21 June 2015

"About a Thousand Days Ago..."

More than anything else I have ever written, this is the one that has been the most difficult and taken the longest - to confront, to write, to share. What follows was first written almost a year ago, and shared in small increments with my inner circle.

TRIGGER WARNING: This post contains sensitive subject content, though it is discussed as ambiguously as possible as I could manage.

I was in elementary school. I want to say first grade, but I could be wrong about that. The guidance counselor came to class one day. She had a couple of puppets. She made one do the moonwalk dance. That was a big hit with my classmates. I laughed along because I knew it was the appropriate reaction, but I was oblivious to pop culture and had no idea what the moonwalk dance even was. I've never confessed that to anyone before, so that's our ice-breaker, Dear Reader.

I immediately liked the guidance counselor. Like most of the faculty at that school, I felt that she actually cared about us students and wanted us to have a good experience. I found it easy to talk with her. That hasn't always been the case for me over the years.

That day, her talk with us was about inappropriate touching. She gave us the standard talking points about the offender being to blame, not the victim; about the importance of reporting such an incident to our parents, teachers, or other trustworthy adults until we found one who would listen; and about owning our agency to tell someone "No". As tended to happen in the classroom, I had the sense that most of my classmates were partly absorbing what was being discussed and mostly just waiting for the clock to run down.

I remember when the talk was over that I quietly approached the counselor. I had something to discuss.

She arranged for me to visit her in her office, across the hallway from the main office. I'd only ever been sent to the main office once. I was summoned to the principal's office along with a few others. I was terrified as I walked down the corridor, wondering what I could possibly have done wrong. It turned out that I simply had an overdue library book. Due dates have loomed large for me ever since.

"You know what you were talking about in our class?" I would have begun. "About a thousand days ago, something happened." I paused and did the math in my head. I knew there were more than three hundred days in a year and I was backtracking in my mind. A thousand days was actually a reasonable estimate. Whether I was just procrastinating or trying to show off my math skills, I couldn't say. It was weird because I hadn't planned to start out that way at all. It's just what came to me. I was as surprised as she was that I was trying to work out how many days ago the incident had taken place. Brains, right? Whaddya gonna do?

Given how outspoken I've been about things like sexual violence, I don't think this post is going to be all that much of a surprise to anyone who's paid much attention to me over the years. It's probably been pretty obvious that something once happened, and everyone has been too polite/squeamish to ask.

I have had one policy since I came out from behind the anonymity of a screen name: I don't share things that involve and affect other people. That ties my hands about what I can share with you now, Dear Reader. Your imagination has already told you the nature of what I shared with the guidance counselor that morning. I will only say this much: What happened was with someone older that I should have been able to trust. My guidance counselor was the first person I ever told about the incident.

What struck me at the time, and stands out especially today, was how attentively she listened to me. If she was skeptical, she never let on about it. On the contrary, I felt certain that she did believe me. When I hear of survivors talking about not being believed, it upsets me to know that they were cheated out of at least that much. I just took it for granted that she would listen as she did. I was much older when I found out that I had been lucky in that respect.

The counselor initiated an investigation. She contacted my parents. I spoke with my mom about it. I don't remember anything from that conversation except wanting it to be over. The offender gave an entirely fabricated alternate account of events and insisted I simply had an overactive imagination. It was the early 1980's, so that's where the investigation ended. My guidance counselor was the one to tell me that's what came of the investigation, and that she was furious about it but that she had no authority to do anything else.

In some bizarre way, I felt as though the entire thing was resolved tidily; something happened, I complained, someone asked about it, a reply (lie) was presented and it was dropped. Life: 1, Travis: 0. Like most children, at one point or another I'd been admonished for being a sore loser, so I resolved that I would just move on. What else could be done, anyway?

Of course, what I had overlooked was that actually living with the experience - including the reporting, sharing, and investigation process - would continue the rest of my life. Whenever I hear of such things, the immediate reaction is usually bloodthirsty calls for the offender to be executed as cruelly as imaginable. Somehow, that would make things okay in the minds of a lot of people. I, on the other hand, have gone more than thirty years with no such punishment doled out in my name. It's taught me that vengeance ("justice", if it makes you feel better) isn't the path to healing. I've had to work on that on my own - and largely, I do mean on my own.

I've carried this for most of my life. I sandbagged every conversation I had in my youth about such things, denying that I knew anything more than anyone else. I would leave the room if a TV show or movie started to even talk about sex, much less sexual abuse. I agonized every time someone would use the term "rape" to refer to something as trivial as the convenience fee of their concert ticket. I took some odd solace in knowing that no one with my kind of experience would use such a word in such a way and that meant they had been spared. That was the only way I could get through those moments without lashing out.

It's hard to develop a healthy sense of self when you're made to feel defensive about your own body so young. I wouldn't even swim without a T-shirt into my adulthood. Everyone just assumed I was self-conscious because I was scrawny and I was fine letting them have that misconception. Every day for more than thirty years now, that childhood incident has been on my mind. It's often one of the first things I think of when I wake up and one of the last to cross my mind before I fall asleep.

The whole world is a trigger. At a group sleepover in the late 90's, a friend brought over a tape of several episodes of South Park. One episode was about a character who was upset that his father hadn’t molested him, satirizing how many people were finally starting to come forward about surviving such things. Anything I may have said or done the rest of that night was some kind of defense mechanism because I had retreated inside myself so far that I was oblivious to anything else. I freak out any time I see a lazy parent carelessly send a child to a public restroom unattended. I've never chosen to watch a single minute of that show since and I can't even stand to hear about it. I don't care how clever or poignant a specific bit is; I immediately go back to that night and how I shut down completely because keeping this to myself was the most important thing in the world.

I usually share personal things publicly because that's part of how I claim ownership over the experience and blah, blah, blah. It’s part of my "shoot the hostage" approach to bearing burdens. The truth is, I don't want ownership over this. I never did. I'm hopeful, I suppose, that somehow this will let me put some more distance between it and me. I don't know whether it can or will, but that's my hope.

*     *     *     *     *

Ordinarily, I would be flattered to hear that someone read something I wrote and then began to open up about something in their own lives, but I beg you, Dear Reader: If you have a life experience like this one, please resist any sort of impulse to share that experience now. Take your time. YOU get to decide what, if anything, you ever share - with whom, when, why, where, and how. It took me three years to even talk about it in the first place and more than thirty to finally begin sharing it in waves with my inner circle.

06 June 2015

Who They'd Be Today, Age 9

I've rarely made mention of this publicly. In fact, I've seldom even discussed it beyond a superficial layer with my inner circle. In 2005, my then-fiancee and I lost twins in a miscarriage. Today, 6 June, would have been their 9th birthday. Their due date was on a Tuesday. I remember that because a Star Trek DVD compilation set collecting all the Q episodes was scheduled for release that same day. I had filed away the idea as something to maybe try to remember to either buy or have someone pick up for me that day to put back and watch with them when they were old enough. I saw some kind of "this is why we don't play tricks on people" morality lesson to it, but mostly of course, I just liked the idea of instilling Trek from the outset.

I remember sitting down with one of my professors at the University of Louisville that semester in his office. It was my second course under him. I came to him at the outset of that semester to discuss the logistical matter of being a student with Crohn's - something I hadn't been diagnosed with when I took the previous course with him. He could not have been more gracious or accommodating, which was understandably quite a relief. I remember chatting with him about the pregnancy when we found out about that.

"Oh, wow...I just realized, my kids will actually be able to throw in my face that I'm from another century!" I mused.

Dr. Beattie amended that: "They'll be able to throw in your face that you're from another millennium!"

That's why he was the professor and I was but the student.

Not having a meaningful relationship with my own dad, I had a great deal of anxiety over becoming one myself. I only knew the things I wanted to try to avoid screwing up, but no idea what constructive things I wanted to do or how to go about doing them. Like others with whom I discussed the matter, Dr. Beattie expressed confidence that I would find my way. He'd graded my previous work for him at the C-level, and my later work for him at the A-level, so I figured he was qualified to have some idea about my room for improvement in general.

Of course, I never got the chance.

I should know the exact date of the miscarriage, but I don't. I only know that we had been at dinner with friends in the evening, and by the middle of the night, the same ER physician who had told me a few months earlier that I very likely had Crohn's disease was offering soft condolences to us. The next few weeks were (and still are) a blur. I didn't want to interact with another person in the world. Some intruded anyway. I did what I could to either excuse myself or rush them out. I felt no remorse then or now about shunning them. I prefer to lick my wounds in private, no matter what impression you may have taken from some of the things I've shared here over the years, Dear Reader.

When I eventually checked back in with my professors and accounted for my absences, they were even more compassionate and accommodating than they had been about the frequent intrusions of Crohn's into my performance. I only had two assignments for Dr. Beattie that semester, and I'd already completed one of them, so there was nothing for me to try to make up for him; just lectures to try to cover. I met with him one afternoon when I finally had it in me to resume my studies. He glossed over some of the key concepts, but he downplayed that and instead tried to engage me about how I was processing my grief.

He could not have been kinder or more sensitive - unlike some of those who took it upon themselves to show up at our apartment door. I think one of the things I appreciate most about that conversation was that he didn't seize on it as an opportunity to launch into a sales pitch for whatever views he held. Never once did he say anything about how things "happen for a reason", anything about "God's plan", how the rest of my life couldn't stop because of it, or any of the other banalities that inundated me at that time. He didn't make me feel like he was somehow morosely excited for something "big" to talk about to fill his day - which, I hate to say, was how a few others made me feel at that time.

My then-fiancee and I never really discussed it beyond our shared frustration about not being left alone as we had requested of everyone. I remember at least once locking myself in the secondary bedroom and refusing to reemerge until our unwanted visitors had left. Maybe it was interpreted as rudeness or a lack of appreciation for a show of support. I don't know, and I don't give a damn. When I finally felt I had rebuilt my fortitude, I resumed work and school. I did what I could to make myself go through the motions. My heart wasn't in anything, but as long as my mind wasn't on anything, either, then that was what I considered a "good" day.

This pain lay dormant for years, unaddressed. I knew it was hard enough on my fiancee/wife, and I was certain the last thing she needed was for me to bring it up while she was still trying to process it on her own. I always kind of thought eventually we would come back to it, but for one reason or another, we never did. Some of you might interpret this as some kind of machismo on my part. I never felt it was that, but rather the most compassionate way I could think to handle such a devastating matter. I don't know how she healed, or if she did at all, and I truly regret that. I should have been more active about checking on her. Maybe not in the immediate aftermath; like me, she prefers to face the worst of a storm on her own. But certainly between when it happened in 2005 and when our marriage collapsed in 2011, there was time and I let it slip away.

One consequence of keeping my pain to myself is that it became a dormant time bomb within me. It was always there on my mind, but my coping mechanisms made it manageable. At least, until I finally began to sift through everything that the collapse of my marriage brought to the surface. I came to realize that compartmentalization had run its course.

You know that Kenny Chesney song, "Who You'd Be Today"? It came out in September, 2005 and it absolutely crushed me. That was only six months after George Strait released "You'll Be There". To this day, I have a reflexive need to retreat into myself and sob inwardly whenever I hear - or sometimes, just hear about - either song.

Last Spring was excruciating for me. When I was at C2E2 in Chicago, just seeing all the families with young kids tore me apart. I kept looking at the ones who seemed to be nearly 8 years old, wondering what my own twins would be like. Surely, I would have introduced them to the works of Beverly Cleary, as a longtime fan of Ramona Quimby. Who would their favorite characters be? Would they be into superheroes? Would they be DC or Marvel kids? Star Trek? Star Wars? What new characters and such would appeal to them? Harry Potter, perhaps? How many hours would we spend playing the assorted LEGO video games? Would they want to cosplay? Could we do that as a family, like the foursome I saw dressed as Green Lanterns, or as The Incredibles?

I can tell you without any sense of shame that I took a lot of Klonopin that weekend. I didn't even care what the bottle said about how far apart I was supposed to space each pill; the moment I felt the last one begin to wear off, I popped another. I also holed up in the Press Lounge as often as I could. The physical toll my emotions took exhausted me and I needed as much solitude as I could muster. (Remind me sometime to discuss how much more lenient the average person is about accommodating physical health matters than they are about mental health matters.)

Just a week later, my friends hosted their annual Derby party. No sooner had I walked into the kitchen than I was face to face with the newborn son of two of my newest friends. I got to hold him for a little while. It was simultaneously soothing and heartbreaking. I could not have been happier for the couple themselves; they're the kind of wonderful people who are easy to root for, and root for them, I do. I spent an hour or so with another newborn, who napped in my arms in a recliner, so that both his parents could try to socialize instead of trading off baby-snoozing chores. That, too, was an amalgamation of peace and turmoil. I think sitting by ourselves in a quiet room helped to make it more palatable for my tumultuous emotions.

A month later, mutual friends introduced me to a young woman the likes of which I had never dared imagine existed in real life. She brazenly approached me about sensitive matters. Anyone who knows me well at all would have been stunned by how comfortably I indulged her, but I just had a feeling that I needed to open up to her. When I shared with her how hard June was for me, between the twins's birthday on the 6th, and Father's Day (the 14th last year), she took it upon herself to organize a symbolic funerary service on my behalf. I was, of course, reticent. Discussing the matter with someone I just met was pushing it; this was something far more delicate.

I asked her pointblank, staring into her eyes, "Can I trust you with this?"

She pledged to me that I could, and to her credit, she made good. She had me write by hand a letter to them. Me being me, I wrote two; one that I read aloud in front of her and two of our mutual friends who kindly attended the day with us. The other, I asked to read to them privately. She had gathered several stones and asked me to select one per child, each of which went into a lovely decorated shoe box. Into the shoe box, I placed both handwritten letters.

One of my other friends had brought a spade and was prepared to dig an appropriate hole for the box, but I insisted on doing that myself. I've buried each of my pets over the years, and it's important to me that I be the one to do such digging. I feel as though I've shirked my duty to my loved ones if I don't do it myself. I dug, not paying the slightest heed to what the dirt was doing to my all-black clothing or dress shoes. The organizer had selected pieces for each of those of us in attendance to read aloud. She selected for me Rudyard Kipling's poem, If. She herself sang "This Little Light of Mine". I was entirely unprepared for the power of her singing voice. If I hadn't lost track of her over the intervening year, I would organize a Kickstarter to try to get her to go into a studio and record an a capella version of that song. I can't hear any other performance of it, and have told iTunes to skip any such versions when shuffling my library.

It was eight years late, and only a symbolic service, but I cannot emphasize enough how much peace it has brought me. It still hurts. It will always hurt, and I wouldn't want it to ever stop hurting, to be honest. But thanks to the sensitivity and support shown to me over the years by everyone from Dr. Beattie to this remarkable young woman who flitted in and out of my life in the span of two dizzying weeks last June, I feel I've finally got a healthier handle on that pain. Today will always be difficult for me. I will always have those unanswered questions: Did we lose them because I was unfit to be a worthy parent? (After all, I could scarcely keep up with a bunny rabbit at the time.) Was it something preventable we missed? How, or when, should I have broached the subject with my wife? What if I found myself in that situation again? Could I separate the years of anxiety and fear from what should be the joy of something new?

These things, I may never know. Sometimes they still overwhelm me. Thankfully, though, I've benefited from some wonderful support going back to the epicenter of when we lost them up through last summer when I finally had the kind of confrontation that I didn't realize I needed. I've tethered myself emotionally to that symbolic service the last year, today more than most.

I don't know whom I've mentioned or alluded to here who may ever see this post, but in case you're one of them, please know that I know I owe you a tremendous debt of gratitude.

Thank you, from the bottom of my healing heart.

Note: I received more consolation and help over the years, including the compassion expressed to me by my other history professors at UofL: Dr. Bruce Tyler and Dr. Lee Shai Weissbach among them. I don't wish either to feel slighted, as they also each made that period survivable for me.