When I was a senior in high school, She’s Come Undone was the title of a novel in Oprah’s Book Club. Back then, you could write an essay in order to appear on the show when they talked about the book. My essay made the short list, and I talked to a producer from The Oprah Winfrey Show for about 45 minutes after school one day. You could have knocked me over with a feather, because I thought I was being Punk’d. The essay was all about looking at the book through the lens of being gay, because while the book was about an overweight, white, straight woman, the struggle boiled down to what we would now call “#me #same.” No one ever called me to tell me I didn’t get the gig, so I waited with baited breath until the show aired….. and every single person they picked was an overweight, white, straight woman. There might have been one POC (well, two counting Oprah) but if there was, I didn’t notice. What I did notice is that my rejection wasn’t personal. I just didn’t fit their aesthetic.
However, that’s not what this entry is about. It’s about this morning, and how the title absolutely fit me like a glove. I was moments away from being slumped over on the kitchen floor thinking I was going to die from an anxiety attack.
I was making pancakes and listening to the Fresh Air episode where Terry Gross interviews Cynthia Erivo. Erivo is a UK citizen whose parents immigrated from Nigeria. She was raised in the Roman Catholic Church, and right now is playing Aretha Franklin on Hulu (can’t remember the title). So, not only is she a classically trained singer, she can switch hit into traditional gospel. That’s unusual only because each has a different set of habits with breath control and phrasing that conflict with each other. Oh, and she also went to RADA (Royal Academy for the Dramatic Arts). I made a beeline for the podcast episode because I learned about her when she played fellow Marylander Harriet Tubman. Therefore, I was just excited about listening to her talk and sing. I did not expect what was coming, which was probably most of the reason I had a full-on panic attack. Speaking of which, I haven’t taken my anxiety medication this morning.
A quick note about anxiety medication. Medication does not stop the anxiety itself, but the physical reaction to it… meaning you still feel all the emotions, but you don’t get shortness of breath and heart/brain race. Meaning you’re still in hell, you’re just not hyperventilating over it.
If you think that I am delaying getting to the actual point, boy are you right. This entry digs deep into my past, the period of age 12 to 36. If you are in my inner circle, I know exactly what you’re thinking right now. Overall, I’m better, but there are still huge, huge triggers from which I will never, ever recover. There are sights, sounds, and smells that transport me right back to that place where I feel like a hurt little girl, particularly music. And I was listening to a podcast with a musician, a soprano, in fact.
About seven years ago, I posted a recording of me singing John Rutter’s “The Lord is My Shepard” movement from his “Requiem” on my SoundCloud account. But few people know it’s not the only movement I’ve ever sung. I’m not sure exactly what year it was, but I sang the “Pie Jesu” movement with a community orchestra in Portland, Oregon. I was so good that even I thought so, and that’s unusual. However, the recording of it was a super unusual video format, and I never had it converted. I think Dana (my then best friend, later wife, now ex) might have the original, but I don’t know and I really, really don’t want to hear it now. This is because at the dress rehearsal, the woman who abused me most of my life stood up in front of the entire choir and orchestra and told them that she’d known me since I was 12, and that hearing me sing today was akin to watching her little girl grow up. Everyone was touched by her tears and fake sincerity, because most of the time I couldn’t even get her on the phone. She would tell everyone (including me) that we were family, but her actions never matched up to her words, thus the conundrum I live with.
Pie Jesu is one of the most famous soprano solos in the world, so the best memory of it for me is that one of my best friends called my mom in Houston during the dress rehearsal and held up her phone so that my mother could hear me, and I made her cry (in a good way) from 1800 miles away. Because my mother was a church musician herself, she could never make it to my solos, and I am quite sure that she didn’t know how hard I’d been working on my vocal technique. I had finally gotten to the place where high notes came from deep within me and felt like flying over the mountains. My mother getting to experience that with me is something I will never forget. For my Bridgeport people, the friend who held up her phone was Karen Miller, who has my eternal thanks. My mother is dead now, which makes this memory even more special now.
And now we’ve arrived at the worst part, which is only the worst part in retrospect because back then, I was totally sucked into a relationship that didn’t exist. It was all in my head by design, and the person who designed it just happened to be my choir director, and the person who gave me that solo in the first place.
Clearly, there were genuine moments, but on the whole, “there was no there there.” It started, like I said, when I was 12 years old, and ended for good when I was 36. I was totally and completely obsessed with trying to figure out why this relationship made me feel so good and so bad at the same time. I couldn’t let it go, because when it was good, I felt like I was a truly important person, sunlight raining down on me. When I was in shadow, I felt utterly and entirely worthless.
Again, that was all by design. It’s what abusers do, whether it’s physical or emotional. I didn’t realize until I was 36 that I had been lovebombed into submission, and once that had taken place, anything could be done to me. Good or bad, right or wrong. Nothing was ever her fault. I was wholly responsible for whether the relationship was thriving or not. Some abusers are so good they can make it happen with fully functioning adults, but it’s easier to get them in childhood, because they don’t know any better. Our first conversation was between the summer of my sixth and seventh grade. It happened so fast that my head spun, and people who knew me at that time in my life were all concerned. All of them. Everyone but me suspected that I was being molested, but I wasn’t. It’s just that people who are being emotionally or sexually abused react in much the same way….. to the point that my dad asked Dana if I’d told her that I was being sexually abused, and had been lying about it to everyone else for the last 20-odd years.
Again, it is 100% true that I was never sexually abused. Not once. But having someone fuck with your head is equally traumatic, and in one way, and one way only, worse. That one way is that there is no clear dividing line that you can point to and say “this is where something wrong occurred.” Everything is gray area, where it could have been genuine friendship or it could have been grooming. I never knew, and I will never know. Until I take my last breath, I will be dealing with this on my own, because there has been no indication that I will ever get resolution or an apology externally. All of my validation, all of my forgiveness, has to come from me. I have forgiven her for two reasons. The first is that I was emotionally abused by a sexually abused person who was barely out of college at the time. As a 36 year old person, I was able to see how young that was, relatively speaking. The second is that forgiving her was a lot easier than carrying around all my anger and frustration.
That being said, I am almost finished forgiving myself, but I’m still not there yet. It’s not a matter of knowing whether I had culpability or not. It’s that I still haven’t put down the axiom that I was a really bright kid, made smarter by books and life experience. How in the hell did it take me so long to start processing everything? Seeing my experiences with unclouded eyes? Having someone that wasn’t close to the situation look at the facts and call it rather than being able to figure it out on my own? I haven’t forgiven myself because I just, in this one area, feel so incredibly stupid.
The cognitive dissonance truly began after we stopped seeing each other in person the first time around. During the summer between my eighth and ninth grade years, she moved to a city about four hours away. That meant letters, and in those days, extremely expensive phone calls. EXTREMELY EXPENSIVE.
And then, when I was a junior in high school, she moved even further away, to Portland, Oregon. She encouraged me to move out there to get out of the Bible Belt, and I eventually did after visiting for several summers in a row to make sure I liked it.
The thing was, though, she could keep up the lovebombing for a week or two at a time. Living there was a new level of twisted.
I should back up far enough to say that it’s not that the abuse began when I was an adult. By the time I moved to Portland, she had already handed me enough adult information to blow my little girl mind to bits. I didn’t fit in with my friends anymore, because they were interested in boys their own age, makeup, school, etc. Even being around people my own age was irritating, because I couldn’t talk about what was happening with me to them. Even then, I knew that to share my secrets with them would age them further than they needed to be, so I was in the position of having to protect them from me.
For instance, what healthy adult do you know uses a child to verbally process things like “my partner is an alcoholic and deals weed?” “I’m afraid for my job, both because they’ll fire me if they found out I was gay OR if they found out my partner was in possession of an entire pound of weed and kept it in our house?” I actually needed to know about the “getting fired because you’re gay” thing because I could cross “teacher” off my list of career options, but everything else was just cruel. I call it “cruel” because not only could I not process my emotions with my friends, our dance of intimacy revolved around her telling me things that were inappropriate for my age and then taking away my ability to talk to her about them, so I couldn’t process anything anywhere. I just had to carry around this horrible shit for years on end.
The huge “she’s come undone” came from a likely source… someone who for all practical intents and purposes didn’t know me or the situation at all. Why is that likely? I never would have believed something was amiss unless someone was reading the situation blind. We had very few friends who weren’t mutual, so the person I was talking to was only looking at facts, not invested in anyone in the situation except me. Everyone needs that friend, and if you don’t have him/her, where you’re having a problem with someone in your friend group so tight you don’t have an objective eye, get a therapist. Free advice from me to you. Free.
So, when this friend started unpacking everything I was telling her, I saw things in a different light and I just started vomiting emotions all over the place. For the first time, I could see all the way down into the core of my personality, because I couldn’t remember a whole lot of my childhood before the emotional abuse happened.
I finally got smart enough to get myself to a hospital so that I could have both medication checks and a cohort for intensive group therapy every day. I think the hospitalization only lasted three or three and a half days, but it was enough to get me started on the right track. However, I went another two years without a therapist because I had two therapy experiences that went sour almost immediately.
Therapist number one told me in my evaluation that I wouldn’t be able to work this out in a short period of time, that I would probably need continual therapy for five to ten years in order to truly be healed, and she felt she was too old to take me on. Her words wrestled me to the ground, because I was caught between her saying (in not so many words) “man, you are way too fucked up for me to help you” and grateful that she was honest with me about what it would take.
Therapist number two and I had a successful intake evaluation, and then after our second session, I never went back. This is because she said that I was so interesting she was telling all her therapist friends and patients about me. Ok, I get it. You need to unwind. But for the love of God, don’t tell me about it. Also, I get telling all your colleagues about interesting cases. If I was a doctor or a therapist, I’d do the same thing. But other patients? Are you kidding me?
So, after having been through all of this and still dealing with it occasionally when triggered, I was in front of the stove and had ADHD mind-blanked for a second (there’s a window in the kitchen…. “Danger, Will Robinson…) when Cynthia Erivo’s voice cut through the fog, singing an absolutely gorgeous a capella rendition of “Pie Jesu” from the Rutter “Requiem.” I was in awe of her voice and doubled over in pain. Like I said earlier, I hadn’t taken my anxiety medication, so the trigger went off like a bomb. When I say I was in pain, I mean emotionally and physically. I couldn’t breathe, my head was pounding, I got nauseous, and since I was doubled over, I couldn’t reach my phone to hit “pause.” So, not only was there the initial impact, little pieces of shrapnel bounced off the walls and headed straight back into my skin.
Again, I would have felt the emotional trigger even if I’d taken my anxiety medication before the podcast began, but I think that without the physical component, I would have been able to handle myself a lot better than I actually did.
My first reaction was to remember that I was not the only one in the world who wrestled with demons. I have been putting off watching the documentary about Anthony Bourdain, Roadrunner, since it came out because I just wasn’t ready to feel that vulnerable. But as soon as I recovered physically and finished cooking, I bought a digital copy so that it could sit in my library. I might watch it tonight so that I can get some of my emotions out, because it takes a lot to make me cry. As the old saying goes, “what do you do to vent your emotions?” “You’re supposed to vent them?” Most of the time, I walk through life as a SCIF, generally only choosing to have one or two close friends at a time, because sharing my life with more people than that seems frightening. I am positive that this entire mess is a component to why I don’t date.
There’s no one big, huge red flag for me and dating. It’s about fifty tiny ones that add up. For instance, my exes have all known about the abuse I suffered, and have met that person on several occasions. Thinking about having to retell that story outside my writing is enormously unsettling. I can hear you from there….. “why not just move on and leave that story out of your life now?” That’s easy. If there’s a trigger and a physical reaction, those don’t come out of nowhere, and I am done covering up the truth. DONE. One of the reasons my emotional abuse was so “successful” is that I was never told to keep my mouth shut, it just seemed like the information being shared was intimate and to share it was to betray a confidence. I should have told a lot of things, but I didn’t want to seem untrustworthy…. to her…. I lied my ass off to everyone around me because I had to protect the trail. “You always have to think about the trail.” For me, that was my eighth grade history teacher (who is now dead) was friends with this person’s surrogate parents, so there was no way in hell that I was going to tell someone who suspected that I was being abused who, what, and how. For the longest time, she suspected that I was being abused at home, but she didn’t tell me that until I was in my 30s. It wasn’t that she had any proof, it’s that when kids are being abused, the first and most likely suspects are someone in the kid’s family.
I thought I had made family of choice, and in some ways I did, which is what kept me in the relationship for so long. But too much came out from other people. For instance, to me she was saying “I want you to come to Portland and live with me for college, because you need to get out of Texas.” To her partner, she said (and I’m paraphrasing) “this kid has been obsessed with me since she was 12 and I thought that when she was 18, she would just go away.” When I first moved to Portland, some of her friends tried to get into a pissing match with me over who knew her better. I didn’t want to play, and I said as much, because even then I realized that they knew way more about her present, and they didn’t know jack shit about her past. I told her about this conversation, and then months later her partner got mad at me for something or another and said that she was tired of me getting into pissing matches with all their friends because it was just creating a problem that didn’t exist. As in, the conversation that I had with her and the conversation I had with her partner were completely opposite because she’d tried to make me look bad. And here was the kicker, the thing that made me so mad that I went nuclear inside my own head, when I should have gone and screamed in her face.
I had a friend with a 12 year old daughter. Well, I still have the friend, but the daughter is much older now. 😛 Anywho, I became friends appropriately with the daughter, the kind of friendship that an adult is supposed to have with a kid. When we hung out, I told her mom what we’d done, and most of what she said unless the kid asked me to keep a secret. And I wouldn’t have kept any secrets that were dangerous. All of the secrets I kept were classic “basic tween” problems, as well as helping her with her homework (the subjects I could manage, anyway….). Once or twice, her mom asked me to keep an eye out while she wasn’t home, because the kid was old enough not to need a babysitter, but too young to be the only one home if something egregious happened. And let’s go back to the keeping “basic tween secrets” part. What I’ve learned over time is that sometimes people need a sounding board, especially kids, because they don’t know whether they can talk to their parents about said problem or not. You’re just that adult in their lives they can open up to, and if you steer the conversation toward talking to their moms and dads, nine times out of 10, they totally will. You just have to prove to them that their parents aren’t as lame as advertised. I’ve been babysitting on some level since Lindsay, my little sister (five and a half years younger) was born, so I am very, very good with kids…. and I didn’t doubt myself on this until……..
My so-called friend called up the parent of the 12 year old and said she thought our relationship was predatory. That was before I was taking anti-anxiety medication, and I had a panic attack so severe it was like the ones you see on hospital television shows where the patient thinks they’re having a heart attack and dying. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, because it wasn’t like my friend came to me first and asked me what was actually going on. She went to the parent first, and I was confronted. Luckily, it wasn’t an angry one, and the three of us stayed intact as per our normal. But you don’t get suspected of being “predatory” and get over it. After so many years to think about it, I’ve realized that even my so-called friend knew I wasn’t being predatory. She was just trying to meddle.
Because she did what most emotional abusers do. She wanted to be the center of my universe, but she also didn’t want anyone to know that. It was a constant battle of “I don’t want you, but no one else can have you, either.” She hit her limit when I married Dana without telling her first. God knows why I felt I had to keep it close, especially because at the time we were closer than I was to my mother and father (but only because of proximity). I didn’t want anyone to talk me out of it because I wasn’t doing it for religious reasons. I was doing it because my entire family lived in Texas, save for one uncle who lived in Arkansas and worked in Alaska. Her parents lived in Virginia, and even though her sister was in California, she was still a 10-12 hour drive from us. We needed to be next-of-kin as immediately as possible, because we both realized that in the absence of family, we each wanted our best friend to make those decisions. And back then, it wasn’t federal marriage. It was an Oregon domestic partnership, so if we left the state, we would give up all our rights.
This is not to say that I didn’t want to have a religious ceremony or that I only married Dana for emergency reasons. I had never loved anyone more before or since. She was the other half of my heart and brain. For a long time after we parted, I had phantom limb syndrome. Pain filled all the places I was empty. I can’t remember how and when my so-called friend found out, but it led to her sobbing in the middle of a sushi restaurant…. and I suppose that is as vulnerable as I’ve ever seen her, the biggest indication that it wasn’t all bullshit….. but it wasn’t all on the up and up, either. In retrospect, it seemed way more about her than it was about me. She wanted to give me away. She wanted to sing at my wedding. In short, she wanted to pull the exact same act she pulled when she got up in front of the choir and orchestra and gave her touching little speech…. to make other people believe the story she was telling herself.
I could also tell that she didn’t think Dana was good enough for me, because what she saw was someone who worked in a grocery store, not a Cordon Bleu trained chef and someone with a Bachelor’s in technical theater who could run circles around Shakespearean scholars. She had direction. I had distraction. Also, she was, and I imagine still is, much nicer than I am. If anything, I wasn’t good enough for her, and if my so-called friend really wanted to screw me to the wall, that’s what she would have said, because I would have had an easy time believing it. I was lucky enough in that moment to see through mud. And even though our approaches to life were extraordinarily different, in other ways, we were exactly the same. For instance, I can’t speak to who Dana is now, because we haven’t spoken in so long, but back then we were both extreme introverts. I liked to spend my time alone, Dana liked to cover up her introversion with a mask, one so good Jonna Mendez could have made it. I called that part of her “The Dana Lanagan Show.” I knew that much to be true because growing up as a preacher’s kid, I was “The Leslie Lanagan Show.” Like recognizes like. It’s just by that point, I had been away from the church in the capacity of preacher’s kid for long enough that the mask had melted. I couldn’t make it fit, and I stopped trying…. for better or for worse. Therefore, I didn’t just know Dana, I could feel her, the essence of a Robert Heinlein “grok.”
This is not to say that I will never find that kind of love again, only that it hasn’t happened- mostly due to the fact that I haven’t put myself in any situations to meet someone. I still have a lot of processing to do, because as Sandra Cisneros has said, it takes about 10 years before you can make yourself the protagonist in a story, because you have to be able to see that time in your life as happening to a different person.
Editor’s Note: I’m lying. I did once, but it was too soon. It was maybe six months after I moved to DC, maybe eight or nine months after the breakup, and she was so incredibly amazing that I knew I’d become completely enamored quickly- and that the timing would undo any changes I was trying to make within myself. I would get that dopamine hit of the newly “in like” and put off resolving my grief and responsibility as to the relationship’s end. I didn’t want to drag old patterns into a new relationship, and it hurt to run away, but that’s exactly what I did. The lesson I did take from that experience, though, is that my lust for life wasn’t dead, and eventually the timing would be right to be in a relationship again….. but that wasn’t it.
The one good thing about figuring it all out was that I did it before my mother died. She got the resolution and relief she needed, because she’d felt something was off all those years, but couldn’t prove it because I was such an excellent magician, making the entire relationship sleight of hand. To her, it was Schrödinger’s relationship, something that both existed and didn’t until I moved to Portland. This is because I knew that if she got to the mail before me, she’d hide my letters. She was trying to protect me, and I just wouldn’t let her.
I chose to leave myself wide open to emotional manipulation, living life as a SCIF…. until I eventually came undone. For the first couple of years, it was hard to tell how much of me was breaking apart and how much was finally coming together, because I could stop mulling over the problem and start mulling solutions…. except in those tiny moments, when triggers put me on the ground and I have to work my way back up.