Seventeen Cents, Part II

Here is Part I. It is not necessary to read it to understand this entry, but recommended.


Fires cause emotional distress as well as physical damage. They threaten life and property and are unpredictable, uncontrollable, and terrifying. Children often are affected by what they see during and after a fire, whether or not they are physically injured. The best predictor of postfire distress in children appears to be how frightening the experience of the fire was and the extent of the loss.

-National Child Traumatic Stress Network

Ever since I saw the three gravestones of the children who were burned up in a house fire at my mom’s cemetery, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about what happened in the aftermath of our own. I don’t remember what the symbols on the other graves were (Tigger? Marie from Aristocats?), but one stuck out. It was a GIANT R2-D2. While it is certainly what the child would have wanted (and I take nothing away from that fact), it is a punch in the gut to walk past, because you instantly know you are not walking past the grave of an old adult who died of natural causes. For instance, no one who dies at 98 is going to have people gathering around the casket at the visitation saying, dear God… they took her too soon. R2-D2 gravestones subvert the natural order of things, for me presenting with stomach-churning, bile-inducing nausea. Those graves tapped into every scar they could find that was still covered in the lightest of scabs.

I was 12, and my sister was seven; it was late enough on the calendar that we were only five years apart instead of six. As is often the case, Lindsay’s reaction was delayed, because we’d spent the first few nights at our mother’s parents’ house, a short while in a borrowed lake house, and then settled into our own home… at which point the bishop told us to move. There was not really enough time to settle before another enormous change happened, and though it was difficult for me, I met Diane the first Sunday in my new church, and the world was never the same after that. I was too busy to bother with the house fire anymore.

It wasn’t all her- it was discovering a part of me I didn’t know was there… only inklings and worry that I was an abnormal psych case waiting to happen, not knowing that it was healthy and just plain average to have same-sex attractions. It’s even sort of average to have the bipolar depression, anxiety, and ADHD combo meal (I think that’s a number 11, if you’re ordering). One in four people get depression at some point in their lives, but it isn’t all the same. For some, it’s situational. For others, it’s not. But the fact that so many people might not be in the same boat with me, but certainly navigating the same waters makes feeling normal despite not feeling normal comforting & safe.

I can honestly say without reservation that something has been wrong since childhood- nothing I’ve been through has changed the fact that I’ve had a chemical imbalance far longer than I’ve been taking medication for it, and it took years to find the right protocol because no one suspected I was on the bipolar spectrum until college, when I went back to University of Houston in 2006. Therefore, upping seratonin didn’t do a whole lot for me. It wasn’t until I was put on a mood stabilizer that I knew what it felt like to live without depression at all.

The hardest part was hearing my doctor tell me that he thought I was bipolar, because the images it brought to mind were nothing close to my reality. As I told Dana on the phone, “I don’t want to be Sally Field from ER!” Bipolar disorder, like Autism, is a sliding scale of challenges, and I’m on the end where my lows are so low that my highs are barely noticeable, but there. When I’m on a high, I act virtually the same, I just can’t sleep. There’s a line drawn in the sand between what I deal with every day and the complete sensory overload flipout I had three years ago, because it wasn’t due to being bipolar. It was completely psychological, not psychiatric. A med change helped, but I was vomiting up old trauma that I’d boxed up and put away, and when it was unearthed from deep within, I could not even. Psychotherapy and medication have to go hand in hand for true relief, and unfortunately for me, I didn’t think there was anything psychologically wrong with me right up until I found my emotional baggage hold. There was a pilot case for the fire, a hanging bag for internalized homophobia/emotional abuse, and a Samsonite 29 inch spinner for pent-up rage about just damn everything. I spill fun secrets. Ugly ones were eating me alive.

Now that I have made significant changes to my life, starting over in a new city without any triggers, eating good things, and nearly cutting alcohol out of my diet because it makes my medication work better, I am back to the same boring, average person I was before. Still working the combo meal, but blessedly stable. I would have become a teetotaler if that’s what my doctor said would work, but he said that every once in a while, it was okay. Especially when I was working in a pub, I’d have a drink every night after work, using the free “shift drink” to try everything in the bar at least once. It didn’t undo me, by any means, but I am going for maximum efficacy. Plus, over time I have noticed that since my tolerance is in the toilet, it takes one drink for my brain to feel a little fuzzy, and as a writer, that makes me (more) crazy. I spend most of the time after drinking a cocktail wondering when it’s going to wear off. It’s just not relaxing to me unless I’m being social.

Wondering is useless, but I do it. I wonder who I would have been without emotional trauma, because that was the shitty icing on the burnt cake. I wonder what my life would have been like had I only been through a house fire, and that was the beginning and the end of childhood emotional malady. I had enough family support that I rebounded quickly from it, but then fell headlong into another disaster. Or perhaps it was one continuous disaster without a break, and I just felt like I was over one before the other started because frankly, the second disaster was exciting. You never know when a relationship is going to turn out to be a train wreck, because everyone‘s nice in the beginning.

If there’s a good thing to letting it all out, it’s that the healing process can begin in earnest. In my wandering/wondering state, I project that without so much emotional burden, I would have been a doctor by now (of divinity or psychology, maybe higher mathematics [If you don’t know me, let me ASSURE you “higher mathematics” was a hilarious joke.]). But the bright side is that I only just turned 40. Lots and lots of people achieve doctoral degrees way after that…… Hope and time are on my side…. mostly because as Elizabeth Gilbert so eloquently said, I’ve never seen any life transformation that didn’t begin with the person in question finally getting sick of their own bullshit. I’m still not done blaming my emotional trauma for where my life has taken weird twists and turns, but I would had I been a responsible adult when it happened. It’s different when you’re an adult, because you have no one to blame for poor life choices except yourself, because you actively choose them.

I’m not over the ways emotional abuse changed me that I’d never have chosen on my own. I’m not over how long I didn’t understand why I couldn’t get it together, not realizing that tissue is stronger after it is scarred and took a much bigger knife to find the original wound. As Jonathan Kellerman says in The Murderer’s Daughter, and I’m paraphrasing, The Haunted need a surgeon, not a barber. Now that time has passed, though, and the poison is out, I’m on my own… which doesn’t render the previous sentences about not being done invalid. These things are both true, both equally valid. There’s a reason it’s called recovery, and there is only healing, never a cure.

So, tl;dr…. I saved up all the feels until I couldn’t anymore and exploded. I’m okay now. The end.

Lindsay had a much rougher time than me after we moved, because she did not have systemic euphoria to turn her head. She did not want to go to school. I do not remember this happening before we left Naples, only after we moved to Houston, because again, I think it was too much change, too fast. In the Methodist Church, everyone moves on the same day so no church is left pastorless (under normal circumstances). It was summer, so we were all together for a few months before Lindsay’s PTSD surfaced. Not going to school was her way of trying to control whether our new house burned down or not. I attribute this to a truly dick move on the part of one of the firemen, who didn’t look around when he started speaking and said that the fire started over Lindsay’s room, and if she’d been sleeping in it, she’d be dead. That one phrase repeated in Lindsay’s mind over and over and over to the point of paralysis, until second grade seemed impossible to contemplate. If she wasn’t home, she was helpless should anything happen…. interesting because not being home kept her from danger in the first place.

I can’t remember whether my parents talked to a psychologist or to her teachers, but someone came up with the idea that there should be a routine each and every day. My dad started out by walking her into class and staying for a little bit until she got settled. He gave her a “slap bracelet,” all the rage then, so that she’d know he was always with her.

Editor’s Note: My God. My God! Dan. Argo. Lindsay. Slap bracelet. Click.

Additionally, before he left her classroom, and later, before she got out of the car, he said the same words Every. Single. Day. Lindsay would say them with him:

Lucky Day…..
Gonna Getta E Today
Like I Say….

Wave to me!

An E was for excellence, I believe in conduct. Lindsay has what would be called “leadership skills” now, but then rendered her to a table with three other people also named The Bossy Girls. Perhaps feeling so out of control during the fire made her want more control over her environment later. Conjecture, but probably an educated guess.

It’s interesting how Lindsay’s trauma turned her outward, making her able to achieve incredible things at a very young age. Now that she’s a lobbyist (the good kind- things like helping people with cancer and getting money for state-run programs), I want to take a picture of her in the Willard Hotel and get it framed for my room.

The reason it’s so very interesting to me is that my trauma turned me inward, unable to stop the rumination until the puzzle was solved. Once I was out of high school and early college, focused on the college courses that piqued my interest rather than the have-tos, learning turned me on, made my internal flame burn white. But all of the rest of my available time was dedicated to this mystery. Even in the face of enormous interest, I’d find a way to let my mind wander away from it, especially when textbook passages got dry.

I am only now beginning to compartmentalize, marking cases resolved. I want to be a bossy girl, too.

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