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Tag Archives: trauma

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 Aftermath of Childhood Abuse

 

In order to have a successful life, it’s not enough to be smart and talented, you have to be able to function, every day, without having three panic attacks before lunch. I was certain that, twenty-five years into therapy, I would be married, with children, and published multiple times. I wouldn’t have made it through the first ten years of therapy if I’d known that I’d still be struggling with forward motion in year twenty five. But this is where I’m at, and this is the best I’ve been able to do, despite all of that promise, because of childhood sexual abuse.

I was the kid that teachers loved and never worried about. Rachel will do fine at whatever she chooses to do. Rachel is smart and responsible and hardworking and never needs help. They didn’t consider my social anxiety, or crippling depression, or the endless fragmentation of my mind as a problem, because even with all of that I still did well at school. But I didn’t want to, and that was the killer. I did not want to wake up each morning. I did not want to meet new people, or go to parties, or get a job, or choose a major, or whatever each next step was supposed to be.

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“This is a difficult topic, Mommy.”

 

I am tired of hearing about how resilient everyone else is, and how well they’re doing, despite this and that and the other thing. It implies that we all had the same obstacles and everyone else is just better than me at overcoming them. But the fact is, if I had the same life experiences as I’ve had, without the great good fortune of intelligence and talent, and a Mom who loves me, and a therapist who has been there for me since I was nineteen, I would not be here. I would have walked in front of a bus, or swallowed a bottle of pills, a hundred times by now. It’s important to know that, and not to be smug about my successes, and not to be so quick to judge others for their lack of success.

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“I’m here for you, Cricket.”

The percentage of substance abusers with child abuse histories is very high, same with prison inmates, and patients in mental hospitals, but I feel like we choose, as a society, not to know these things. We choose to ignore our good fortune when we have it, and we choose to take credit for all of our successes, despite the help we’ve received along the way. We imagine that people are successful because of their intelligence and hard work alone, and therefore those who are unsuccessful must be lazy and stupid.

Lately we’ve been talking more about privilege – white privilege, male privilege – but we forget the less obvious forms of privilege; being safe in your own home, and being loved and nurtured by your family, and having the support you need when you have to face big and small challenges along the way, are huge privileges that many children never experience.

I remember watching episodes of the Oprah Winfrey Show, years ago, when she would celebrate kids who had survived war and starvation and abuse and got into Harvard anyway, or started a successful business, or saved the world in some way. And it made me angry, one, because I could never do any of that, and two, because most of the kids who went through those same circumstances wouldn’t be able to impress anyone and win the attention and rewards they would need in order to survive. They would have the same residue of pain and trauma, without any help to get them through, or anyone to celebrate their small achievements along the way.

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“I love to celebrate!”

Everyone wants to know the secrets of the resilient child, but resilience has more to do with how we take care of and support these children than with their own inherent qualities. Their strength, or weakness, comes mostly from us. If they fail, it’s because we didn’t hold them up. We keep forgetting this. We want to celebrate, and vilify, the individual, if only so that we don’t have to take responsibility for each other. But it’s an illusion. We are intertwined whether we acknowledge it or not, and we pay the price for the suffering of others, whether we caused it ourselves or simply chose to ignore it.

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Platypus knows that we all need help.

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl. 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 girl on Long Island named Izzy. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes is true. Izzy’s father decides to send her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain and looking for people she can trust, 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?