I Wear the Skeleton in my Closet

Skeleton LadyThis is a long read, so if you do partake–all the way to the end, thank you. I appreciate your time. My hope is that when you are done, you get a refreshed appreciation for the ripple-effect that #PTSD can have on families. That those who suffer through it need help.

You know when you get that feeling that comes from deep within the pulse of your core that tells you, Now, now is the time? Now your ready to open the door. I had that feeling when I read an article posted in The Washington Post a couple of days ago regarding PTSD by Rachel Kramer Bussel’s grandfather, Norman Bussel; an American Veteran whose honorable work now carries on by way of assisting other veterans who suffer from PTSD; Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD is a topic that is very personal for me. So, today, I’m opening the door of my closet, letting folks take a quick peek at the skeleton I keep in there. Why? Well, I hope that someone–anyone out there will finally understand that they aren’t alone. That simply getting help can prevent more tragedy. Stop the cycle.

This beautiful skeleton of mine is quite dusty, a tad brittle, but I want to be sure you know that I am grateful for her existence. The reason is that she’s no longer a demon. She’s just bones now, relieved at finally being able to rest. I hear them rattling every now and again, her bones. Reminding me that she’s what got us through. Sometimes I’ll pull her out of the closet, take her off the hangar and put her on, because I don’t want her to forget I remember how hard she worked for me.

Before I turn this knob so that you can see her hanging up inside my closet, I want to talk about water ripples. I know, I know–sucky segway, but just hang in there for the analogy real quick, then I’ll get to the bones of this thing.

RipplesDo you remember learning about how water ripples work? A rock falls into the water, the water surface is displaced, some is shoved downward, and then it pushes back up to the surface, causing ripples. The bigger the stone the more force behind it. What I hung onto particularly about this lesson, was that eventually the ripples do get smaller as the water’s equilibrium returns to normal. This has always been an example, that for me, was a beautiful—physical thing in which I believed paralleled with my childhood.

PTSD is one hell of a stone that displaces domesticity’s balance, and the effects can be devastating. I knew, in my gut that my own day-to-day life experiences–my “ripples”, would eventually even out. I held onto that promise, could feel the truth of it way down in my gut. Balance would return to me. I just needed to keep pushing back with my own positive energy.  I needed to keep hope alive within myself. I needed to stop the ripples from spreading further.

I lived in a physically abusive, male dominant home with a chain-link fence surrounding it that caged us all in. I learned to be afraid of the world outside of that fence, but I was much more frightened of what happened on the inside of it. Inside that house and what nobody knew was that we were terrified of my dad. My mom, all of us kids. Dad was a tyrant. Physically abusive, verbally degrading– a predator. He got off on his power over us. We were all afraid. First, that failure of any kind was a sign of weakness. The epitome of weakness. It was to such a toxic degree that I was terrified to even acknowledge within myself that I was afraid. My fear eventually mutated and I began to despise failure. I tried so hard to not fail and each time I inevitably did, it became harder and harder to pick myself back up, dust my knobby knees off and try again without completely hating myself. I knew, distantly in my heart that I didn’t want fear to control my life the way it was, but that’s one hell of a wall to climb when every single day you are afraid of the man who judges failure as weakness. The bright side—the thing that allowed my inner phoenix to rise from its ashes, was years later when my husband explained to me (using his vast 22 years of experience), was that my past failures weren’t failures at all. They were learning opportunities. And, that things that I thought were my fault, weren’t. That was it. He just said, “You aren’t a failure. It isn’t your fault.” That was when the balance finally began settling in; I could feel my ripples slowing down, smoothing out.

But, back to that whole “I grew up in fear” thing. That’s as plainly as I can put it. Fear creates some of the most paralyzing stress you can imagine. It is an unadaptable existence because of the level of it’s unpredictability–no one knew what would set my father off. What could potentially and suddenly trigger violence in any of these men. I was wary of the men in my family. Nervous around men in general. I couldn’t think straight when one would speak to me. I thought that men were superior to women, that women were subservient. They were not the decision makers. Anxiety? Yeah, that. Ever see an animal caged up, pacing… pacing… pacing… That’s what my bones did beneath my skin. My nerves were fried, I physically shook. I mentally paced when I was at home.

My grandpa, both of my uncles, and my own father suffered from PTSD. My grandpa was a Veteran of the Korean War. Both my uncles had come back from the Vietnam War. My father participated in no war at all. He manufactured his own war. My grandpa was always angry. Quick to fly off the handle. He’d yell at the drop of a hat. We were already conditioned to believe that when the yelling started, then physical harm wasn’t too far behind. Grandpa didn’t pick us up and shake us like my dad did, he didn’t whip us with his belt. But we just didn’t know for sure whether or not he would. Because these two men had the same exact temperaments. To this day, he is one of the most impatient men I have ever known. The only time he seemed to be relaxed was while gardening, reading or cooking. I remember a specific time, after we’d helped scrape paint off of one of his barns. We were all sitting at the picnic table; me, my two siblings and grandpa, all eating Planters Peanuts and drinking Pepsi’s. That memory of him is my favorite. The air around us was balanced. No ripples. Most other memories that stand out for me are of him screaming at us kids to, “Stop slamming the god damned door!” and “Get outside!”. To this day, the slamming of doors still stresses me out. Sometimes, the sound hurts.

One summer vacation, we were at my grandparent’s for the day. After eating a bag of prunes, drinking a can of grapefruit juice, and swinging on the swing set for hours with my sister and brother, I finally had to, you know—go! I was too afraid to sneak back into the house. We’d already been yelled at for the constant going in and out of the house. Grandpa’s bathroom was at the back of the house. I’d have to go through the kitchen and the living room, and slip by grandpa’s bedroom, which was right in front of the bathroom. My feet snap-crackle-and-pop horribly whenever I walked, so he would totally hear me coming. (I would totally suck as a ninja) I didn’t want to risk getting kicked or bellowed at anymore, so I looked for solace in my grandpa’s wiener dog, “Mitsy” and his big old German Shepherd, “Jody”. I petted her, talked with her for as long as my bowels would allow, hoping I could just hold it until my parents came back to get us after work. Eventually, I had to make a decision. There was a nicely shaded drainage ditch by one of the fence lines, over on the orchard side of his acreage. And, I just so happened to have a tissue in my pocket. Well, business was business. Maybe not quite as usual, but I took care of it.

I know, too graphic. But imagine yourself being maybe eight years old, afraid to go inside your grandpa’s house just to use the restroom. Yes, Grandma was around, thank goodness. But, she was scared of grandpa too. He yelled at her plenty. My Grandma (passed away when I was in fourth grade, if I remember correctly) was my real life guardian angel. She would swing with us, sing to us, talk about how chilly the breeze was that morning, how beautiful the big blue sky was, prepared the BEST blackberry jelly ever!—always planting kisses on my upturned face. Grandma was the person who showed me what physical affection could be. My mom tended to buy affection. ‘Course she grew up in a shitty house too and suffered her own demons. Mom hid inside of herself emotionally. Fear had taken away her courage. I didn’t ever want that to happen to me. The Korean War changed my Grandpa, as I am certain war changed his father and my mother’s parents. Ripples.

The_Twits_first_editionMy oldest uncle, a Vet of the Vietnam War, and, the reason why I am writing this post, suffered from PTSD. He had(s) three daughters. His marriage wasn’t great, not like my parents’ was (we were professionals at hiding our demons from the public, even prided ourselves on it). My uncle’s wife was what some may classify as white-trash. I recall she had rotten teeth. Truth be told, I only met that uncle a couple of times. His hair was shaggier than my dad’s. His beard was—well, he resembled Mr. Twit from Ronald Dahl’s, The Twits. At some point, my uncle had physically threatened my mother and so we didn’t have many family get-togethers.

Who I did know a bit more, but not by much, was my older cousin. She’s beautiful. Thick red hair. Fantastic smile. You know those people who don’t have perfectly straight teeth–their eyeteeth are slightly more pronounced than the rest and when they smile its literally big and beaming? She has that kind of smile. When she smiled, I smiled. Her skin; the softest pale. (I was covered in freckles, she wasn’t.) She’s older than me by something like ten or fifteen years, I don’t really know. Anyway, because our families weren’t close, we didn’t get to visit. I sort of knew their names, but even then my mother had to remind me. I think my oldest cousin actually lived with us for a short time. Maybe that’s why I remember so much of her physical appearance. I also remember that hers were the first birth-control pills I’d ever seen. They were such mysterious little things. I couldn’t wait until I got my own prescription. They were so cute and tiny. And the packaging! Very cool.

Where am I going with this? I wish I could write this a little more eloquently, but the truth is, I didn’t grow up with anything eloquent, elegant or otherwise. And neither did my cousin. It wasn’t until we were finally adults that we talked about it, the elephant in the room. I was working on my second pregnancy and she’d already had her three kids. She was happily married to a man that was many years her senior. He seemed nice. I forget how we got in touch, through Christmas cards or something, but I invited her over for dinner to catch up. One thing led to another and we started talking about our dads and the whole “growing up” thing. I’d known that things were bad for her. She’d had to go into foster care—which totally sucked. But the “why” had us both tearing up.

She told me about my uncle’s PTSD. How some nights he would suffer flashbacks and start screaming, yelling, reliving the war. I won’t go into the morbid details, but as you can imagine my cousin was afraid for her life, her sibling’s lives. Can you put yourself there, next to her? Your woken up, ordered to get down on your knees. Your father is sweating like crazy, spitting and breathing hot air down the back of your neck, calling you a gook, threatening your life with a loaded gun? You can’t understand why it isn’t you that he sees kneeling there, crying. He can’t see you, his own daughter, who loves and trusts him. He screams, heart-broken that you betrayed him. You try to tell him that it’s you, his daughter, but that only enrages him further and terrifies him, too because he’s crying and screaming at the same time. In fact, you can hear the fear in his voice–he doesn’t trust himself.

Though it was better, foster care sucked for my cousins. Troubled teenagers can have some crazy habits. It fascinated me though, this foster care thing. I remember wishing I could go live in a group home, maybe help some of the kids there. Seemed to me, they’d simply forgotten what hope was. I fantasized about what it would be like to get away from the fear I lived in.

Haurache SandlesThe earliest, happiest memory I have of my father comes to me in this slow-motion, overexposed Polaroid sort of way. I am sitting way up on his shoulders. I can’t be more than five years old. I am wearing these woven white leather sandals (huarache). His dark auburn hair is messy because of the wind, and the sun is in my eyes. We are slowly turning. I am smiling—feeling like I am on top of the world. I don’t know if we are at the beach or at Disney Land, to be honest. Weird, I know, but that’s how my memory is; fragmented. I have trouble with my memory. I believe that PTSD is the reason. Living as I did, moment by moment is a horrible existence. Fear takes a mean toll on the memory.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is an unpredictable demon. They used to call it Shell-Shock, Combat/Battle Fatigue, Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome, to name a few. While my grandpa and both my uncles served, my father didn’t. A side-effect of living in my grandpa’s house was that many of the same characteristics exhibited by my grandpa were exhibited by each of his three sons. When my grandpa, my younger uncle and my dad got mad, they would all double their tongues under and then bite down until their cheeks jiggled—fuming red. You remember the merry melodies character, Yosemite Sam? That’s my dad—seriously, whiskers and all—only he stood at six-two and bit his tongue instead of shooting off pistols.

My parents did the best that they could, with what they had. But they needed help and were too proud to ask for it. Having four kids isn’t easy. Both parents worked full time. Remember when I told you about my grandpa always being mad at something? Well, by father was like that. A Yosemite Sam whose biscuits were on the verge of burning. You learned what would set him off, but sometimes, he’d surprise you. He had a fascination for war. It was his hobby. HeTHE-HORROR-DARK-c collected tons of books like Hitler’s, Mein Kampf. He studied German. He watched war documentaries. Lawrence Olivier, Ken Burns, Shelby Foote—these were voices I was familiar with at a very early age, describing the atrocities of men. The horror, the horror. Indeed, Col. Kurtz, indeed.

But my father never enlisted. I don’t know if he tried and was denied. That could explain some things. But how could he behave as though he had gone to war? How could he have the same triggers? I believe that is the ripple effect of PTSD. I would lay money on the table right now and bet that he and his brothers had the crap beat out of them by my grandpa. I can’t tell you how many times all of us kids hid away in our rooms, or tried to make ourselves smaller when dad was on the rampage, red cheeks vibrating, pissed-off about one thing or other. Toothpaste cap left off the tube, someone didn’t pick up the dog shit properly, a light was left on, a door wasn’t closed all the way, a dog was barking, kids were playing/talking too loudly, someone was coughing in the middle of the night. We were his little P.O.W.’s. I knew it was only temporary though. At least, I prayed it was. We were shouted at, whipped with belts and sticks, referred to as; Nazi’s, Niggers, Bastards, and Sons of Bitches. We were put on report for some infraction or other, ordered to repent because we’d disobeyed direct orders. When that tongue curled under and those big-whiskered cheeks turned red, everyone wanted to disappear.

There were times in the high school locker room when I didn’t change out of my street clothes because the bruises on my ass were humiliating. I did come close to asking for help, but I couldn’t. That would be betrayal. But worse than that it was weakness.

When dad drank, at first he would be mellow, easy going, smoke a cigar or pipe. We’d watch M.A.S.H. together in the living room, or even listen to the Golden Oldies station. But as time passed, he drank more, sometimes came into our rooms in the middle of the night and hoisted the foot of the bed off the floor shouting, “I’m on a mission from God!”. When stuff like that happened, you stayed still, silent—didn’t dare poke the wasp’s nest. Eventually you picked up on clues, like if the Olympia tab was pulled open before noon, you stayed away. I don’t know how many times the cat was kicked. Olympia BeerI FUCKING hate this can. My entire body is shaking right now as I am trying to type. I hate that I had to save this damn thing to my computer before being able to use it in this post. I know exactly what PTSD is. Jesus, I can’t even type, P T S and D. Hang on, I have a pic I need to fucking delete… triggers can suck it.

We all learned an important survival technique; how to disappear, how to become as small as we possibly could in order to avoid the crossfire.  It was survival of the fittest in our house, and caused some serious tension within the ranks. Whoever was on dad’s good side at the time didn’t get caught in his cross-hairs. It was each kid for himself much of the time. Which, I believe, led to us never truly bonded as siblings. There were definitely good moments though. Lots of good times, I just can’t remember most of them. We had a few good camping trips. Christmas was fun. But when grandpa was over, it was strained.

I think my dad knew he screwed up, early on. Instilling his power and control over his domain, he’d constructed a weird internment camp household, probably honestly designed to protect but it tortured instead. I don’t associate with any family members. Haven’t for years. Nobody liked the way I left. Calling out mistakes, exposing the demons for what they were. I do think of them though, my old family. Often. I hope that they’ve found freedom and happiness like me.

Ripples, man. Ripples.

So, PTSD. When I moved out I had to re-learn a bunch of stuff. But, today, despite being caged behind a chain-link-fence; as a grown woman of thirty eight I still carry stress around with me. Probably because it’s a part of me, just like those bones. It’s not as parasitic. It effects my joints, my heart, my jaw. I am a reactionary person, though nothing like when I was a kid. There are small things, I don’t like doors left hanging open. I don’t like things in my face. I still get a small jolt of anxiety when a door is slammed. I don’t like being told what to do. The fear of failure? It’s still in there, clawing around sometimes, but it doesn’t control me. My flight and fight response is a lot mellower these days thanks to my husband’s love, support and encouragement.  I love having my own family. Love raising kids the way I’d always dreamed. Can’t get enough of my kids piling up on me while we sit on the couch together and watch Psyche or Raising Hope. I love family functions. I tear up like a dork at the sound laughter, maybe because I miss what could have been. I’ve learned to accept help from others.

What I’ve always admired in people is their capacity to help others and their ability to overcome. To individually achieve. To stand before their mountain, and no matter how dauntingly it looms over them, they find strength within themselves (or allow it from others) to climb to the other side, not just to the top. The descent is as important as the climb. Now that is sexy. It doesn’t matter how long it takes, either. Nothing is more empowering than when we grab life by the horns, man. Maybe it’ll be one hand at a time, I get it. I understand. As long as we do it.

Leaving the safety of that chain-link fence was scary, it was all I knew. But I thrive on being on the other side of that damn thing now. Writing and Reading fiction, breathing words to life is fulfilling, liberating. This is the honest to goodness reason to, “why I write”. When I am narrating, I like to think that all those people listening are finding their escape too. Whether it’s to briefly get away from ‘the job’ or just to get a fun little boost to their libido. I truly love to support hopes, dreams, and desires. Because when you live in fear you turn inward most of the time and forget there is a world outside of your own mind. My imagination got a lot of exercise; I sailed away to dreamland, frequently. Much to my teacher’s disappointments. Writing down all those splendid dreams, those daring stories and wishes—those dangerous private thoughts was, well, I think it was an unconscious promise to my adult self that when the crummy part of my life was finally over I would be okay. It gives me chills when I think back to those days.

PTSD is different for everyone. It doesn’t only take hold of the men and women fighting/serving/surviving in war. The horror is certainly much more direct for them; it’s where the impact hits the hardest, but we can’t forget about the ripples. There are wives and children, cousins and friends who suffer greatly, too. And those ripples will keep going until some kind of equilibrium returns. Until help and support can be found. I know that for some, balance is harder to achieve. Man, sometimes I didn’t know which end was up or down. Was I in the hands of an angry god, or the hands of an angry man who was made to feel inadequate because he didn’t get to have a war to call his own?

There is always hope. I love Dan Savage’s, It Gets Better project. (I know that this is for the LGBTQ community, but its message resonates strongly with me.) I San Fran Grass Rosedoes get better! I don’t care how cliché that sounds. You know what? Try these on while we’re here, just for funzies: Nothing worth having is ever easy. We all have baggage. No one is perfect. There is help available. Overcoming adversity is what makes heroes. If water’s surface can balance itself again, why can’t we?

From the other side of my mountain,

Rose Caraway

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