Grief is a House - Part 2

The baby owl we found that May, resting nervous in the bush
Creaking in that single step, reminding me to hush
An alcove in the room upstairs where I rocked the kids to sleep
All these things I think of now and desperately long to keep

 

 

Scared and brave at the same time

You’re scared,” more a statement than a question.

He nods, tears welling. His breath quickens. I make eye contact in spite of the dimness. “Yes, I know,” I pause, not knowing what to say next.

You can be scared and brave at the same time.”

Fight Club

It's my first workout in years and the clock betrays me. Only 30 minutes in and already my body feels worn, tired. Another half hour, but then I need to drive myself home. I consider my decision and silently curse my friend for inviting me.

I hear trainer Fred* say something about "working the bag" - a term he's using to describe the ruthless succession of punches he's commanding in rapid fire. I can't really hear more than that because my heart pounds loudly, so much so that only a few words break through now and then. 

We've gone through single jabs (jab...jab...jab), doubles (jab, jab...jab, jab...), and triples (jab, jab, jab...) You're smart, you get this. Moved through a series of body shots following the same formula and now, we are in the hooks. 

"Alright, left hooks. Go!

For these, we move closer to the nondescript black bag, a large mass that hangs ominously from the ceiling, my face so close that I can smell the vinyl stench and see nothing more than blackness. Something about the clean slate of it brings things up for me, inviting me to project whatever I need to work through onto it. But I don't know any of this yet. It's my first session. All I know at this point is that my breath feels labored, my head pounds, sweat runs down my back and I'm using every ounce of energy to move my arm.

"Not many more," I think. (I hope.)

"You're doing great, ya'll," trainer Fred says. I don't believe him. I don't feel great. I feel panic rising in me. Yet, somehow, I'm keeping the pace. "Left hooks, three."

"One." Hook, hook, hook... "Two." Hook, hook, hook. The weight of the glove coupled with muscle fatigue bring the thought - when on Earth would anyone throw three hooks? "Three."

The memory returns with incredible force. For a moment, a flash of cold air to my face, I'm standing on the balcony of the East Nashville home I'd shared with him. I feel the heat from the adrenaline in my body juxtaposed against the chill of nighttime in January. It's black outside.

***

I hear the flat voice of the dispatcher, "Ma'am, we're going to need you to calm down. They are on the way now. Can you tell me where he is?" I'm convinced she's lying; I don't see lights or hear sirens. So I open the door to the balcony and step onto the weathered wood in my bare feet. I walk to the right side and confirm that there's no police presence yet. "I don't see anyone!," I say, panicked. I consider whether jumping into the tree should he appear upstairs would ensure a safe getaway. I'm struck by the blackness of this night and the stillness of the air. I only feel my hair on its ends. 

An unfamiliar voice bellows below, demanding payment. It's the cab driver. "Ya'll need to just pay me so I can GO!," he demands in my direction, with heavy emphasis on the word "GO." I look down the opposite side of the balcony, still on the line with dispatch. "There's a driver here," I say to the 9-1-1 operator. "You're not going anywhere!" I reply back to him in a tone I don't recognize.

The cab is still running and he's pacing wildly back and forth. Frustrated, he turns to yell the other direction. That's when I notice my brother, Sly. "They're outside the house now," I say into the phone. Sly also speaks in a tone I don't recognize. He's not talking to the driver; he's looking down on the other side of the cab, which happens to be a minivan. I can tell the back, sliding passenger door is open from the single light that pierces the darkness. That little dome light shone like a star.

"JAKE! I SAID GET YOUR HAND OUT OF THE BAG."  

I feel confused. Moments ago they'd been in the kitchen. Not knowing what to do or whether to call the police I'd come around the corner to see Jake climbing through a broken glass window of the back door, lunging and stumbling toward my brother. The dogs, Luna and Clancy, barking and circling from excitement: equal parts happiness from seeing their owner and fear of the danger at hand. Sly either saw or heard me enter and briefly turned my direction. I can't remember exactly, but I could almost swear the look on his face was of disbelief. No one believed this could happen. Except, apparently I'd known for some time. I had changed locks, hidden guns, kept money hidden. And for months I'd slept with a knife under my pillow, convincing myself that the threat existed outside my home. 

"I'M WARNING YOU," I hear Sly say, his voice stern and unwavering. I'm fairly certain I've stopped breathing at this point. 

"GET YOUR HAND OUT OF THAT BAG! PUT IT DOWN. NOW!" The scene is chaos. The driver pivots, yelling at me then pacing at the front of the car, stepping back as things intensify between Sly and Jake. I still neither see nor hear police. "FUCK!," I think and maybe say into the phone as panic floods me.

Then a sudden burst of movement, downward. 

***

Hook...hook...hook.

I peel away from the bag and walk away, flooded by rising tears and a lump - that familiar lump - forms in my throat. I try to calm myself to no avail. Not only have memories returned, a heat deep in my sacrum creates an unwanted sensation. It feels like arousal and distracts me from the mounting tears. "The seat of my power is on fire," I think to myself.

Anger mixes with excitement, trauma with fear. This is too much. It's confusing and it's scary. Maybe it was hook, hook, jab that Sly threw. Or even jab, body shot, hook. I don't know. But it was three punches. I know that much. And this series has delivered an opportunity for me to step up and face the blackness - with all my fear, sadness, anger, and strength.

For a moment, I can't see clearly. But I hear Fred.

"Come back over here with us now, Gina." He feels miles away, but my body has taken me less than 10 feet. "This is a safe place. You need to know you're safe here." My friend, Myra, stands quietly, witnessing. She nods when our eyes meet. Her silence comforts me. 

He coaxes me like a scared dog. I probably look like one, too. The bun once firmly knotted atop my crown has fallen. He steps behind me to pick up the elastic off the floor as I wipe heavy tears away with my gloved-hands. With these gloves, I'm truly helpless; I become aware of my vulnerability. "Come here. Have some water," as he twists off the cap, I watch Myra as if to ask whether he's safe. She nods again. "Take a drink. It's going to be ok," slowly pouring water into my mouth. "But your hair's another story."

We laugh lightly as Fred begins to gather my long, wavy and disheveled tresses into a neat ponytail. The intimacy of the act and his gentleness give me pause. My brain begins to protest, a look Myra recognizes. She assures me it's safe. He offers another drink, to both of us, and I'm certain we're off the hook for the remainder of the bag work when he announces, "I think we were at four. Left Hooks."

***

Processing this later with my therapist, I pause at the moment when Sly threw the punches. I breathe into that moment, knowing how his actions protected both of us that night. Therapy gives me a safe environment to revisit these scenes from the trauma and make meaning of them; boxing, it turns out, helps me gain control of my physical body.  

Those who’ve experienced violence have “lost control over their body,” (Dr. Cathy Van Ingen) says. “The gym is one place – for some of them it’s the only place – where they feel their body is back under their control."                                                                                                                                          

In tandem, I move through. As I pause to consider the scene, I speak into a small voice deep inside, "Why couldn't I defend myself?" As I punched that black bag, I wanted it to have been me. It was my hurt and anger - stored away so deeply and for so many years - that yearned to fight back. That energy still yearns to come through and boxing happens to be the experiential piece I've found to move through it. Sometimes I even like it. 

The smile while throwing punches, though? Fred says I'm going to need to work on that. 

 

 

*names changed out of respect for the innocent.  :-)

48 minutes

I am living with C-PTSD - a psychological injury, not mental illness. If you or a loved one suffer, please educate yourself on the causes, characteristics, symptoms and treatments.

Not all trauma is the same. For a thorough explanation of Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, visit...

Wait. You mean I'm gifted?

...the reading of Alice Miller's work on the causes and effects of childhood traumas - The Drama of the Gifted Child. Having packed away my original paperback, I recently bought a copy of its 30th anniversary edition, wherein Miller writes about using the word 'gifted' in the title:

"...I had in mind neither children who receive high grades in school nor children talented in a special way. I simply meant all of us who have survived an abusive childhood thanks to an ability to adapt even to unspeakable cruelty by becoming numb...Without this 'gift' offered us by nature, we would not have survived."