My new therapist gives me homework. Tells me to notice when I’m triggered and my thoughts try to get away from me. “All you have to do is recognize that it’s ninety-percent old hurt. You don’t have to do anything. Just recognize that you’re reacting to a situation you’re no longer in,” he says. His voice is soothing, but firm. I can imagine him in a lecture hall with hundreds of students nodding their heads and scrawling notes on yellow legal pads. He tells me, “It’s easy to get swept up in it. It’s an instant reaction. But we can start to recognize it for what it is and then we can work to change it.”
I nod my head. At first because I’m intimidated by him and I want to be agreeable, but then because I know he’s right. I can feel myself opening up to him. A flower unfurling its petals. Slowly at first, and then all at once. “I can do that. I can do this,” I tell him. The sweet sigh of realizing that there are things I haven’t tried yet.
He looks at me over the top of his notebook and says, “You know, it’s not just the big traumas that shape us. Sometimes it’s just a steady drip. It works itself into everything you do, really just ingrains itself into you. And no matter how safe you feel later, or how different your environment is, you are always expecting that drip.”
My breath stops and it’s a moment before I’m able to let out a slow shudder. I crack a smile because it’s the only thing that makes sense. “Yeah, I am.”
On the train ride home I repeat a line from a Shane Koyczan poem over and over again. “If you believe with absolute honesty that you’re doing everything you can, do more.”
It is so easy to think that I’m doing everything I possibly can with the tools I have to work with. Simple to assume that I am at my limit. I swear I feel the strain, the edge of breaking. But I wonder if I’m made of stronger stuff than I think.
At night I find myself curled up in bed, my knees to my chest, and the blankets pulled up over my head. “I can’t do this,” I whisper soft into my palms, my cupped hands catching my breath. But it’s just pulling back, not fact. It’s the automatic reaction to being challenged, to having more thrown at me than I think I can handle. But I’m capable of dealing with it. Of taking a breath and recognizing that I’m not threatened in the way I think I am.
In the morning I put on my running clothes and head out into the dark. One foot after another, I let my body go. My mind finally settling into a rhythm. And instead of submitting, instead of telling myself again that this is too hard and I’m never going to get it, all I say is, “Do more. Do more. Do more.”
When I was in high school we finally got high-speed internet. I also got my own computer and one of the rooms upstairs. This was before I texted or everyone had a cell phone. So to talk without talking, you got on the internet and used a messaging service. I’d stay up late into the night talking to friends on MSN messenger.
“Can you come over?”
It wasn’t an uncommon question to receive. I’d knitted myself into a group of heartbroken and struggling teenagers. Most with “do whatever you want” parents and many without cars. Even though I lived at least twenty minutes from every one of them, it was rare that I wouldn’t drop everything and come to your doorstep. You just had to ask. Just ask.
Common enough that even at 1 AM I was still clothed, including shoes. My coat hanging on the back of my chair, my purse stocked with cigarettes and within easy reach.
“Of course. On my way. See you in half an hour.”
I crept down the stairs and kneeled next to my mom’s side of my parent’s bed, pushing soft on her shoulder. “Mom. Mom. I’m going to go into town. I’ll be back later.”
Still asleep, she’d answer me with a, “Okay. Be safe. I love you.”
“Love you, too.” I leaned in, kissed her temple, and headed out the door into the empty night. One of the joys of living in a small town was the lack of light pollution. The nights are always dark and you rarely have to share them.
Half an hour later I was knocking on Sheldon’s door. A room straight off the front patio; you could enter it without walking through the house or putting down your cigarette. He joined me outside, handing over a Busch Light and asking for a smoke. We settled into the chairs arranged around the glass-top table that was covered in ashtrays and beer cans.
He didn’t say much. Pupils like pin-pricks, like far-off blackbirds soaring deep into the sky of his eyes. He flopped his head back and forth like a rag doll. Sometimes it’s not that you want company, but that you know it’s not safe to be alone.
With our smokes done, we headed into his room. He mumbled he wanted to play me something, turning his back to me and sifting through the music on his computer. His room was always a mess, so at first I didn’t notice what he’d done. A painter, among many things, he’d been experimenting with acrylics on panes of glass. He’d paint them individually, then layer them together two or three deep. Gorgeous from both sides and like nothing any of us had ever seen. Stunning.
Now they were all in pieces. Smashed to bits among his belongings. Paint and shattered glass on the floor. On the bed. Across his desk. Settling into the creases of the dirty clothes piled up in every corner.
“What the fuck did you do, dude?”
“It’s been a bad night.”
I sat down on the edge of his bed, pieces of it digging into my palms. “I can help you clean this up tomorrow. I’ll bring my dad’s Shop-Vac® in.”
“Sure. Listen to this.”
He put on the new Alias album he’d been listening to and laid down on the bed. Shards of glass sliding in toward him as his weight depressed the mattress. Cutting into this elbows, his triceps, sticking to his clothes, and creeping down the collar of his shirt.
At first I thought I’d try to clear off the bed, but it so insignificant. When your feet are soaking wet you don’t bother avoiding puddles. We were already covered in it and what did it matter anyway? Tiny glass slices mean nothing in comparison to everything we were living with.
I crawled up the side of the mattress and laid my head on the pillow next to his. Alias playing loud and both of us bleeding into the mattress. We fell asleep with the light on.
The next day I drove home, picked up my dad’s vacuum like I said I would, and drove back to Sheldon’s. While he sat on the patio and smoked my cigarettes I cleaned his room. It was the one thing I knew I could fix for him. Something tangible I could protect him from.
After I loaded the vacuum into the back of my Corolla I sat down at the table with him. Both of us still picking pieces of glass out of the creases in our fingers, out of the cuffs of our jeans. He pushed his chair back, the harsh squeal of metal against concrete. Stood up and went into his room.
A few minutes later he came back with a stack of paper in huge brown portfolio. “This is every piece of art I’ve made since… Since high school. Well, you know, that I have still. I need you to hold on to it for me.” He put it into the trunk of my car and sat back down.
When I got back home I asked my mom to stash the portfolio somewhere, put my dad’s Shop-Vac® back into the garage, and took a shower. Clean and dressed in fresh clothes, I sat down at the table in our kitchen.
My mom came in through the back door and caught me staring blankly out the window. Motionless. She asked the set of questions she always felt comfortable asking. “Are you hungry? Can I make something for you?”
“Yeah, that’d be great. Do we have any lasagna left?”
“If you wanna reheat some of that, that’d be awesome. Thanks, mom.”
She rustled through the fridge and pulled out a selection of food to go along with the lasagna, of course. Her ability to create a feast in minutes shining. Setting the plate in front of me she said, “You sure do give a lot to your friends, munchkin. Make sure you keep some for yourself.”
I looked over at her and smiled. “Yeah, I know. I do. I will.” The words came out confident, but then I looked down at my scabbed hands as I picked up my fork. My teeth clenched. The truth is, if you want to keep something you care about safe, you give it to someone else.
Fever dreams without the sleep.
Some days are just made for
dragging knuckles across concrete.
Walk the city for hours only to
collapse in a heap on
the rug where we wipe our feet
when we come home at night.
Leave on my shoes, coat, and backpack.
Stare straight ahead into the dark,
lying on my belly.
For hours I gasp for air.
My husband gets home and helps me into bed.
I sleep only partially and
wake up regularly to reach out into the night.
Press my palm against his shoulder and
my feet into the curve of the back of his knees.