strain in my neuroplasticity was watching not for cues but for familiarity. I can’t say I ever found it back when I needed it, I wouldn’t have recognized it anyway, but I knew I was looking, which tells me some small part of me still remained somewhere in there. It’s strange, the places we can go.