two hundred & twenty five: home

like many of the words on this list, this word seems innocuous at first, but then sneaks up and sucker-punches you in the stomach.

coz it seems to me that home is where your family is. or the place you grew up. where your parents live. home becomes a bit more loaded a term for people who don’t see their parents anymore, like me. (i had never before considered this, but i just realized i might not see the house in which i grew up, ever again. and my eyes filled and i’ve gotten so fucking sad about not seeing my room or my things or my old toys in the basement crawlspace or the planter that my grandfather made on the back deck and that’s ridiculous, i know it is. fuck.)

*

and home is safety, right? yeah, it’s where you live, but also, home is where the heart is. home sweet home. there’s no place like home. love makes a house a home. make yourself at home.

why do i feel like barfing?

*

one of my longtime friends from the city in which i grew up, when she’d come to visit, always commented on how we made all of our apartments so cozy, so welcoming. like a home. it always struck me as a funny thing to say but i think i know what she means now. we always had textiles and art on the wall. interesting things from our travels on display. plants spilling over shelves full of our books. photos in meaningful frames. we painted the walls to suit our taste, even when we rented. we grew flowers. dug gardens. made it our own.

even now, her house, in which she has lived for over nearly two decades, does not really reflect her. her zany sense of humour. the things she loves. it’s a space in which she lives, but i see more of her in her school classroom than in her actual home.

*

during a trip to see her good friend, pocketbrit described her house as being homely, and i thought, sheesh, that’s a bit harsh, but then it occurred to me to take a little boo at some online dictionaries. i was right to do so, coz in the UK, homely is the equivalent of homey; she meant her friend had made things warm and inviting and comfortable, whereas here, to call something or someone homely is fairly insulting and nearly means the opposite. i sent her screenshots of the two definitions and told her she’d best not tell my wife our place is homely when she comes, or she might end up sleeping in the shed. 🙂

*

in my 20s, i learned that i could make home wherever i went. that the feeling of home lived in me; that i could find it halfway across the world in the most unexpected places, at the most unexpected times. that home was a feeling as well as a physical place.

more recently i know that being loved, being seen, being known, is like coming home. i had to search to find this one quote, because it felt like it fit perfectly, but i only knew the gist of it from seeing it somewhere else. but this is what it is: “home isn’t where you’re from, it’s where you find light when all grows dark.” (pierce brown, in the second book of his trilogy) (which, full disclosure, i haven’t read.)

*

i used to make a point of calling pocketbrit’s flat home, referring to the place she grew up as your parents’ place. it was an intentional reframing of home that felt so important, somehow, and i never knew if she noticed my weird obsessive insistence on differentiating between the two. i did it because i wanted her to know that she could make home wherever she was, that she could build it, that she could be it.

a noble effort, but so silly. semantics. coz we both know that home is where you grew up. no matter how shitty, no matter who touched you in the night or how many times you were ignored or overseen, that was home. that’s what we think of. where our parents live, the place that was supposed to be safe but wasn’t.

so yeah, that’s why this word aches. because even the notion of home gets all twisted up and backwards in our bodies. and hearing it in other people’s mouths, or as a point of nostalgic reference, is yet another reminder of what we didn’t have, how different our experience was.

how much we still want the sense of being at home, of coming home, no matter how shit it was, or is still.

two hundred & fifteen: built

i forget sometimes that mine and pocketbrit’s relationship was built upon the common experience of trauma. that we met online, on a forum where we could be anonymous but also share our stories and our struggles. and that what brought us there was the pain and hurt and desperation we were feeling daily.

and then we have days like we have recently, where we are both young and spinning and triggered, where we lash out and hurt each other and isolate ourselves, and i remember. and i hate it. i hate that she knows it. i hate that we’re so hurt and hurting, that our ability to tolerate and foster love and intimacy has been so profoundly affected.

i got a book from the library yesterday called baffled by love: stories of the lasting impact of childhood trauma inflicted by loved ones. i don’t usually read books like this; i’m steeped enough in my own experience of trauma (and deal with it enough in my work) that i get overwhelmed easily. but this one seems different, it is easy to read, and i appreciate the author’s voice in telling her stories along with the stories of her clients.

by page 20, i had already found words that resonated with me deeply, that made me remember that i’m more than a big bag of triggers covered in skin; that i have more to offer pocketbrit than just activating her own hurt. these are those words: “trauma is hard to speak about and hard to hear about. but stories unshared don’t disappear; they return in relationships, silently taking prisoners. if the trauma remains unknown, unspoken, and unconscious, it does harm. telling your story to a compassionate witness, in contrast, can be healing.”

and that’s what my pocketbrit is: a compassionate witness. she is one of the most important people to whom i tell my stories. she is the person with whom i work through the majority of my core wounds. it is my relationship with her – the one built on all of this ugliness, all this stuff i want to forget – that is helping to heal my heart, that makes me feel like i might one day be okay. it is so fucking hard sometimes, but so far, despite the hard, despite the hurt, it is always worth it.

one hundred & seventy three: fine

at first i thought that my comment on pocketbrit’s post was pretty much all i wanted to say on the topic…except it seems that her post has disappeared, and now i don’t remember what i said. so i’m going to try again.

i think all of us live in what i like to call opposite-land at times…we say one thing while meaning another. and it’s all in the delivery, right? ‘i’m fine’ accompanied by a downcast gaze, or quick, snappy body language, or a blazing stare all mean, quite clearly, that the person is not very fine at all. but for pocketbrit and i, who built our relationship via text on a screen (on a forum for survivors of sexual abuse, then over email, now using a chatting app), it was sometimes hard to tell tone. however, i learned fairly quickish (yet slower than most, likely) that for her, fine usually did not mean that she was okay.

i tried to search through our chat history using the word fine but it came up with about 75,420,291 hits…okay, a slight exaggeration, but it is a word that comes up between us frequently, and hurts us both. she won’t believe it, but i don’t think she’s wrong and i’m right in how we use it, not even a little. it is more just that this one small word has managed to highlight so completely and painfully the worst and biggest hurts from our past, the ways they have settled in our bones and continue to injure us in the now. it is horrible and amazing both, how quickly it can flip a switch on our communication, how much power it wields. and tonight, it makes me mad that i let it so often, when i should know better. (oh hello shame, you wily arsehole.)

as she has written about previously, my sweetest pocketbrit was not permitted feelings in her family; her role was as a peace-keeper amongst her brothers, her dad, and even between her parents. there was no room for her to feel anything. no one asked, and no one, within or outside her family, dug beneath the facade of fineness. any unfine feelings she did have were quickly swallowed in order for her to stay safe, to survive.

being fine was the only option for her, really, for years and years (and i’d argue, even now) and that’s an awful thing to come to terms with. re-experiencing the aloneness of a forced fine-ness is fucking terrible, bad enough as an adult, but even worse through the heart of a child. a child who wants to be rescued; who wants to be seen and known and adored and held, like all children do. like we deserved.

i know pocketbrit’s story. i know it, and i understand it. i know that her need for fineness when she is anything but is not to do with me. i know it’s about protecting herself, and most of all, i want her to be safe. god, it is so so important to me that she is safe, that the wee ones inside are safe. and when i’m firmly planted as an adult, her fineness/not fineness doesn’t affect me in the same way as when i’m less adult. it doesn’t hurt. i can think, ah, pocketbrit needs to stay safe, okay. it is in those moments that i can ask whether she’s really fine, or whether she needs to be (as she referenced in her post). it’s those times that no matter her response to that question, whether it’s truthful or less truthful or angry or barricaded, that i can stay steady. if she says she’s fine and she’s not really, it may be mildly frustrating, sure, but i don’t spin out. i can be fine, truly fine, in the face of however she is.

the crap part is, i haven’t had many of those moments lately, where i’m fine, or anything approximating it. i’ve been very unfine lately. and so has she.

and that’s when it all goes to shit, really. when we’re both little and needing. when we’re tired or missing each other. when we want to have our needs met without having to ask, without having to say the words. when we need to be remembered by the other, when we can’t do it ourselves. basically, when our traumas get all tangled and knotted between us and suddenly we’re wading through a colossal triggery mess.

for me, the hook is the word fine, a little, yes, but mostly it’s about doublespeak. when i’m young, or if i’m not sturdy in my adultness, my terror with hearing things are fine (when the circumstances are so shit that there’s no possible way they could be) comes from knowing that i am expected to know, and that because i don’t, i will have to guess, that i will have to search, and that i will inevitably get it wrong.

coz that was my entire childhood. i grew up with a mother who had an endless number of triggers, it seemed. who metamorphosed into a petulant furious child when she was hurt or upset. and her lack of boundaries, her volatility, her inconsistency, made for very confusing, unsafe times for child-me. coz when my mom was hurt or upset, she raged, she lashed out with whatever was nearest, she slammed things around, she screamed in my face, but worst of all was when she would go completely silent, for hours or sometimes days.

it made my stomach drop out. it was clear i was being punished, but she wouldn’t tell me why, or what. during these silent periods, when i asked for something she’d sometimes respond, but with no eye contact. she would serve me food, turn on the taps for my bath, but in silence. and if she did meet my gaze, her eyes were empty and dead. she handled me like i was a thing. it was like i had disappeared, like i didn’t exist, and i absorbed her disgust like a sponge.

for years, when this happened, i would flail desperately, trying to make it right, trying to fix it, trying to get her to look at me, to love me. and then, in a distant, quiet voice, looking somewhere over my shoulder, she’d say that she was fine. it didn’t matter. and there was no correct response to that. the only right thing was that i was wrong, regardless. my existence, my presence, was wrong.

so it’s a little bit the word fine, but mostly it’s the perpetual wrongness that’s my trigger. the feeling from long ago, of being trapped, of having no clue what to do but being pretty certain that it will be wrong no matter what. the helplessness that swallows me whole when i’m faced with a word that has so many shades of meaning, that is so super charged.

so yeah, when i’m already triggered, or when i’m young already (or teetering on edge of it), when i’m lost in shame, hearing pocketbrit tell me she’s fine creates instant panic. it feels like i have to guess and i know i’ll get it wrong, and then many times, i’m flooded with anger and blame (to cover my terror) and then it’s already gone to shit, hasn’t it.

so here are my solutions around using the word fine. we should:

  • identify exactly how we’re feeling every given moment
  • only say the word as it’s meant – as in, all is well over here!
  • stay safe at all times so we never resort to past coping mechanisms
  • check our shame at the door, or if we experience it, be able to dial it back asap
  • remember that we love each other
  • remember what love is, period

yeah they’re shit solutions. i know. i knew it when i started trying to write them. it’s coz there aren’t any solutions, i don’t think.

saying fine is not a problem to be solved, to start…i mean, yeah, all the things that are glued to it are problematic, but we didn’t paste them there. we didn’t choose them on our own, though we are the ones who have to deal with them.

update (as of may 12/19): even though the original entry was only a couple months ago, i was struck by the fact tonight that this word hasn’t come up in ages. i mean, we certainly haven’t stopped triggering each other, and we’ve had some absolutely horrific arguments since then…one in particular for which i need to do a whole lot more repair with one of her young parts…but not about this word. progress? i think so. i really do. coz even after reflecting on all of this again, even thinking about all the hard stuff we’ve been through together and on our own, all i feel is love and gratitude. she’s the friend for me.

backdated; finalized on May 12/19

one hundred & seventy two: pride

this word actually reminded me of the endless lectures we got as kids, usually regarding doing our ‘jobs.’ we often got accused of having a lack of pride if we didn’t delight in our 500 chores (washing/drying/putting away dishes after every meal, vacuuming the entire house, dusting, scrubbing toilets and sinks, washing the floor, wiping mirrors, putting laundry out onto the line, taking it off, folding it), or if we didn’t do them up to their standards.

in particular, it makes me think about one of my dad’s most regular speeches about how our family was a team, and as team members, we all needed to do our part, we all needed to contribute, they worked so hard to provide all these things for us, how our laziness, lack of enthusiasm and pride in our chores was an insult to them, was proof of how we were ungrateful, selfish, spoiled kids. i can hear the pseudo-patient, long-suffering tone of his voice even now, and i simultaneously roll my eyes outwardly, while i feel my insides shrinking up.

the one persistent, childish fuck you for my apparent lack of pride was one i maintained as long as i lived in their house: i kept my room a a total mess. and even now, i tend to be more messy than tidy, and it is yet another example of the way they have a hold on me, even still. my doing the opposite of what they would do just shows how much control i continue to let them have. it’s ridiculous. insta-shame.

*

my parents were incredibly stingy with praise and in being proud of us. they were proud of us to other people, but rarely in earshot. they bragged about our accomplishments to their friends (as reflections on themselves as excellent parents, mostly) but were very intentional about keeping our sense of pride in ourselves miniscule. we learned that ‘getting a big head’ was one of the worst things that could happen, and any sense of self-confidence was evidence of this. compliments or praise that we shared with them, from teachers or our friends’ parents, were considered highly suspicious, and their intentions were always questioned: ‘what are they playing at?’ and ‘hmm, they’re probably just buttering you up because dad teaches their son.’ compliments paid to us when they were present were quickly batted away: ‘oh you don’t know what she’s usually like at home’ or ‘oh but you should see the state of her room’ and ‘we just wish his math grades would reflect that!’

i don’t know why they were like this. i don’t know why some pride was sanctioned but others wasn’t. i don’t know what they thought would happen if we were proud of ourselves, or if they showed that they were proud of us. we would like ourselves? we would be comfortable in our own skin? we would get better than them?

(though honestly, isn’t that the fucking goal of it all?! i think so. i desperately want our daughter to be better than us, to struggle less, to achieve more, to be happy, to be satisfied, to be loved, to be safe. i want her to be okay. i want her to be as big as she wants to be, to take up as much space as she needs, to chase whatever dreams she has, to have the hugest expanse of what is possible for her lying ahead. why would i want to curb that? why would i want her to pack herself away?)

i don’t get any of it. yet i get all of it, very intimately, because i live with its effects, every minute of my life.

one hundred & seventy one: playfulness

i’ve just written a fairly despairing addendum to yesterday’s post, so this word is quite a contrast, and i’m not sure i’ll do it justice.

i am a playful sort of person. i delight in making people laugh, i am incredibly silly and appreciate ridiculousness (and am adept at finding it anywhere), and love when people play along with me. i am self-deprecating and although i write incredibly seriously on this site, many people in my day-to-day life would have little to no idea i was capable of it.

i keep things light, for the most part. it is my comfort zone, it is easy for me to be clever and amusing (and amused), it is a major defense mechanism to keep me safe. bathroom humour? totally in my wheelhouse. bodily function jokes/sound effects? yes, please. (it is why i am a favourite with 8-12 year old boys. and british people. right, pocketbrit?! ;))

on that note, i absolutely love making pocketbrit laugh, it is the best sound. i love teasing her, having her tease me. i love that she is so so silly, that we have that in common too, alongside all the heavy stuff. it is so important to me.

my wife and i have our own stupid language that we speak…well, not a language exactly, but a uniformly wonky sort of way we pronounce words. i have no idea of its origins anymore but it’s persisted for over a decade. sometimes our daughter will ask us to speak it to each other so she can try to emulate it (she can’t, goofy girl) and then we’ll all laugh because it’s so entirely dumb. but it always makes me smile. especially if we try to spell it as we pronounce it, it always brings a smile to my face.

and a last confession in relation to this word: i totally find myself funny sometimes. like, absolutely crack myself up. even as a kid, i would do completely silly things around my family and wait for them to notice and to say something. they would notice, but my parents in particular would often refuse to give me the satisfaction of acknowledging whatever idiotic thing i was doing, and this cracked me up, endlessly. i mean it strikes me as a bit sad, just now, but as one small example: i took the green leafy top part of a strawberry and went to dinner with it sticking out of one of my nostrils. both my mom and dad saw it but didn’t say a word. (it eventually got launched onto the table after i unsuccessfully stifled a chortle, five minutes in…)

but the game of it, the fact that i knew i was being ridiculous and inappropriate, the fact that they wouldn’t play…i don’t know. i think it’s funny. and sad, now that i write it. but mostly funny, because i guess it was one of the times when i was in on the joke, when i was controlling the situation.

one hundred & sixty one: anger

i don’t do anger very well, either. let’s just get that straight.

*

a few years ago i would have said i was fluent in anger. it was an acceptable expression of emotion, just like with pocketbrit’s family, but there was no awareness of what drove it. what it was covering. what lay underneath.

at the beginning of my marriage, when my wife and i argued, i’d often end up really angry. super frustrated, sharp words, defensive, prickly, unfair, terrible. and her response was to cajole, distract, or check out, coz that’s what kept her safe in her home as a kid, being able to interrupt a volatile situation or just exit. coz she also came from a home where anger was dangerous; where there was screaming and violence and arguing. in fact, she remembers often taking refuge on the roof of her house, where the shouting and crashing were muffled, where she’d sit, with her knees drawn up, watching the stars, waiting for it to end. that makes me so so sad.

it just occurred to me that we triggered the fuck out of each other. i got angry, and she got absent. she didn’t get angry, she just got quiet, and then i got absent.

*

over the ensuing decade and a bit, we worked it through. she knows that when i am lashing out at her, that i am hurt. and i know that if i want her to hear me, i need to dig deeper, and let her know what’s beneath all my spikes. similarly, i know that when she starts raging about the house being out of order or going silent, that she is scared, and needing to exert control somewhere. she has learned that disappearing when she is angry is far scarier for me than any words or actions she may take.

however, these last few years have really fucked with that vibe. separately, we’re each working through our trauma(s) in therapy, and it’s been hard, really hard, to figure it out with each other while we’re evolving individually. she is learning to find her voice, her entirely justified anger, her inner advocate, and it is so good, and so important, and so necessary. by no means am i always good with it, coz sometimes i’m just terrible, ask her. and on the flip side, i am learning (so so fucking slowly, like turtle-with-four-broken-legs slow) to allow room for my hurt, to feel the stuff beneath all those angry, prickly layers i built up, to unpack the reflex to get mad. it is the worst timing, and the best timing both, and it is hard.

*

more often than not these days, i am terrified by anger. my own, and that of others. i get instantly small, instantly triggered, instantly wanting to bolt out of wherever i am so i can hyperventilate and panic. and it is really fucking inconvenient, and so shameful. i mean, fuck, i grew up with a goodly dose of violence, parents who yelled and hit us fairly frequently, i used to have no problem getting enraged, why am i getting so fucking weird about it now?

i don’t know, but nowadays, anger undoes me. i’ve gone the opposite direction.

ask the people closest to me (my wife, pocketbrit, even my kid) and they’ll tell you. a hint of anger and i’m outta there. it’s the worst, the absolute worst.

i really want to get better with it.

eighty-six: discovery

i’ve opted to go somewhat silly here, because i’ve been backwriting a bunch of these blog entries and they’re a bit heavy…

…but it’s also genuinely what my first thought was. which was about shark week, on the discovery channel.

my wife, you know, the one with the ocean in her blood, who grew up by the sea, is addicted to shark week. like, PVRs it, and has, stored in her very smart brain, millions of facts about sharks. best, though, is that she uses this information to back up why she can’t swim in any body of water other than a chlorinated swimming pool. yes folks, you heard it here, she will not step past her ankles in a single pond, river, lake or ocean because of sharks.

so thank you, discovery channel, for making me the only parent that will swim with our child on holidays…you and your bastard shark week!!

eighty-three: dignity

all day saturday, i couldn’t think of what piece of what song it was, circling in my head, that had the word dignity in it…and then it came to me, finally, as we drove from brunch. it was from whitney houston’s ‘greatest love of all.’

when i was younger, my dad had this record, and i remember studying it for a really long time. she was so so beautiful. i mean, look at her.

Whitney_Houston_-_Whitney_Houston_(album)

i was in the fourth grade, so i had already had loads of crushes on girls and women (my friend’s sister, my grade three teacher, a few random tv stars) (but truly had no idea i may have been gay, that didn’t come til later) but i reaaaaaalllly loved me some whitney. my ten year old self thought she was so exotic…and that voice, phew.

*

in fact, one of my first big concerts was to see whitney houston (i feel like it was in junior high), at an arena. i was on the floor, maybe eight rows back? (i have no idea who i went with…i totally can’t remember!) i was mesmerized. i knew all the songs. and, i swore up and down that she looked straight at me as she blew a kiss to the crowd.

*

later, in high school, i auditioned for a musical with this song. ambitious much?! shit. clearly too young and naive to have any sense of how ridiculous it was for a teenaged white girl to sing it, ugh i’m cringing now thinking of our theatre director, good lord must he have rolled his eyes.

but…i got the part. whitney was on my side.

*

the other thing i thought of in relation to this word was about death…dignity at the end of one’s life. if you read obituaries (which i used to, routinely) this is a word that is used often in relation to death, and i’m fairly curious about it.

the ironic part of my association game with whitney houston is how completely undignified a death she had. face down in a bathtub, possibly drowned, with a motley cocktail of alcohol and drugs in her system, at the age of 48.

but honestly, what does a dignified death even mean? that you don’t go sobbing and kicking and screaming? that you accept that it’s happening? that you welcome it? that you lie back with a peaceful beatific smile on your face and drift off to sleep? i don’t quite have a sense for what it all entails, but i do know that i want one, when the time comes.

yes, i will go with dignity. i’ve decided.

eighty-one: outside

i wish i could launch myself outside of this brain of mine. i just want to be outside of me entirely. outside of this body, this head, these thoughts, these emotions. i know it’s just coz i’ve just been a bucket of triggers lately, but still. get me out.

*

i feel like kids play outside way less than they used to. when i was a kid, i would spend hours outside, with my cousins or my brother, or on my own. singing to the trees. playing with my dollies. throwing the ball for my dog. catching tadpoles, making forts, befriending worms. searching for four-leaf clovers. hanging from the monkey bars. running through the sprinkler.

*

when it was warm, i used to climb outside my window as a kid after i’d been put to bed, i’m not sure how old i was. six maybe? seven? when i was sure the coast was clear, i slid open my screen and jumped down (i can still feel that thud under my bare feet) to the green grassy carpet below. usually i’d sit and pet my cat, sing to her, but lots of times, i remember being sad, tucking my knees up to my chest and feeling the tears spill down my legs, as i sat on the ground, in between sheets and towels that were hanging to dry on the clothesline. i felt safe in there, hidden. and when i was done, when it was getting dark or when the bugs got too bad or when the tears had stopped or if i got sleepy, i’d push the square weathered step stool that was used to hold the laundry basket up to the wall under my window so i could clamber back in.

i don’t remember ever getting caught. or having anyone ask me about it…i mean, they must’ve known i did it. how many mornings must my mom have moved the stool back? or did they notice at all?

*

when i was in my early teens, i remember summer nights, outside with my friends, riding bikes, bouncing balls against the school walls, playing tag by streetlight in their richly-kid-populated neighbourhoods (mine was full of old people and babies). drinking gigantic slushies together with the same two straws (or with red twizzlers – yum!). all of that was as close to bliss as i could imagine, then. free and wild. sweaty necks, dusty shoes, smiles glinting in the night.

seventy-four: uncertain

this word makes me feel sad.

for some reason, i have in my head this picture of me, when i was fairly small, maybe it was the first day of school or preschool or easter, but i’m posing in front of our white picket fence (yes really – ha!), hands at my sides, wearing a short-sleeved white dress with a pleated skirt and a green sash, hair in matching green yarn ribbons, all of it moving slightly with the breeze. i’m squinting and smiling into the camera, i really was cute, like so so cute in this picture, and all looks completely normal. just a sweet little kid in her front yard, white knee-high socks nearly even, hair shimmering in the sun.

but look closer, and i’ve got my one foot tilted outwards, not quite standing square, and just that one detail entirely belies the illusion of fineness. it’s like a subtle shrug or something, a tiny little giveaway about how it really was, how unsure i felt, and it makes me feel so fucking sad. because i’m totally looking fine and normal and okay…but that little foot, supinating…it’s what i still do now, decades later, when i’m nervous or worried or fidgeting.

so i feel it all differently, thinking about that picture today. i wasn’t okay, then, but no one knew, no one noticed. i was on my own.