The atmosphere at my job is refreshingly relaxed—they don’t care what we wear as long as we’re presentable, I have ample downtime (for writing and working on my latest Stupid Human Trick, which is teaching myself Russian), and we listen to the radio all day.
A few days ago, “Tequila” by The Champs came on and I was hit by a massive wave of nostalgia. I’ve heard the song dozens, if not hundreds, of times since this memory was formed, but what sprang to mind with the opening notes was vivid and visceral. It’s one of the few memories I have of the period between ages four and seven that’s genuinely pleasant, untainted by the constant conflict that lived with us in my grandmother’s house. Given how many of its contemporaries have been emerging lately, I’m glad it decided to come back when it did.
I first heard the song when I was five years old. My mother and I were driving from my hometown of Dubuque, Iowa to Oshkosh, Wisconsin with her rich boyfriend (who possibly sexually abused me as a child and certainly dealt out some heavy-handed emotional and physical abuse, pun most definitely intended) to visit the Public Museum—specifically, to see the Apostle Clock.
We had taken his red Corvette—he had a thing for classic cars, along with drinking too much and throwing his girlfriends down flights of stairs—and stopped at a gas station. “Tequila” was playing softly in the background as we rolled up to the pump. I was sleepy and tilted my head back against the silky cream-colored leather of the seat to stare up at the sky. It was dark; few stars were out, and I remember feeling carefree as I let the muggy night air, cut with a cool breeze, fill my smoke-worn lungs.
We stayed in an apartment in the city. I’m not sure whose it was, but I remember marveling at the deep-pile white carpet; at home, we had slightly worn oak floors, polished and neglected enough times in the house’s thirty-odd-year history to have accumulated a thin, uneven coat of dark residue. The next day, we arrived at the museum. It must have been June or July, because we visited shortly after a fire destroyed most of the third floor. I was charmed by the clock, of course, but what really drew my attention was the small collection of charred, water-damaged items that had been rescued from the fire.
“Come on, you don’t want to look at that,” said my mother’s boyfriend, placing a large and hairy hand on my shoulder in an attempt to draw me away. But I was transfixed by the blackened head of a baby doll, one eye burned away, one eye still open in an eerie nod to the horror movies my mother and I loved to watch. This penchant for the macabre has only intensified as I’ve gotten older, and I enjoy puzzling over what these things mean in relation to who I am today and whether everything really is connected. As a nihilist, I’m inclined to believe that nothing has any inherent meaning, which adds another dimension—if all significance is unique to each person, it should make relating to one another more difficult. I’ve found that to be true more often than not, but I’m not surprised, given my…unusual set of memories and experiences.
It’s strange, isn’t it? Certain memories—in my experience, the ones that seem the least-significant at the time—become indelible, while other, larger ones—being present the night my mother was arrested and having only fringe sensory memories of it is a good example—fade into the background. They slip away so easily that at times, it seems that they were never there at all. Was it a memory or a dream? And in the end, does it make much of a difference?
Nietzsche famously said that ‘The existence of forgetting has never been proved: we only know that some things do not come to our mind when we want them to.”
Readers, what has your experience with memory been like? What’s your earliest memory? Are they sensory and blurred around the edges, or is every aspect perfectly crisp? Have you ever thought about what your memories say about you?
As always, I’m eager to hear from you!
Last summer, I met a wonderful woman completely by chance. I was heading home from a nearby gas station after a cancer run and wished her a good afternoon. I wandered over to her patio, noticed she was reading a book called “Fuck It Therapy,” and struck up a conversation.
Over the next few weeks, I continued to drop by for chats, and she revealed that she’s been journaling about her life for several decades—no small feat! I was particularly impressed because I’m notorious for purchasing pretty journals in hopes of actually sticking with the one-entry-a-day plan, only to give up after a week or two. She invited me to leaf through them, and I happened upon an entry where she’d written a list of affirmations.
They resonated with me because she’d managed to put to paper the types of things I tell myself when I’m feeling particularly low—things I’m good at, things I like about myself, and so on. But her entry contained one vital piece that my own thoughts were lacking (disclaimer: I’m paraphrasing here) : I am worthy of being loved not because of who I am or what I’ve done, but because I am human.
I’ve been even more introspective than usual over the last few weeks (if that’s even possible) and have been ruminating about what’s behind these words. It occurred to me that while I may tell myself these things, I’ve never stopped to digest what they mean, particularly in the context of my life.
It’s an important thing to consider, but it’s been particularly helpful recently because I’ve been feeling pretty low and down on myself. I’ve been having nightmares about the rapes almost every night and on top of it, the formerly repressed and still-patchy memory of possible molestation that I’ve been carrying around since I was five years old is starting to come into focus.
My ex-husband is seeing someone new; this person is wonderful, but I’ve been comparing myself to vim a lot, and as a result, my self-worth and self-esteem have been taking a huge hit. Combined with my brain “thawing out” and the defense mechanisms lowering a bit, life hasn’t exactly been easy lately. We had a good chat this afternoon, the first discussion we’ve had since we split in September that’s left me feeling loved and cared-for. I’d been seeing myself as a failure, something not meant to be happy or loved because I’ve been through too much. I am spiky and emotionally cagey and, as of the last few months, unable to handle physical touch from anyone outside my family without having a mini panic attack and dissociating even more. (It’s worth noting that I still consider D. family, and vice-versa; you can’t go through what we’ve been through and not remain close to the other person, even if you’re no longer romantically involved.)
But I have bright spots most days, even if they don’t last that long. I’m starting to see my worth as a person, totally independent of the J. who survived decades of abuse and plays the piano well and is bilingual and a writer and applying to grad school to become a therapist, the J. who is pretty and funny and interesting and outgoing, even if the “outgoing” part is often affected.
Humans deserve to be loved. We need love. We need affection. Every person on this earth, no matter how objectively terrible they may be, is worthy of love and care.
This revelation makes me feel better about my decision to become a therapist, as “misanthrope” and “counselor” are a somewhat unusual pairing. But I’ve been capable of stashing my inner life away in favor of objectivity for most of my life, so I’m hopeful that my ability to compartmentalize will help me in the long run. The fact that I can think of literally every person other than myself in such a positive light seems laughable, but I guess we’re all our own worst critics.
Baby steps, baby steps. Where are you in your journey to loving yourself?
I remember the way the cold March wind felt against my pale blue spring jacket as I stood alone on the playground, looking up at the dead trees creating a black labyrinth against the white sky.
I remember that wind, warmer now, ruffling my hair on an overcast day.
I remember rainy early-summer days where it was so dark outside, the lights in the living room were on and cast a soft glow on the miniature city I’d constructed with my figurines.
I remember painting the room overlooking the garden at my friend’s house. It was, again, overcast, and the coolness of the dark hardwood floors beneath my feet, spattered with seafoam paint, was the most wonderful thing I’d ever felt.
I remember riding my bike around the neighborhood at sunset after a thunderstorm, inhaling the heavy air and taking time to admire the myriad of colors in the oil spots on the wet pavement as if committing each one to memory.
I remember waking up in my mother’s boyfriend’s house in the spare bedroom he’d made just for me. They had just returned from a date. I remember seeing the door open, his frame silhouetted against the yellow light of the hall, and then nothing.
I remember my very first mixed episode. I was fourteen and stressing over what outfit to wear to a “graduation from middle school” party a wealthy friend was throwing. In my frustration, I grabbed a coat hanger, desperate and aching and crying and full of rage, and slashed up my upper arms. I wore a sweater in May.
I remember waking up before dawn and walking to my aunt’s station wagon in the frigid air. I piled blankets and my chapter books into the back in preparation for the two-hour ride to the penitentiary where my mother was being held.
I remember the twelve years during which my mother and I communicated only by phone and letters.
I remember going up to see her at age 19 with my new boyfriend, who later became my husband. She was already drunk when we picked her up, but I think we had a pretty good time.
I remember when my great-aunt died. She was like a mother to me. I got the news early in the morning on the day I planned to visit her in the nursing home, then promptly sat down and churned out a 20-page psychoanalysis of Dorian Gray. Then, I spent the next two weeks crying. We sent out our wedding invitations the day before her funeral.
I remember the first time a boy ever hit me. I was seventeen. It was my boyfriend.
I remember the first time a boy ever told me I was worthless. I was seventeen. It was my boyfriend.
I remember the first time a boy raped me. I was seventeen. It was my boyfriend.
I remember the last day I cut myself: December 16, 2013.
I remember the first time I felt stable and glad to be alive in years; it was three weeks ago.
Baby steps, readers. Don’t let anyone tell you your past doesn’t matter; it is your story and has made you who you are. Just don’t let it repeat itself.
Stay safe and lovely, readers.