That Time (7)
Here's Looking at You Kid
My memories aren’t linear. They appear as disconnected fragments, unrelated to each other. Like scenes from a post-modern novel without a coherent timeline. When I recall a memory I have no idea how old I was at the time of the original experience. Site-specific memories sometimes give me a range of possible ages. If something happened at JFK Elementary school it was during grades 1-3 but I can’t differentiate between those three years. There are some exceptions but if I have, say 12 memories of JFK I can only place one of them as definitely being in 1st grade. The rest are all mixed up.
So I think of my life in eras, not years or ages: Franklin, Oak St; Franklin, Partridge St; Falmouth; Oakland; Atlanta; Oakland. If I had to specify ages this is the best I can do: 0 - (5 or7); (5 or 7) - (12 or 13); (12 or 13) to 20; 20-27; 27-59; 59 - 62 (now). I can also place some memories by the school I was in at the time but I don’t have a clear understanding of the school sequence. JFK was 1-3 but 4-6 is unclear. I went to two different schools during 4-6 but I don’t remember any details about them. I have very few memories of those years and none before Partridge St.
I also have difficult remembering dates. For example, Pam has told me my father’s birthday a dozen times and I still can’t remember it. I don’t know Frankie’s or Tom’s birthdays, either. I don’t remember the date of Frankie’s suicide, not even the year. Come too think of it, I don’t know when my father died and I only know approximately when my mother died because I received her ashes while living here in Oakland so it was after… I don’t remember. I have to calculate. The pandemic has been a year and a half. It started about a year and a half after we moved here. The ashes must have arrived in the year… I have to calculate again. 2022 - 3 = 2019 (moved here) so + 1 = 2020. Nope. That’s not right. I honestly thought it was 2022 when I wrote the previous sentence.
I have a hard time remembering my age. Seriously. When asked my age, about half the time I get it wrong.
I have a journal in which I’ve recorded key dates. My parents and siblings birthdays and death days are there when I want to look them up. I can remember the easy ones. Ethel was born on July 4. Karl and Anne share a birthday, Aug 5. Gregg’s is 6 days before mine so Sep 21.
I don’t know the exact ages of my older siblings. I used to think there was one year between each of the four oldest boys, Tom, Frankie, Karl and Me. But that’s not right. There’s two years between… one or two of us. So Tom, the oldest is either 5 or 6 years older than me. Frankie is 3-4, Karl is 1-2. Anne and Gregg, both younger than me are a little easier because there was 1 year between each of us. But I wouldn’t bet money on that.
The point of all this is just to describe the mental condition I’ve been working under while trying to remember key childhood events. The point of all this is that I don’t know how old I was when I was raped. I’m certain it was in the Partridge St. era but that’s as close as I can narrow it down. The point is also to let you know that, as the story unfolds, there will be other key episodes for which I can only approximate the age at which they occurred.
That time I got “lost” after riding with Frankie to my grandmother’s house? I have no idea when that happened or how old I was. It exists as a stand-alone memory with no context.
That time my mother shamed and humiliated me after finding out I played “doctor” with a neighborhood girl in the woods behind her house. I have no idea how old I was but this memory is otherwise vivid. I can still see and hear Ethel screaming, red-faced, about my sinful behavior. Telling me that what I did was dirty and shameful and ticket to hell. We were outside in our yard as she apparently needed to broadcast my shame to the neighborhood.
As I type these words I can feel changes in my body. A quickening of the heart, a tingling sensation over all of my body, adrenaline pumping, sweat forming on my skin. These changes happen because the memories of my trauma are stored in my body.
My sin, by the way, was merely being curious about our bodies. Both the girl and I were pre-sexual and paid scarce attention to our genitals. I remember trying to “fix” her stomach with a twig. So I literally thought that the mere existence of having a body underneath my clothes was shameful.
The shaming memory above is one I haven’t fully revealed before which is probably why it triggered me. I can talk about my rape (now) without being triggered because I have been practicing that for years. You’ll hear more about that.
Something about my body that’s different from my mind is that it only exists in the present.
One of the obstacles to retrieving memories, especially the emotionally charged ones, is that my body is always still trying to protect me. It thinks it’s protecting me from a clear and present danger but it’s really just protecting me from my memories.
For all of my life I have flinched. It’s much less frequent now but it still happens. At sudden sounds. Sudden movements in a person near me. A sneeze or a cough. My startle response has always been on a hair trigger. My body has always been on alert. Waiting for it. Waiting to fight or flee. Worse than that, waiting to be trapped. Again. This condition serves us well in circumstances of threatening behavior. In times of war. When we’re being stalked by a grizzly bear (as Frankie once was for two days in Yosemite). A human predator. If my mind clearly knows that a sudden movement of the arm of my friend while cooking, or the sneeze of my wife while we’re watching tv, or the sound of a door slamming shut behind me as I leave the house, isn’t an existential threat, my body doesn’t.
Yes, obviously the brain is involved. But I’m not sure the mind is. I’m not going too far down this tangent because it’s too complicated and divergent but I will say this: I’m not convinced my unconscious brain responses are a function of my mind.
The student asked his teacher, “Speaking of the mind and body, which is chicken and which is egg?” The teacher replied, “Amygdala!”
Every significant therapeutic breakthrough or resolution I have achieved had to be experienced through my body. Several years of using psychological technique, talking therapy, memory resurfacing, journaling, dream work, hypnosis, only worked in preparing me for the real work which was accessing the trauma that I had stored in my body. I’ll tell you about some of that work later.
By coincidence (or was it?) I began practicing Bikram Yoga around the same time the focus in my therapy was shifting from a general nature to beginning to admit to and explore my childhood trauma. I had previously dabbled in various forms of exercise but nothing ever took. If you’re not familiar with it, Bikram Yoga is practiced in a room heated to 105 degrees. I don’t like being hot. Oh, and the classes are 90 minutes long. The details of how and why I began practicing aren’t important. What’s interesting and relevant is that, without realizing it, my yoga practice was a physical mirror of my therapy.
This is what all of my early classes were like: Wow, it’s hot in here. I don’t think I like this. I just walked in the room and I’m already drenched with sweat. The heat is suffocating, I can’t breathe. My heart is racing. I’m supposed to do what with my body? Is this even my body? It doesn’t feel like it fits me. Are we almost done yet? I don’t think I can do this. No, I definitely can not do this. Maybe I should take my shirt off. No! I can’t do that, I’ll practically be naked. People will see how ________ my body is. I have to sit down. I can’t sit down. I’ll look weak. I have to lie down. I’m going to faint. Fuck it, I’m lying down. (Lies down.) Why did I come here? This was a mistake. I’m never coming back… then the the teacher would walk in the room and start the class.
Was I describing a yoga class or my therapy? I forget.
But seriously, for at least six months I walked out of each class swearing I was never going back. But I would always wake up the next day feeling amazing. During class I was confronted with a body I had spent my life pretending didn’t exist. It was like reconnecting with a lost sibling, one that I had walked away from in a tempestuous abandonment. And it was kind of pissed off at first. It had been ignored and neglected and carrying a lot of weight for me without any acknowledgement. So I began to listen to it. And look at it.
Bikram Yoga is practiced in front of floor to ceiling mirrors. Some yoga practitioners think that’s weird or even wrong. That it places to much emphasis on appearance, form and physicality. That ’s due to a lack of understanding. Hatha yoga is, by definition, a mind/body practice. It is specifically about helping us to fully integrate mind and body.
Early in my practice I was uncomfortable with the mirrors. It was difficult to focus on my body and even more difficult to look myself in the eyes. Sometimes I would stare at the teacher who would inevitably say, “please keep your focus on yourself in the mirror.” I wanted to look at other students bodies out of curiosity but I didn’t dare. I tried looking at the clock but that seemed to just stop it from moving. I would like to have closed my eyes but in addition to being explicitly discouraged, that made it more difficult to balance. I soon learned how to focus my eyes about halfway between me and the mirror.
As in therapy, regarding my sense of ’self,’ I gradually became to accept my body and feel good about it. I began to appreciate it and listen to it more fully. To feel more in control of it. To take better care of it. All of that was just the first big lesson of the mirrors for me.
In my training with Bikram Choudhury someone asked him why the mirrors were so important. His answer surprised me. He said, “If you look into your own eyes long enough, you will begin to fall in love with yourself.” It took me many years of practice but I got there.