Woke up this morning feeling sick to my stomach; filled up like I had swallowed a handful of lead weights and ball bearings. My head was aswarm with writhing forms—the same forms I had gone to sleep with—that undulated and entwined and slithered around each other, growing spines and thorns, swelling like sickly black fruits and blossoming forth thousands of pus-yellow glistening spheres like fish eggs. Behind my eyelids, these things devoured each other, sprouting teeth and rigid lamprey-like mouths, biting and chewing and gnawing and rending.
The last few days have been immensely stressful. And I have a very adverse reaction to stress. They call it a stress disorder for a reason. My endocrine system can’t differentiate between having to juggle dozens of simultaneous work requests and being thrashed within an inch of my life. To my body, everything is a life or death situation, fight or flight, do or die. There is not middle ground.
While I’m having a difficult time, say at work, my senses of smell and hearing are amplified. Everyday scents can induce headaches. Colors are amplified to the point where certain flowers are too bright to look at directly. My legs shake and bounce in a vain attempt at self-soothing. My hands wobble and drop things constantly. My mind buzzes with rage and hate for nearly everyone, anything that might possibly even remotely endanger me.
I’m on full alert at all times until, at the end of the day, I collapse, utterly spent.
I know that, after the threat (of having too many responsibilities) has passed, I will collapse. I will have a period where my body and mind will be exhausted to the point of not being able to get through my normal daily routine. There will also be a time of intense depression and sadness and malaise. This post-stress depression will sometimes be so strong that even antidepressants barely make it through the haze.
Meanwhile, the spiny things engorge themselves in my inner vision, and I am sickened by the horror my mind conjures up. But I will put my nose to the grindstone and work. Because I have to. Because rent and groceries and car payments don’t care if your hormone levels spike every time a new, urgent request lands in your inbox.
Both trauma and the repression memories can wreck a person’s concept of self-worth.
My mother’s random acts of physical and emotional abuse made me feel that I was unlovable and, just generally, an awful person.
How dare you consider yourself worthwhile when the one who is supposed to love you the most hurts you terribly, often without cause or warning?
Later, I had to do things I am horrified by, just to survive. Things no child should ever have to do.
Because these feelings were so potent, the abuse sporadic, and mostly because I was a child, the feelings and memories were dragged down, deep down, into the darkest cellars of my mind to lay festering and forgotten in the black, slowly rotting the foundations of who I am.
This poisonous cocktail of self-hate lie dormant, seeping into my waking life, necrotizing my ego, wrapping shadowy tendrils around my sense of self-worth, and warping my ability to function in the world outside of “just getting by”.
In other words, I was punishing myself without knowing why.
From about the time I was twelve years old until my mid-thirties, I lived most of my life in a sort of fugue/somnambulist/nightmare state wherein I was merely a passenger riding along in my own body, with my subconscious mind taking the wheel, driving into every ditch and telephone pole, running down bystanders, and occasionally steering into the wrong lane.
My innermost self is a drunk driver.
During this time period, I would actively avoid opportunities for success as a writer and artist. I would pass on chances for decent relationships to get involved with those I knew would ultimately make me unhappy. I would quit jobs that were going well or gave me a sense of purpose. I would dissolve friendships by doing or suddenly blurting out things that were incredibly mean-spirited or downright hateful. I basically did all that I could to insure that I was as isolated and unhappy as possible—punishment for attempting to be happy when I know that I didn’t really deserve it.
And I could never figure out why.
I would simply wake up one day and realize that I had walked out on a good-paying job the day before, for no good reason in particular. Or I would find myself “forgetting” to go to interviews or out on dates. My life was an endless stream of either bad or non- choices that seemed to be made (or, rather, not made) by someone else.
Can you imagine anything more frustrating?
There was also a very long period, that also lasted until about my mid-30’s, where believed that I was hideously ugly. When I pictured myself in my head, I envisioned a warty little goblin, a patchwork person with a weird, twisted body and face, a being of discordant grotesqueness on par with The Elephant Man.
That is not an exaggeration. That is the truth.
I generally kept this belief to myself because whenever I voiced it out loud, people would look at me sideways to see if I was joking. And whenever people told me that I was attractive, I would look at them sideways to see if they were joking. I would be shown pictures of myself and I would wonder who the person I was looking at was, even though, simultaneously and logically, I knew it was me.
At best, the person staring back at me from the mirror was a stranger.
Not exactly a recipe for making good relationship choices.
When I was single, I was absolutely clueless when it came to people hitting on me. And I would never make a move myself, of course. Once I finally realized that someone might find me even remotely attractive, I would become obsessed (in some cases I was downright stalker-y). I had to have them because no one else was going to find me attractive.
To this day, I have a difficult time understanding when I’m being flirted with. Thankfully, because I’m very happily married, I don’t have to worry about it anymore.
Throughout all this self-sabotage, self-hatred, and disassociation with my own appearance, I knew something was up but I just couldn’t wrap my head around what it was. Logically, I knew that I was deserving of success and love and that the person I saw when I looked in a mirror was me. But there was another part of me that was more powerful, insidious, and seditious at work. And it wanted me (and still wants me) to fail, and to be lonely, and to be convinced that I am some kind of gangly, warped monster-man.
Over time, things long-forgotten have begun to surface. I have worked on many of my confused and disassociated feelings out through image and word (including these confessionals) and therapy. And, because of these things, I have begun to see the truth—or at least a glimmer of it. And it is easier now to recognize when I’m being influenced and controlled by my little saboteur.
To this day, I still sometimes struggle against myself to succeed (or sometimes even to just perform simple, daily tasks that would make me feel a sense of accomplishment). Occasionally, I wonder who the handsome fellow in that photograph is, because it’s certainly not me. Once in a while, I wonder how it is that I’ve managed to surround myself with people who love me so much and so unconditionally, for certainly, I’m an awful, evil little man who deserves no better than a lifetime of torture and isolation.
It seems as if my entire life has been a battle to conquer the little saboteur that lives in my subconscious.
And, if all this seems to be a bit self-aggrandizing in an “Oh look at me! I’m so pitiful!” or “Look at all I’ve had to overcome!” sort of way—let me assure you, it is no easy thing for me to talk about being broken or flawed, especially mentally or emotionally. Americans (as well as men, in particular) put great pride in being “with it” and “put together”. I look at all that my little saboteur has done and I feel an overwhelming sense of shame and regret—not pride—which is, ironically, sort of feeding back into my low self-esteem. What I’m hoping to accomplish here is not pity or self-aggrandizement, but a way to map out and bring to light those things that were once hidden, so that they might be better studied and dealt with.
I want to drag the little saboteur out to the light—kicking and screaming, if need be—in the hopes that he might get banished, once and for all.
I couldn’t have been more than three yeas old. Long before my mom’s mind filled with dangerous sickness.
I’m awake in my room, sweaty and afraid. It’s dark and I had just had a bad dream. Like most toddlers, the first place I want to be when I was afraid was with my mother.
I slip my tiny legs over edge of my big boy bed until my toes brush the cold hardwood floor below. I drop and then scamper into my mom’s room next door, my feet making soft, scuffling noises as I go. Using a nearby chair, I manage to clamber up and into my mom’s bed.
It’s summer in the Midwest, and the nights are hot. My mom is sleeping naked, above the covers on her back. Her long, blonde hair spreads out across her pillow in a cascading fan that’s almost blue in the predawn light. Right now, she’s barely in her 20s, full of soft, round youth. Not yet ravaged by a lifetime of mental illness, sorrow, and drug abuse.
I gaze at her round, sleeping face, so peaceful and angelic, and all fear is brushed aside and instantly forgotten. I sit down, tucking my legs under me, and stare at her for a long time. I study her long, yellow eyelashes, the curve of eyebrows that swoop gracefully across her wide forehead like the antennae of butterflies, her mouth open and expelling the deep, slow, rhythmic breaths of sleep.
As I sit, I become aware of a gradual lightening of the room. A wide window is set in the Eastern wall of her room. Because the summer air is warm, the curtains are drawn back and the sashes ajar to let in a breeze. Just outside the window a short strip of lawn separating the house from a narrow dirt road can be seen. And, beyond that, is a dense wood of deciduous trees. As I gaze through the window, curious as to the source of the growing light, the forest begins to darken as the sky behind it grows steadily lighter. Then, slowly, magically, beams and streaks of golden light start to emanate through the interstices between tree trunks. Above the forest, the sky gradually turns pale blue, then pink, then orange. The trees are glowing green now and the room is alight with a golden-green aura.
This is the first time I had ever seen the sun rise. I am amazed, entranced, awestruck. I’ve never seen anything so wonderful, so beautiful. My head and my heart ache with some kind of feeling that I cannot comprehend as the entire universe opens up within my mind, blooming and exploding—a flower of psychic fire. It’s as if I am being born, sliding forth from the womb of the cosmos. It’s as if the Hand of God is reaching through those radiant shafts of dawn light with intangible fingers, to reach through my watering eyes, opening the Door of Infinite Possibility within my brain.
Something this profound shakes a person down to the deepest cellars of their souls. This singular, perfect, brand-new moment is too big, and large, and too full of muchness to be held within a single mind, much less that of a toddler. A new kind of fear fills my heart, one I had never felt before, one I cannot understand, and one that I have rarely felt since. Terrified and awestruck, I cannot be alone. I have to wake up my mom.
As I reach down to shake my mother awake, I catch the light spilling over her reposed form with glowing tendrils. The gold-green rays touch the soft downy hair that covers her arms, belly, breasts, and face and fills them with their light. And, just like that, she is alight and shimmering with a golden radiance. I hold her in my eyes, enraptured and in love with this vision: my mother, a golden goddess, dazzling and transcendent.
I am simply overwhelmed. My mind cannot behold or comprehend such profound beauty. I begin to cry.
My mom slowly rises up into consciousness and it’s like watching a diver swim up to break the surface of a still pond. Slowly, her face begins to move with a thousand tiny, almost imperceptible, tremors. Like the dawn sky her face gradually changes color, growing more and more pink and flush. Her eyelids quiver and her eyelashes flutter. Sleepily, she looks at me, her eyes hooded and filled with confusion and the broken remnants of unknowable dreams.
"What’s up, doc?" She murmurs.
"M-Mommy!" I sob, pointing out the window. I want to tell her how amazing and awesome the coming dawn is. I want to tell her that I have experienced a perfect unity with all that there is and that I have felt the love of the universe fill up the whole of my being. But I’m only three. I don’t really know what’s happening, and if I did, I didn’t have the words to explain. "The sun’s coming out!"
Confused, she follows my gaze, and the aim of my tiny, chubby finger, to where the sun is just now appearing above the tree-tops, an enormous cosmic ball of orange-colored chocolate melting into the bright green leaves, which are burning from the inside with yellow light.
"It’s. So. Beautiful." I whisper, my throat aching and choked with tears.
My mom laughs. She has a special, good-natured laugh she saves for me for when I am being especially precocious and that is how she laughs now. It’s comforting. It eases the fear and ache and hurt of The Overwhelm. She sits up next to me, putting one slender arm around my shoulders and we look out at the sky together. “Yeah, I suppose it is.”
We sit like that until the sun rises completely up and above the forest, our eyes hurting from staring at it. When the dawn is completely and properly over, she lies back down on her back with a yawn.
"Come here, kiddo." She murmurs, drowsily. "Let’s go back to sleep."
I nod and curl up in the warm, comforting space between her ribcage and an outstretched arm. She is still afire with the light streaming through the open window, but now that the sun was up where I am used to seeing it, the terrible profundity in that glow is mostly gone. Birds begin to raise a nattering, chirping chorus outside and a normal, uneventful day is beginning. My mom slowly ceases to be a brilliant, empyrean entity. She reverts back to being just my mom and I am relieved.
I close my eyes and let myself be soothed by her familiar scent: soap, sweat, fur, and smoke. As I lie there, I resolve to always remember this moment, so that I might think about it when I am older. Something in me tells me that this is important, something that happens perhaps once or twice in a lifetime. This same intuition tells me that I may need this moment as a life raft as I move on through my life. And it also tells me that, when I am old enough, I might understand why this moment made me hurt and happy and terrified and amazed and sad all at the same time.
So I remembered.
And now I understand.
This is what love feels like.
On a cold night
wet and pregnant with a strict promise
of sanguine horrors
The moon weirdly shakes her pale, swollen face
and weeps from her wound of crushed black velvet
While the soul of you rises like a ghost
from streets slick with mists that choke like bitter tears
an lucent bird of prey constructed of
glass shards and razors
Dead eyes glisten in the strange orange haze
cast by flickering sodium lamplights
Lips, cracked and bleeding, part to scream with rage
and madness as you leap upon my heart
To chew and gnaw
on gristled sinew
Yet never swallow
I was playing on the floor of the dining room, R2D2 and C3PO were descending from the impossibly shear cliff of The Great Table Mountain of Hoth using a grappling cable that had been stowed in a secret compartment within R2D2’s dome-like head. They were descending to rescue Han Solo, who had fallen off his speeder bike after the extreme cold had frozen its stabilizers.
It was summer of 1978, I believe. The morning sun blazed through the windows, bathing the room in a drowsy, golden light. The droids and the injured Han Solo were suddenly set upon by IG-88 and Bosc, terrible bounty hunters who were after Solo’s head. A noisy gunfight was brewing and the dining room was filling with the sounds of blaster fire when a long, dark shadow fell over me.
She stood over me, a giant in a threadbare robe that had fallen open slightly, revealing the soft curve of a soft, pale belly just at my eye level. In real life, this giant was actually petite, just a few inches taller than five feet. But to me, she was enormous, galaxy-sized. This was someone whom I trusted to love and protect me, whom was my world and my religion, who was everything that, at that age, I had known of love and worship. She was, by nature, gentle and prone to laughter and periods of quiet reflection; affectionate, kind, and patient.
But I also knew she was dangerous.
I could sense it now, that danger, like a rabbit senses the eyes of a hawk upon it.
My gaze rolled, slowly and fearfully, over her petite frame, afraid to make any sudden movements. Her long, gold hair fell down in straight curtains over her shoulders, burning like fire in the morning sun. Those shoulders were straight. And still. Too still.
"Was I being too loud?" I whisper, voice trembling.
Finally, my eyes fell upon her round, heart-shaped face. Her mouth was a thin, white line that almost wasn’t there. But it was her eyes that truly terrified me. They were normally the blue of a cool sky in early spring, glinting with humor and intelligence. But occasionally, they would be black… and empty.
They were like that now. They stared back at me, two dead moons that had been dipped in oil. Meeting her gaze was like staring into the abyss and I felt myself tumbling into that empty, lifeless space. No, that’s wrong. There was life there, but it was inhuman, alien… OTHER. Meeting her gaze was like staring long into the eyes of an insect; after a short time, you begin to understand the horror of the infinite and the terror of something so completely outside of the realm of human understanding.
This was not the person that I loved with all of my heart and that loved me in return. This was an insect, cold and unthinking, wearing the shell of that person like a mask.
We were frozen like that for an eternity, me kneeling on the floor and her towering above me. I was vaguely aware of her vibrating, ever so slightly, buzzing and humming. But then I dimly realized it was me. I was the one vibrating, shaking and trembling and utterly terrified, my heart thundering with enough force to shake my eight-year-old body like the magnet in a speaker, but otherwise paralyzed.
"Mommy?" My voice came out as a squeak.
She didn’t blink, those dark eyes never broke contact with my own. Suddenly, with the force and speed of a truck, her fist shot out and struck the side of my head. I saw sparks and flares behind my eyes and was briefly aware that I was flying through the air sideways. The world grew dark.
Then, that darkness (and unconsciousness) swallowed me whole.