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Triggered

 

The first sexual abuse memories that came back were from my second abuser, my best friend’s older brother. He was six years older than us, and it seems like the abuse started when I started to sleep over at her house, at around age four, but he had access to us long before that. He boasted a few times that he used to help change our diapers, but that seems unlikely. He abused us in her bedroom, and in the den when we slept on the fold out couch in order to watch TV. He also abused us during the day, in the pool and in the kitchen, when he was left to watch us.

I couldn’t have told you that I was being abused if you’d asked me at the time. The memories dived under the surface as soon as they were created. All I knew was that whenever I saw my best friend’s brother I felt sick to my stomach and frightened, but I wasn’t sure why.

I stopped sleeping over at their house, abruptly, when I was seven or eight years old, after I couldn’t get to sleep one night during our weekly sleepover. I don’t remember going to bed, and I don’t remember the abuse that night, I just remember pacing in my friend’s room and then walking out into the hall and knocking on her parents’ bedroom door and asking to go home. It may have been ten o’clock at night, but to me it felt like three o’clock in the morning. I called home on the phone in the hall, and Mom came to get me, though I don’t actually remember going home. There’s a lot I don’t remember.

This was my best friend’s house. We’d met as infants, when our mothers took us to Mother’s Day Out at the local community center. We did everything together, for years, except that we eventually went to different schools. She went to a Lutheran school and I went to a Jewish school. I brought her with me to junior congregation at my synagogue, and we danced around her living room to a record of Jesus songs for kids.

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“Who’s dancing?”

Looking back, the abuse must have taken a turn that last night, something worse than usual to make me so desperate, but I don’t know what it was. It’s possible that something else woke me up to my fear, or to the idea that I could leave if I wanted to. I don’t know. But I still went over to her house during the day, even though I was starting to be aware that something was wrong. I knew that I felt nauseous each time I saw her brother, and I knew that it seemed ironic (and yes, I knew that word as a kid), that I wasn’t allowed to walk home alone from her house once it got dark, and her brother was sent along to protect me. He liked to carry Nun Chucks. Their parents thought they were keeping me safe from the bad guys by sending him along with me. They never let me walk home alone in the dark, no matter how much I begged.

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“Grr!”

My friend and I grew apart for multiple reasons. We were, as I said, at different schools during the day, and my father became more and more religious, making us keep kosher, so that I couldn’t eat at her house anymore. But the abuse had to have played a role too, though neither one of us talked about it, or seemed to remember that it had happened. There was some sort of secret miasma that sat between us in a way we couldn’t articulate. I went to her eighth birthday party, a sleepover, but I threw up multiple times and had to go home, again in the middle of the night.

It took years to piece those pictures together, though, and to guess how old I was in each one, and how one thing led to another. It’s still like a kaleidoscope, with tiny pieces taped together in incomplete patterns; but the memories I have are vivid, and eventually, when we were older, my friend and I were able to talk about what happened and validate each other’s memories.

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“Harrumph.”

We’d both experienced amnesia for the abuse. When we talked about it years later, our memories of the abuse were remarkably similar, including the ways we had forgotten about it, but while my memories of being abused always included her sleeping nearby, or being abused as well, she’d blocked out any memory that I was even there.

Flashes of different images came back to me at different times, out of context. I didn’t have words for what he had done to us, sexually, or emotionally, or psychologically. I couldn’t make sense of why he would do those things. I remember these little speeches he gave, telling me to close my eyes and that everything would be fine, telling me that my friend was fine with it so I should be fine with it too, telling me that I couldn’t tell anyone about it because they’d be disappointed in me. My friend was right next to me in her bed, sleeping through his abuse of me, and of her, and I couldn’t make sense of that. I didn’t understand how she couldn’t hear him. I hated how easily she fell asleep.

I remembered hiding in the bathroom one night and holding the door shut, even though it was already locked, and arguing with her father, because I thought he was her brother coming to get me, when he tried to open the door. I remembered standing in their kitchen, with the sun shining on my face, and my underpants down at my ankles. He’d made it into a game, kind of like hide and seek, and I was terrible at hiding. I’m very bad at games in general, but I was also a very slow runner compared to my friend. I remember her leaning out of her hiding place and asking why no one had found her yet. I remember being terrified as her brother counted down, because I couldn’t think of anywhere good to hide.

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“I could have helped you, Mommy.”

It wasn’t until I’d been in therapy for a few months, at age 19, after years of remembering parts of the abuse, that I felt strong enough to confront my friend’s mother with my memories. The family had moved out of the neighborhood and it was a long drive out to see her. By the time we got there I was too scared to get out of the car, so Mom had to talk to her first. That’s when we found out that my friend had already told her what had happened, a year or so earlier, but had only told her about one other little girl who’d been abused, and not about me.

My friend called me in the middle of the night, that night, for the first time in years, to talk about our memories of the abuse. She had no answer for why she hadn’t mentioned me to her parents, when she confronted them with her own memories of the abuse. She said that she just didn’t remember that I’d been there that much. She even named someone else, a boy, as her best friend from that time. It was part of the dissociative response, I guess. That’s the most sense I can make of it. She had told herself that we weren’t as close as I knew we’d been, and that I hadn’t spent as much time at her house as I knew I did. Something about remembering that I was abused too was more than her brain could handle. And even her mother, who could have guessed that I was, at least, a potential victim, had forced herself not to think about the possibility. But in the next sentence, my friend told me that it was my fault that she was so bossy to her friends, because I’d let her get away with that behavior when we were little. She saw me as the template for all of her later friendships, but she couldn’t remember that I’d been at her house constantly, for years, being abused right along with her. No matter how much my therapist tried to explain dissociation to me, I still had a hard time with that.

My friend’s parents made a special trip to see my parents, a few weeks later, and I tried to listen in on their conversation from my bedroom upstairs, but I could only hear the clinking of glasses, and laughter, while I sat in my room, shaking with fear, and anger. The one line I remember from Mom’s description of the conversation later on, was that my friend’s father had said, well, it gave her something to write about, or something to that affect, because I’d given my friend a story I’d written about the abuse, which she then shared with her parents, and her brother.

My father’s response to me, the day after seeing my friend’s parents, was that he was “surprised to find out that the memories were true and not just your fantasy.” This was said with a smile.

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“This is worse than Grr.”

The validation of the sexual abuse by my best friend’s brother was probably the trigger that allowed me to look at the even darker memories I had around my father. I’d been hinting at abuse by him to my therapist, telling her about all kinds of weird things he’d said, about how children under five don’t remember anything, and children under three don’t feel pain. And the way he took me on “dates,” and the way he tried to get between me and my mom, and bribe me with presents, and the way he’d used religion to control me. There were so many things that were off, overtly, about my father and the relationships within the family, but it wasn’t until after the validation of my memories of abuse at my friend’s house that I could even contemplate the other images that kept swirling around in my head.

And even then, it was a long process, with images being pieced together over time, and body memories finally being verbalized, and memories I’d always had being re-examined. I started to recognize that the same way my memories of the abuse at my friend’s house would fade to black, memories of time spent with my father, in the darkroom developing pictures, and in the dark, period, faded to black too.

Why am I writing about this now? Because I was doing one of my language learning apps and the word for “eel” came up in Hebrew, and below it there was a sketch of an eel, and suddenly, memories of the abuse by my friend’s older brother rushed back; memories that I’d supposedly worked through ad infinitum over the years, and resolved, over many years of therapy. The images of a squid and an octopus, both phallic-adjacent, had bothered me in earlier lessons, but it was the eel that pushed me over the edge.

I resent the way memory works, but I’ve gotten better at dealing with the consequences of these triggers, and honoring the need to process what comes at me, with as much patience and self-compassion as I can muster. I used to think that I could force all of the therapy work to be done at one time, and on my schedule, and fully under my own control, but my brain refuses to let me. It decides when I’m ready, and when I’m not.

Maybe someday I will know everything that happened, and I will stop feeling like there are ghosts waiting to jump out at me from behind every curtain. But maybe not.

yeshiva girl with dogs

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

 

 

A Sense of Time

 

Time feels like a game of Chutes and Ladders to me. On paper, time seems like it should be a linear sort of thing, with one hour following another in orderly progression, but sometimes I fall through a chute and I’m suddenly ten years old again and I have to work hard to climb back up to my forties and remember all of the events that came in between. I know too many people who slip and slide through time like this to think it’s unique to me, but the percentage of my time spent falling down chutes and climbing up ladders seems excessive. Trauma creates strange loops in our brains. We call them flashbacks, or regression, or dissociation, depending on how we experience the details of the thing, but they all have the same general effect of making time feel like an unreliable substance that refuses to stay solid and constant.

When it snows, memories of winters past pop up, but they don’t have solid picture frames around them announcing that they are moments from the past, or even descriptions in permanent marker telling me the exact date and time when it all occurred. In my mind I am both here in this moment, in my walk-the-dog shoes, stepping out onto the slushy walkway with Cricket and Ellie dragging me forward, and I am also eight years old in my pink snowsuit and boots, feeling like an over-stuffed sausage and too hot and too cold all at once.

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“Wheeeeee!”

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“I’ll wait here.”

And then I smell mildew and I’m back at Grandpa’s house in Chappaqua, looking at the pen and ink portraits in the laundry room, and the chute that carries the laundry down from the upstairs hallway. But really I’m thirty-something and living in half a house, in a town by the water, where the smell of seaweed blows through the windows. Wait, no, that’s not right. I’m forty-something and there’s no mildew smell at all, and I don’t live by the water anymore, and I’m not even sure I’m awake.

The image of the Chutes and Ladders game feels so visceral to me, as if I’m sliding down a red chute into the past or laboriously climbing up a silver ladder to get back to normal. But I wasn’t sure that my 3D memory of that childhood board game was even accurate, so I had to ask Google for help. According to Wikipedia, Chutes and Ladders is the American version of an English (and Canadian) board game called Snakes and Ladders, which itself is a variation on an ancient Indian game called Moksha Patam, filled with moral lessons based on the Karmic cycle. The English version adapted those lessons to teach children virtues like generosity and faith and humility, and to discourage vices like lust, anger, theft, and murder. And then the American version adapted the lessons again, to fit good and bad deeds that American kids could relate to, like saving a cat from a tree and eating healthy food, versus eating too many cookies and not doing chores.

I don’t remember any of that, and it’s possible that Wikipedia is lying to me, but I’m pretty sure the essentials are true, especially the fact that the game is a game of luck. The player doesn’t get to choose whether to do a good or bad deed, and therefore to receive the resulting reward or punishment. Scoring is all based on the roll of a die or the spin of a wheel. And that bothers me, because it’s too close to the truth.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe in the value of being a good person. I strive to be a kind and generous and open-hearted person, to hurt no one, or to hurt as few people as possible, and to help when I can. But I don’t actually believe that these virtues will add up to an easier life for me, or to a more successful life with more rewards. I don’t believe that we are always rewarded for good deeds, or punished for evil ones, though I wish we were. I do believe that our souls are impacted by our actions, but I know too many people who walk around with Swiss cheese souls and don’t seem to mind.

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“Those people scare me, Mommy.”

This Chutes and Ladders metaphor started out as a way to describe the way my memory slips and slides through time, and how I struggle to maintain myself in the present tense, and yet the original meaning of the board game works for me too. Whether we act in good or evil ways is not about chance, but whether we are rewarded or punished is chance. And I resent that. I resent that the game of life has such unreliable rules, and that the rules don’t always fit my moral code.

I resent that evil acts can be perpetrated, on me, and on others, that create these chutes and ladders in our brains, and yet the punishment belongs to me, not to the perpetrator. I resent that the roll of the die can go against me, no matter how many good acts I perform, or how good of a person I try to be as I am slipping and sliding through time. But I still do the work. After every fall through a chute into the past I climb back up the ladder to the present, and maybe the reward is that the ladders actually exist at all, and that I can climb them; that I can always find my way back into the game and the chance for something better. The dogs always help me back to the present tense with their right-this-moment view of the world. They make every ladder easier to climb.

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“Where’s this ladder you speak of, and do we have to climb it too?”

 

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

 

The Work of Memory

 

One of the most anxiety producing parts of being a social work intern is having to write process recordings every week. Some schools have moved onto a much simpler format for these, with two pages of basic description (and evaluation) of a meeting with a client, but my school, and many others, still use a long form that includes: a word for word (approximately) transcript of the conversation, a column to point out the skills the student tried to use, a column for the analysis of events that happened, and a column for the feelings and doubts of the student throughout the interview. On the first page of the process recording, there’s also a section for a description of the who, what, when, where, and why of the meeting, and on the last page there are questions to help you analyze the meeting’s success overall.

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“What is she talking about?”

My early process recordings averaged 13 pages, for one client meeting, and one was up to eighteen pages (my supervisor was not in love with that). The hardest part, for me, is the word for word transcript. Obviously it’s not an exact record of what the client and I said, because I don’t tape my meetings and because I don’t have that kind of memory. In fact, each transcript takes me three or four passes, at least, to get it into the semblance of a back and forth conversation similar to what really happened (though, given that each of my meetings is an hour or so, a lot still gets left out).

I can’t imagine Cricket or Butterfly trying to reconstruct a word for word, or bark for bark, transcript of their day. Their sense of time is, to say the least, imprecise. Cricket forgets how long it’s been since she last saw Grandma. A minute could have passed since Grandma went downstairs for the mail, but when she returns, Cricket greets her as if she’s been gone for days. If she tried to record that event, there would probably be twenty pages in the middle, filled with despair and resentment, as if she’d been lost in the desert without water, for years.

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“Oh my God! Oh my God! Where were you?!!!!!”

For official purposes at my internship, I have to write out a summary of each of my meetings, and that gives me a general record to start from for the process recordings. For those reports, I describe what we talked about in the meeting, and what we resolved for the client to do by next week, etc. But to get those notes into dialogue form, I need to pull a lot more from my memory, and fill in the transitions between topics, and focus on particularly difficult moments: how we get from topic A to topic Z; what order things came up in; Did I say something to bring this up, or did it come out of nowhere; when I was overwhelmed and unsure what to say; when I thought I did well.

I often wonder if the work of remembering is this hard for everyone, or if it’s a specific problem for me, because my brain seems to store things out of order and scattered in various corners instead of in a more linear fashion. I dread doing these process recordings every week, but once they’re done, I feel like I really learned something, about myself, about the client, and about how I want to proceed. I resent having to do them, and yet I hope we don’t switch to the short form, because this method has been my best learning tool, and the best way for me to really resolve the leftover feelings I have after a session with a client.

Ideally, I would become so practiced that I could knock off a process recording in an hour. Then I could do one on every client meeting, or on my own therapy sessions, or on the news shows that drive me nuts. I could write out each of my interactions with the dogs to see where I’m going wrong: like, why is Butterfly still so stubborn about who should be in charge of her leash (I think it’s me, and she thinks I’m wrong)? Maybe there’s a secret hidden in plain sight, and if I could just diagram every moment, I could figure out what I’ve been missing.

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“I will stay right here, looking adorable, until I get what I want.”

Maybe that’s what Cricket is really doing while she seems to be chewing on her feet: she’s processing, and analyzing, and deciding how she wants to handle things the next time I do something that bothers her – like when I say No, or Quiet, or I fail to give her treats when she wants them. Maybe she’s doing this all day long, and sharing her realizations with her sister, and that’s why they keep outsmarting me. That could also explain why they are so exhausted all the time.

It’s a theory.

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“Getting Mommy to do everything we want, every day, is exhausting.”

Soundtracks

 

I went to a conference on Dementia recently, for social work school, and one of the exercises they did was to have everyone try to come up with their own list of songs. The theory of the Music and Memory project is that hearing the music she loves will wake a patient up from her dementia, at least for a moment, and allow her to feel like herself again.

I tried to make my list, but it was much more difficult than I’d expected. How can I know ahead of time which songs I’ll still want to hear? Music has such power over me: it can agitate me, and exacerbate the darkness; it can remind me of great joy, but also of alienation.

I started to think, though, how helpful it would be, when first meeting a new person, to get to listen to their playlist. If their playlist is monotonously the same, or chaotic, with no rhyme or reason going from song to song, or just out of sync with me, then that would be helpful to know ahead of time.

I wonder if Cricket and Butterfly have music in their heads all day, the way I do. Do they wake up to a persistent melody running on a loop? Or for them is it a smellody? A complex mix of dirt and bird poop and air freshener, wafting through their minds all day long.

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searching for smellodies.

I thought I heard some of Cricket’s internal music the other night, during one of our evening walks. It sounded like “Pee in the wind,” a variation on “Dust in the wind,” but full of the high lonesome sound of a pee message blowing away before she could fully sniff its contents.

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“Where’d the pee go?”

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“Where?!!!!!!!!”

I’m pretty sure the music playing in Butterfly’s head, when it’s time for her morning treat, is “The chicken dance,” that frantic, ever faster, song that we had to flap our elbows to in elementary school. But the rest of the time, I can see Butterfly as a jazz baby, swinging her pearls, and dancing at a speakeasy. It’s not that I think she’d be a profligate drinker, it’s that she’s got such swing! She moves like she’s hearing the Benny Goodman big band in her head; not the complicated Jazz that you listen to for the esoteric-ness of it, but easy, breezy, swing band jazz that makes you snap your fingers and dance.

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“I can hear the music!”

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Butterfly even dances in her sleep!

Cricket makes me think of Beethoven; that’s the level of drama she lives by. And Barbra Streisand. If Cricket were human she’d sound like Barbra Streisand, with that dramatic range, nasal twang, and constant crescendos and decrescendos, like an Escher staircase going up and down simultaneously.

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Cricket, um, singing.

But I struggle when I try to imagine the soundtrack for my own life. I’d want lots of Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole. Some Beatles, and a little Elvis. Martina McBride and Fiona Apple. Aretha Franklin and Etta James and Otis Reading and Barbra Streisand. James Taylor, of course. Salt N’ Pepa could be helpful too. And Yo Yo Ma’s Appalachian Waltz CD, with Allison Krauss on vocals.

I’m not sure how all of that would end up on one soundtrack, but I guess it could. There’s a female cantor in NYC who has a beautiful voice, and I’d love to have her version of Kol Nidre when the time comes. And there are a bunch of songs from sleep away camp that I would love to hear again, preferably in the off key, off rhythm versions in which I first heard them.

One of my favorite ways to choose music used to be to buy movie and TV show soundtracks, because the songs were always chosen for maximum impact, and made every emotion crystal clear. The Star Wars soundtracks were such a relief in that way, spelling everything out for me. Wouldn’t it be helpful if the Darth Vader theme played in the background when you met that seemingly nice guy at a party? Or the Jaws theme, before a particularly unfortunate job interview? Even if I didn’t take the hint beforehand, it would be so validating, in the disastrous aftermath, to at least know that the musicians saw things the same way I did.

I’m a little bit worried that Cricket has been hearing the Darth Vader theme in her head for most of her life: when the mail man comes by, or leaves fly past her head, or dogs bark. Maybe I should play It’s a Wonderful World on a loop, while she’s sleeping, to see if that could change things for her.

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“Darth Vader is coming again?!”