Recovering…: By Lana Martin
A while back, I had a vivid dream.
I am standing in my parents’ house. The house I grew up in. The house that, in my waking hours, sends shivers down my spine at the mere thought. Police have ordered an evacuation of the area.
Something terrible is about to happen.
I tell my parents they need to leave the house. Get in my car and drive away with me. They seem to not hear me. My dad is sitting in his chair, watching a muted TV. My mom is sleeping in bed. No, really, I tell them: we all need to go. I feel panicked. I’m responsible for moving them to safety. As they fail to look at me or stir, I realize that I have to leave. Their bodies seem trapped in a soundless chamber. There’s no hope for us to escape together. If I stay, I will die. I go back to my car. As I pull onto the highway, I feel deeply sad and guilty. I feel as though I’m abandoning my family and that I should to go back for them.
As I drive on down the highway, I sense a giant explosion behind me. The house I grew up in has disappeared into a massive, fiery mushroom cloud.
This dream took place at a point in my life when I was actively confronting my past.
I was coming to terms with the physical abuse, the emotional abuse, the spiritual abuse. I was trying to shed the deep shame I had long carried about the way I was homeschooled for eight years. I lived, for the most part, in isolation and received no parental education. I read and “graded” my own workbooks. I assumed domestic responsibility and took care of my mother, whose mental health and functionality deteriorated as our years spent homeschooling progressed.
The house that exploded was my prison for eight years.
The living room was where my mother slept on the sofa all day. The kitchen was where my slapdash dinners of canned and frozen food were consumed in uncomfortable silence. My parents’ bedroom was where my father beat me as a small child. The family bathroom was where I nursed the bruises and welts.
My bedroom was a sanctuary, almost shielded from my mother’s overbearing scrutiny of my thoughts and emotions.
The field behind this house, it was the true oasis. Freedom could only be found in the open prairie grassland. Trees, unlike my distant father, do in fact hug back.
Children who are homeschooled in the fundamentalist Christian subculture are particularly vulnerable to the effects of unmanaged mental illness. Stigma surrounding mental health problems is particularly strong when one’s wellbeing is tied to a positive relationship with God. Fundamentalist Christians often avoid psychiatric help and effective talk therapy due to their skepticism of scientific and humanistic thought. Learning disorders are seen as malevolent inventions of the public school system. Violence toward women and children can be normalized and justified with authoritarian, patriarchal ideology.
Black-and-white thinking and paranoia-driven behavior nicely fill the Reconstructionist mold.
Adolescent depression is perceived not as a medical condition or experiential phenomenon, but as a sinful teenage rebellion. The imposed isolation characteristic of many abusive homeschooling situations only worsens these problems for both parents and children who are struggling to identify and manage a mental illness.
I used to see myself as just another survivor of child abuse and family dysfunction, another piece of collateral damage in the Christian fundamentalist “culture war”. My homeschool situation was a failed social experiment, a delusional fantasy of my mother’s quite realized, a convenience for my father. These are clinical, academic terms and they reflect the stark lens through which I rigidly viewed myself, my history, and the psychiatric symptoms I experienced as a young adult.
And, so I thought, my depression, anxiety, insomnia, hypervigilance, dissociative episodes, panic attacks, persistent sadness, suicidal thoughts, and explosive anger might be easily resolved once removed from the toxic home in which I grew up. I should be able to get over the past and move on with life once free, employed, and college-educated. But it didn’t work out that way.
Ten years later and 1500 miles away, I still felt like an awful person, permanently damaged, incomplete.
I still drowned in shame when I thought about my past, but couldn’t shed a tear over my injuries and losses. And I still experienced quite a few undesirable symptoms of unresolved stress and trauma. I judged myself harshly for this perceived failure.
Fast-forward to a point in my life, five years into therapy, when this stoic attitude begins changing. I see my parents more clearly for who they are: selfish, exploitative, and severely maladjusted. I know that neglect impacted me perhaps more so than abuse. I struggle to feel present because I was not seen, valuable because I was not respected, calm and centered because I was not protected. I cannot remember a time when I did not feel responsible for my parents’ welfare, simultaneously fearful of my dad’s anger and my mother’s psychotic delusions.
In working with these memories and feelings in therapy, I have gradually let down my defenses. I have peeled the proverbial onion down to the part where, if I was hurt by the other person in the room, my usual defense tactics of denying, rationalizing, dissociating, and, perhaps, hissing and growling would not be enough. But the other person in the room has not hurt me, and deep vulnerability has in fact not been unpleasant.
My instinct to fortress my soul is quite strong; my desire to regenerate and heal is yet stronger.
Reacquainting myself with buried emotions has led me to feel more fully human and deserving of kindness. Through the years of sorting through my fragmented memories with my therapist, through time I remember, feel, and react to them in a new way. A way that resonates in some deep place I hadn’t known existed. That feels more relieving than triggering. That clears self-doubt from my narrative.
My therapist demonstrates empathy for me through each of these developmental phases; in turn I feel compassion and forgiveness for myself in the past and present. Because of this experience, I’m hopeful that one day I will feel comfortable discussing my past outside of that oasis.
I want to believe my therapist is not the only person capable of appreciating my true self and the strange experiences of my childhood.
Hindsight tells me that my intuition led me to this place because I wanted to see what it would feel like. I spent a young lifetime fearing authority, internally fighting coercion, and managing my image to please others, prevent conflict. I was curious what it would feel like to let go, to allow someone else to do the fixing, the soothing, the pushing, thinking of the right words to say and being most concerned with how I might feel in response to them.
At some point I began to sense this happening. It felt incredibly, intoxicatingly good.
Some days I feel really sad without knowing exactly why. I often dream of losing something very dear but not actually knowing what it was. Now I know at least part of this loss. And now I grieve my injuries and losses, in words and tears, alone and with others.
At the end of my dream, I did not mourn the shattered house.
I kept driving away, without looking back.