The first time we embraced I was blinded by light, some newfangled form of synesthesia I’m convinced modern science hasn’t honed in on yet. Even now, seven years later, I see it when I wake from troubled dreams and he knowingly takes my hand.
We may seem like an odd match; he’s a tattoo artist, whereas I work in the corporate world of polished high-rises. Then again, as the old adage goes, perhaps our differences are part of the allure.
Scrolling through photos of us on Facebook and Instagram, our bodies are gently angled toward one another, and in our eyes, a saccharinity inspiring a well of heart emojis. It’s true that we seem quite happy, but what our social media network doesn’t know is how many times I have wanted to run.
It’s tempting to attribute this inclination to the endless barrage of litmus tests for attachment security our careers provide, but I’ve spent enough time on a therapist’s couch to acknowledge that my desire to cut and run is a result of my past.
To me he is Nicholas. Most people call him Nick, a moniker that still causes my shoulders to tense involuntarily and breath to catch in my throat like a half-chewed piece of bread.
One evening, early in our relationship, we were making dinner together, and when I abruptly fell silent he looked up to see me staring into space.
“What is it?” he asked. “Where did you go?”
Before marriage, motherhood and a divorce, a degree in psychology was my most extensive form of self-discovery, and although I was familiar with dissociation, no one had ever called me out on one of my episodes before.
Leaning over the kitchen counter, I explained how a trigger could be something as innocuous as a chirping bird, while other times I was oblivious to what had catapulted me into that hazy alternate plane.
“You disappear a lot,” he said, his green eyes searching.
I had seen a few therapists over the years, but when they inevitably struck a painful nerve, I started canceling appointments, ghosting calls and would eventually stop going altogether.
Determined to go the distance, I sought out a psychologist who specialized in developmental trauma. On her website she conveyed how, left untreated, traumatic experiences can affect a person for years, even decades.
“That’s me, alright,” I said, summoning the courage to make an appointment.
When I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) it was like flicking on a floodlight in the dark room in which I had lived my whole life. Previously, I had thought PTSD was reserved for war veterans and plane crash survivors, though on some level I must have known it applied to people like me.
Suddenly, everything made sense — the nightmares and flashbacks, the numbing behavior, and triggers that hijacked my limbic system and caused me to either detach or launched me into fight or flight.
My therapist recommended eye movement desensitization reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, an intensive form of psychotherapy proven to be an effective treatment for PTSD.
She explained how EMDR deactivates the land mines stored in memory — the sights, sounds, smells and feelings connected to unprocessed trauma — and said eventually I’d be able to access distressing memories as though on a distant screen, instead of feeling trapped inside a horror movie each time I was reminded.
Prompted with a troubling recollection, I tracked the rapid back and forth movement of her hand with my eyes, a motion known to mimic the REM cycle (the stage of sleep when the brain processes and stores memories). Intermittently, she lowered her hand, and as I entered a portal to my past, she reminded me to breathe.
From the outside looking in, my childhood seemed picturesque. I grew up in a small mountain town where people exchanged pleasantries on the street. My youth was packed with piano recitals, dance competitions and softball tournaments. At night, however, I cried myself to sleep.
The shelves of my bedroom walls were lined with porcelain dolls. They were gifts from my grandfather. He was my best friend. People said I was the apple of his eye, a fact I paraded around like a trophy, unaware it was actually a red flag.
Together we went on countless expeditions through the hills and valleys of the majestic countryside. Often, we’d set out on long drives, where along backcountry roads, he slowed his dusty Ford pickup to a stop.
I was scarcely out of diapers when the predation started. Groomed from such an early age, I assumed all grandfathers kissed their granddaughters with open mouths and pawed at them with rough hands under their clothes.
I went outside of myself a lot, to a place with soft edges where the things he did couldn’t touch me, and the memories of sexual abuse became slippery fish in deep, dark water.
When he got sick, I sat alongside his hospital bed and held his withered hand. I knew about the procedures, how surgeons sawed holes in his skull, sliced out the tumorous areas and stitched his scalp closed so it resembled the uneven rawhide of a baseball.
The last time I saw him, he lie thrashing in a tangled web of tubes and intravenous lines. He was quickly sedated, and I was ushered into the hallway, where I stood against a pastel wall, tears streaming down my face.
Before a team of nurses wheeled him into palliative care, I was given a carefully wrapped velvet box. Inside was a gold bracelet inscribed: I’ll always be with you. Love, Grandpa Nick.
I turned 12 the summer he died and his prognostication began to unfurl. At home I passed the shrines my mother had created to our hero patriarch with eyes averted and pushed his memory to the furthermost corners of my mind.
In his absence I became my own abuser. I starved myself daily, and when my parents forced me to eat, it didn’t take long for me to find a loophole in bulimia nervosa. Numb to the world, I tested the elasticity of my skin with the cold blade of a knife.
Plagued with thoughts of suicide, I went on to graduate as class valedictorian. With my diploma in hand, I fled to the big city, where in university dorm rooms, burgeoning intimacies unhinged closet doors, and my skeletons began to force their way out.
My inner turmoil raged on like a tempest, but I managed to graduate in good standing, and employed as a researcher for a not-for-profit organization, I set out to save the world. I met someone, and when he asked me to marry him, I did.
Eventually, the pain I experienced in private became too much to bear. I made some progress reading self-help books, and with my eating disorder finally at bay, I yearned to move forward in my life.
A year later I gave birth to a baby girl. While I adored being a mother, each milestone triggered something dark and sad inside. As a stay-at-home-mom, no amount of play dates, dinner parties or redecorating could quell my growing sense of disillusionment.
I started seeing a psychologist, who recommended my husband and I pursue marriage counseling. During our sessions, I looked down at the perfect carat on my ring finger and realized my life was like a series of auditions for an acting job I no longer wanted.
Desperate for a cure to my existential malaise, I decided to get a tattoo. I had an acquaintance from high school who had become a tattoo artist, and when I looked him up online, I was impressed with his work.
When the day of our appointment came, I walked into Nicholas’s studio to find him drawing at his desk. He donned a plain white t-shirt, work pants, and wore his black baseball cap turned backwards.
He catalogued each word I said with genuine interest and spoke with a conviction I found endearing. Listening to him, I felt a pleasant sickness, as though butterflies had hatched inside my stomach and began to flap their virgin wings.
Later, at home, I admired my new tattoo in the mirror. On my back, the beautifully twisted tree wasn’t otherwise visible to me, but I felt comforted knowing it was there.
When a trial separation failed, I bowed out of marriage, telling concerned friends only that I wanted something real. Embarking on the next chapter in my life, I accepted a position at an investment firm downtown. I had been there for a couple of months when I received a message from Nicholas. He wanted to see me.
Having little reverence for the clamor of city life, he ferried me into the wilderness. We lay near rushing water and watched bats flit against the twilit heavens as we told each other everything there was to tell. That night, when he put his arms around me, I saw the brightest light I’d ever seen.
After dating for several months, I introduced him to my daughter. She shook his hand, and after contemplating him at length, she looked to me and said, “Lantern.”
With Nicholas there was no hiding. He noticed how I couldn’t seem to relax; I drank too much, slept too little and rarely ate more than my preschool-aged daughter. I was agitated all the time, easily startled and there were days I was so anxious I couldn’t leave the house.
“I want to help you,” he said one day, as we sat on a park bench. He took my hand, and tentatively, I allowed him to parse the nebula of my despair.
We moved in together, and he learned to anticipate a dissociative episode when my tone suddenly flattened or I bit my lower lip.
In tandem with EMDR therapy, he helped me with little things here and there, the minutiae of everyday life, that in my early 30s, I somehow hadn’t mastered. He taught me how to properly nourish my body. He taught me how to breathe.
“You need to drink more water,” he’d say, or, “If you’re tired, sleep.”
As Nicholas coaxed me further toward a life more salubrious, I flailed like a person on fire. With my traumatic memories activated, everyone and everything seemed like a threat. His reassurances fell on deaf ears, and when he told me he loved me, I could only strain to hear the words.
Back in my therapist’s office, we dredged the darkest pools of my recollections for festering matter. In those waters lurked the shame and self-hatred I had known since I was raped as a child.
Bolstered by Nicholas’s support, I leaned hard into recovery. I went to therapy on a regular basis, read self-help books and spent countless hours conducting my own research. I started practicing daily gratitude, kept a journal and covered my bathroom mirror in affirmations.
I learned to tune inward when triggered to ask what part of me hurt and replaced negative self-perceptions with self-empathy. I stopped imbibing to numb painful feelings and worked out regularly instead. I did yoga. I meditated. I slept.
In an empty cemetery, I placed one hand on the polished granite of my grandfather’s final resting place, warm from the bright rays of the sun, and somehow seeing Nicholas carved in stone gave me strength to forgive.
Today I no longer feel the urge to run. By illuminating my wounds, Nicholas helped restore me to a state of loving myself. He made it possible for me to heal.
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Author: Nadine Brenna