Trauma Doesn’t Just End

There are times in life, when you don’t really know what it is that you are going through, until you have to describe it to someone else. Two different exchanges today made me feel like I was getting slightly closer to getting to the bottom of… something.

“I just thought I would be over it by now.”

My son is a year old. He’s turning into a toddler. Nobody asks me what it’s like to be a new mom anymore, but the truth is, I still very much feel like one. The truth is that I still feel like I’m trying to get my footing, and just when I feel like I’ve gotten my footing, something shifts. He learns a new skill or enters a new developmental stage, and the rules change. His needs keep changing, my abilities keep changing, reality keeps changing.

Reality keeps changing.

In one way, it was always like this. My life has never been static, your life has never been static. But without a child it was different. The changes were slower, or more predictable, or more voluntary. Now, my life is both unbearably predictable (wake up, feed the baby breakfast, drink the coffee, playtime, go for a walk, nap time, lunch time…. over and over and over again) and constantly in flux. I would call it shifting sand, but it’s more like shifting sand in an earthquake, on a spaceship.

I don’t know where we are anymore.

“I’m currently reprocessing a lot of trauma.”

My son is a year old, that means he was born a year ago because that’s how time works (I think). My son was born a year ago. I find myself writing the sentence in the most passive way possible, he was born, I of course, had almost nothing to do with it. His birth took place a little over a year ago, and I want to tell you that it happened, without delving into the fact that it happened, without confronting the fact that I’m still not over it.

Nobody asks me about it anymore.

My son was born, after a week of on and off labor, by cesarean section. A stranger (his name was Doctor Anderson, and I will never forget his name, and I will never be able to clearly picture his face) cut into my abdomen, made a brand new hole in my body, and lifted my child up and out of me and into the bright light of the world. The drugs made me too nauseous and shaky to hear his first cry.

For the first hour of his life outside of my body, his other mom held him, and I missed him so much I felt torn in a thousand directions. I couldn’t move, I was fighting not to vomit, I was dreaming of a day when all of this might be over, and they were sewing up my incision. At once point, the drugs failed, and I felt the needle pushing into my skin. They gave me more drugs, and it went away. My life had gone from the constant awareness of early labor and my planned home birth, to the weird disconnect of trying not to notice that someone is jabbing a needle into your abdomen repeatedly. I remember exactly what it felt like. My stomach clenches when I think of it.

I’m not over it.

A week later, the edge of that incision would look funny, and then it would ooze. At the hospital, when I tried to describe it, the midwife tried to tell me that there was no way it could be infected. But when she looked at it, I could tell by her face. I was right. She asked what kind of pain medication I was on, and how recently I had taken it.

“Ok.” she said, and she looked right at me. “We are going to give you morphine, and then we are going to shoot your stomach with lidocaine. But you are still going to feel what we are going to have to do to you, and I am so sorry.”

She was right.

I’m not over it.

I’m shaking now. I’m shaking because the trauma of the last year has been endless and heartbreaking and tragic. There have been amazing moments of beauty and wonder, and I have tried to focus on them, but there has always been so much trauma. More trauma than I had ever imagined I could survive. More trauma than one body and one brain could process within a calendar year.

Only now, now that I’m not a new mom anymore, I am supposed to be over it. I was supposed to move on. I was supposed to take a deep breath and get my shit together. It’s all about him now. His little life is opening and up and changing with the wonder of discovery. That’s great. That’s amazing. Only, the thing is, I’m still here. And I’m still hurting.

Trauma doesn’t just go away. It does not expire and lose its potency. You cannot wash the memory from your body. If you go through what I’ve gone through — if you suffer through a week of labor until you literally beg for death, and then you feel the needle sewing you, and then no one will give you your drugs because “opiates are dangerous” and your uterus burns like death for two days straight, and then the incision weeps and comes open, and then they cut you with scissors, and then your partner has to repack the wound with gaze twice a day and it is actual hell, and then you start having gallbladder attacks that are worse than labor, and then you suffer medical neglect, and then you have surgery, and then you can barely lift the baby, and then you become homeless, and then the baby stops sleeping, and then someone you love assaults you, and then you find yourself living underneath domestic violence and wondering “will my upstairs neighbor kill his girlfriend today?” — if you live through all of that, and find yourself on the other side of with a healthy kid and a life worth living, you are allowed to not be over it. You are allowed to still be in shock.

How long is it allowed? A year? Two years? I don’t know.

What I know is that some days are easier than others. Some days I can say “my son was born” and that gives me the distance I need to not go back to that place. And some days… like today, I just can’t do that.

In the front yard, one of the neighbor kids says “It feels like I was five just five days ago, but now I’m going to be eight soon!”

I feel like that kid. I feel like that. I feel like all of this just happened, and I’m just barely starting to catch my breath. Only to everyone else, so much time has passed, to everyone else, it seems like maybe I should just be over it.

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The Proselytizers

Sit down, let me tell you a story.

When I was in the fourth grade, two Jehovah’s Witnesses knocked on the front door of the house my parents had recently bought. This, in and of itself, isn’t at all remarkable. It’s well known that Jehovah’s Witnesses are a branch of Christianity that believes in proselytization (or, as they call it, “witnessing,” hence the name) and they often do it door-to-door. As best as I can recall, it was a middle-aged woman, and a younger woman, both wearing long skirts and vaguely “dressy” attire. This would have been 1994, I think, so please, adjust your mental image accordingly.

It was not odd that they knocked on the door. What was maybe a little odd was the way that my mother answered. And what happened afterwards.

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***

As far as I can tell, this is what happened. My mom grew up in a family that was officially catholic, but the whole family stopped going to church when she was four or five. She wasn’t super into churches, but was sort of vaguely Christian-ish. I won’t attempt to speak to her specific beliefs or lack thereof, because they aren’t mine. But she was, and is, a deeply good person, a person who feels for others, and a person who believes in kindness. And she had heard, like most Americans have, stories about how awful and “weird” and “crazy” Jehovah’s Witnesses were. She’d heard rumors. She’d heard they weren’t real Christians. She’d heard they were a cult. She’d heard they wouldn’t let you celebrate Christmas. But it wasn’t in her nature to believe rumors. So when two showed up on her doorstep, rather than being annoyed, she thought “now here’s an opportunity to find out what’s really going on, straight from the horse’s mouth!”

When they said that they wanted to talk about the Bible, she invited them in, and they sat at our dining room table with glasses of water.

I was nine years old, and I was fascinated.

I had always been deeply interested in religion, but nobody in my life wanted to talk to me about it much. My family didn’t go to church, not even on holidays, and my one close friend who’s family was religious just saw it as something your parents made you do, and was utterly perplexed by my desire to learn more about it. But suddenly, there I was. There were two people in my house who wanted to talk about god. And, they were wearing long skirts.

I’m not exactly sure what happened first, my memory is fuzzy, but before long my mother and I both had a weekly bible study set up. The middle aged woman would come, and she would sit at the dining room with my mother, and they would thumb through the bible and various other books. The younger woman, sometimes alone and sometimes with a woman who was older than her but younger than the lady talking with my mom, would come and sit in the living room with me. My mother listened skeptically and asked lots of questions. I, on the other hand, ate up everything they had to say and asked for a larger spoon.

You see, no one had ever tried to explain that different people believed different things to me. I didn’t know that the world was full of a myriad of different religions, with different traditions, and different reasons for thinking the things that they thought. I only knew that some people went to church and some (like me) didn’t. I knew that some churches were different from each other, some had more or less singing, and some had more or less decorations, but that was really the end of any understanding of the variety of faith on my part.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses didn’t go to a church, they went to a Kingdom Hall. I was not allowed to go… yet.

I don’t remember their names, which bothers me, even though this was two decades ago. I also don’t remember how long our weekly bible studies lasted for. I only remember that I looked forward to them. I remember thumbing through my copy of Your Youth, Getting The Best Out Of It looking for answers. I remember nodding solemnly when they explained that obviously evolution was a big lie. I remember when they explained that it was true that they didn’t celebrate birthdays, because they found that celebrating an individual person with gifts on the day that they were born was dangerously close to worshipping them, if not a form of worship outright. I bit my lower lip. I loved my birthday (I still do) and I was obsessed with birthdays (I still am) and I couldn’t imagine the pain of losing it forever, but I also stoically accept that Jehovah God would help me, and one day I would be devout enough not to mind going without it.

Ironically, it was in their effort to teach me The Truth (what they earnestly believed was the whole and absolute truth) that they accidentally introduced me to the idea that different people believed different things just as earnestly, and hey, maybe we couldn’t say for sure which one was right?

To avoid confusion, for the purposes of this conversation, I will name the elder teacher “Linda” and the younger one “Becca.”

Every week, Becca and Linda, or oftentimes just Becca, would sit with me in my parent’s living room. The TV would be off for once. My sister would clear out. In the quiet, we would go through the books and talk about God, who — I had so recently learned — had a name, and that name was Jehovah. Each week, they would ask if there was a particular chapter I was interested in discussing in Your Youth, Getting The Best Out Of It, and each week I would desperately want to asked about the chapter titled “Masturbation and Homosexuality.” Only I was too embarrassed, I was terrified that if I admitted that I was interested in even finding out what was in that chapter, they would get the altogether wrong idea and think that I wanted to be a masturbating homosexual.

So on this one day, I asked instead about the chapter about Armageddon, because frankly, we were running out of other chapters.

And so Becca was explaining what was going to happen at the end (link has nothing to do with JWs, actually), and Linda was nodding with approval. As always, I accepted what Becca told me as fact, because I knew that she cared about me and was a good person and would never ever lie. And then, as I remember it, Becca must have veered slightly off corse. She was explaining how everyone would one day be resurrected, and then added that prior to purging the world of wicked people, Jesus and Jehovah God would allow everyone, even sinners, to live in peace for one thousand years.

(That is what I remember, but I’m not sure how reliable my memory is on that. I’m also not sure what the official doctrine is on the subject, and briefly combing through the Watchtower website hasn’t yielded an answer for me.)

Linda pursed her lips “that is not,” she said, “actually what we believe.”

“Well, I’ve read the bible and it’s what I believe.” Becca half smiled, but things were definitely tense. Linda shook her head.

I was on the couch, more interested in this conversation than I had expected when I randomly picked the topic. Here were these people who I thought could teach me objective truth, and yet they disagreed. “How do I know which one is true?” I remember asking.

Linda, still looking annoyed, said that even people of the same religion sometimes disagreed on certain details, and that we’d see which was right soon enough. She didn’t know how much she had just rocked my world.

***

Within a couple of weeks, they stopped coming to talk to me. Word was that they were asked not to, because my newfound faith was making me “weird” and even “creepy.” I was certain this was exactly the kind of oppression foretold for true believers, I cried, and I kept all of their books. Within a few months though, I stopped looking at them, I felt frankly relieved that I would still be able to celebrate my birthday, and I moved on. I would go through various religious stages as I grew up, but I never called god “Jehovah” again.

But I didn’t forget their kindness.

***

The internet meant that you didn’t have to wait for a religious person to come to your door to get information about faith. It also meant that I could read about various religions from various cultures, and weigh them against each other. I stayed up all night at the age of fifteen comparing religions, I was specifically looking for one that did not condemn homosexuals. I was also specifically looking for one that didn’t proselytize. I settled on Wicca. Later, I would take money that I received for my birthday to the bookstore at the mall, and with a deep breath plunge into the “New Age and Occult” section (terrified that someone would see me) and purchase a copy of Scott Cunningham’s Wicca, A Guide For The Solitary Practitioner.

Just like that, I was a witch.

Christian kids at my suburban High School always had questions for me. I was excited to dispel rumors and to debate our different world views, for the most part. In some ways, growing up had changed me almost beyond recognition, but in others it hadn’t at all. I still, deep down, just really wanted to talk about religion. I found it fascinating and delightful, all of it, and even beliefs that I couldn’t share delighted me when I saw that they brought others happiness.

And I started to hear those rumors that my mother had heard about Jehovah’s Witnesses, that they were a cult, that they were “crazy,” that they were not Christians, that they were dangerous. A Baptist friend insisted that Jehovah’s Witnesses definitely did not read the bible. I was amazed at the amount of misinformation, honestly. And I always defended them. No, I said, they were not a cult, they were certainly Christians because they believed in Jesus, they were just a smaller denomination that fell a little further outside the mainstream. They were certainly homophobic, but no more than many other Christian denominations.

This is getting long.

***

I used to get drunk and read that chapter, “Masturbation and Homosexuality,” at parties. I did it to try to make it funny. I did it to try to make it ridiculous. I did it to try to heal the pain of being thirteen, sneaking down to the basement where the old books were kept, and re-reading that chapter in the dark, wondering if I had ruined myself forever.

I did it because I wanted to believe that Becca and Linda were good and had my best interests at heart, but I also wanted to believe that they were wrong in such an over the top, ridiculous sort of way, that no one would ever take them seriously. I did it because I wanted to make my heart stop hurting for people like Becca and Linda, I wanted to stop wishing that I could, like my mother, welcome them into my home and offer them a tall glass of water.

My mother was straight. I tried my best to be straight. When that failed, I tried my best to be bisexual. When I met my very last boyfriend, I knew I was gay, and so I clung to him like a life raft. When he broke up with me, I knew the illusion was over, and so I wrote my father a letter that said “I’m gay.”

***

Two days ago, I saw what I first mistook for a young, well-dressed, couple walking down my street. The woman was wearing a long-ish purple dress. The man was wearing a crisp purple dress shirt, and an absolutely phenomenal paisley tie that my wife would probably swoon over. They didn’t look like any of the neighbors that I’ve met so far (we’ve been in this house a little under a month). Then it hit me, I knew exactly who they were, they were not a couple at all.

They were both carrying several thin books, and the man was carrying a bible.

I was on the couch in the living room. The baby wasn’t feeling well, and he was breastfeeding and just starting to doze off. His little eyes were closed. My child, my perfect miracle child, my child with two mothers and a sperm donor we refer to as his fairy godmother. His eyes were closed, and then they knocked on the door, and his eyes opened.

Shit.

Before I was married, I used to just lie. When they came with their copies of Watchtower magazine, I would look into their earnest smiling faces, I would think about the courage that it took to walk down the street knowing doors would be slammed in their faces, I would think about how their faith must comfort them and how deeply they must believe in it. And I would lie to them. I would smile, and when they held up the publication, I would say “you know what I actually already have one!” and they would look so surprised and delighted. Like, here they were, doing the really miserable work of proselytizing, but I could make them delighted for just a moment. Sometimes they would look confused for a second, but then I would beam warmly at them, and they would beam warmly at me, and they would say “oh wonderful! well you have a great day, ma’am!” and I would say “you have a great day too, and good luck out there.”

I can’t do it anymore.

***

This isn’t really about Jehovah’s Witnesses. I mean, they are the people I have the most experience with in this one format, and because of that I feel a deep confusion and compassion for them, but this isn’t about their specific faith and it’s specific rules and tenants. This is about the fact that there are people who believe so strongly that they are right that they see it as their duty to tell you that you are wrong. They are not doing it to be mean, they are doing it to help. Their motives are good, and that’s part of why it’s so difficult to deal with the inherent rudeness of their tactics. That’s part of why it’s so utterly heartbreaking to come up against their hatred.

I won’t link to it, but Watchtower Publications recently released a video for the purposes of teaching children about families like mine. In it, a young girl learns that it is her duty to inform a friend with gay parents that her family is wrong, a lie, bad in the sight of god. They are literally telling children that kids like my kid, my kid, ought to hear from their friends that their parents are bad. It fills me with a rage and a sadness that feels so opposite, so separate, from the compassion I feel for the smiling people who come up onto my porch with their books and their good intentions.

Yet, both exist at the same time.

***

I didn’t want to go to the door, but they could see me through the open living room windows. They would knock again, and the baby would start to cry. My wife wasn’t home. I snuggled him up to me and pulled my shirt down over my boobs and went to the door.

I couldn’t lie, I couldn’t lie with my child in my arms, but I was also too tired to tell the truth. So I settled on saying as little as possible.

“Hi,” I said, fighting the urge to apologize, “my baby is sick and I’m trying to get him down for a nap.”

They looked at the baby, really more of a toddler now, snuggling his face into my shoulder, with tenderness. “Oh, we completely understand!” the young man said, for all the world as if he was giving me permission. There was a pause, they were trying to figure out if they should say anything else, if they should offer to leave literature, to come back on a different day.

“Have a nice day.” I said flatly, and I closed the door in their face.

***

I wish I had said more. And then again, I don’t. I’m sure they will be back. If not them, then others like them. They will come, smiling, with literature that tells that one day the world will be pure and virtuous and people like me won’t be allowed.

I wonder what I will say to them then.

Did You Buy A House? Wherein I Actually Kind Of Talk About Detroit

I just moved (again) and I’ve been thinking a lot about place.

I don’t write about where I live, generally speaking. This is not an accident. It isn’t because it slipped my mind or because the place I live doesn’t interest me. It’s a very conscious decision, and it’s one I keep making again and again. A few months back, I was soliciting blog topics from friends and readers, and one of the questions that kept coming up was “why do you live in Detroit?” I politely (I hope it was polite) declined to answer.

“I don’t write about Detroit.” I said. And it’s the truth. I mostly don’t write about Detroit. I don’t write about Detroit, frankly, because I’m a young-ish white person. And there are scores of young-ish white people writing about Detroit, about why they live here, what they love about the city, how they want to help the city, so much so that they are monopolizing the conversation. In a city that is majority black, where residents (particularly black residents, long term residents, and low income residents, and those who fall in all three categories) face some pretty serious hardships, the conversation has been monopolized by young-ish white folk who mostly want to talk about how rosy it is.

White privilege exists.

I don’t want to be a part of that. I don’t think my perspective on Detroit is particularly interesting, particularly unique, or particularly worthy of being heard. I moved to this city eight years ago (to get away from an abusive ex) and I stayed (because I liked it here and I made friends) and that puts me in the category of scores and scores of first wave gentrifiers who’s opinions on what the city is or should be are not particularly relevant. Being a white, relatively recent, transplant to the city, does not give me a particularly important or interesting perspective on what’s going on here. You want to read about Detroit? Seek out the voices of people who have been here for awhile, not people like me.

But today, I am slightly breaking (or maybe just bending) my rule about writing about Detroit, to talk about a classist and racist assumption that I have recently been noticing and trying to wrap my head around.

***

I grew up in a working class family, and when I was little, we moved around quite a bit. When I was in the fourth grade, my parents were finally able to achieve their dream of home ownership, and they haven’t moved since then. About a week before my eighteenth birthday, I moved out of my parents home, and since then, I haven’t really stopped moving. Since that first move, I have moved twelve times in my adult life, and the longest I’ve stayed in once residence was just over two years. The reasons for the moves have been varied — the collective is splitting up, I’m moving in with my partner, I can’t afford the rent anymore, I hate living with roommates, I hate my racist landlord, this apartment is too small for my cats, I need to get away from my abuser — and to my mind I’ve rarely moved just for the sake of moving, but there’s no denying I’ve been transient. This last move is my third since the birth of my child, and my wife and I are so sick of moving around that we’ve affectionately joked “this is the rental we’re going to die in, they’ll have to bury us in the backyard.”

All of this moving around feels pretty reminiscent, to be honest, of the moving around I did with my family as a child. Again, lots of different reasons — the owners were only renting this house until they could sell it, my dad’s job was transferred, we need to be closer to family, this house was never big enough for a family of four, we hate this house so much we’ve all been calling it “the ucky house” all four months we’ve lived here — and the transience was created, to some degree, by being renters.

But back to the present! This most recent move, we were actually excited about. We like the house and neighborhood we are living in, and we want to be here. It feels like a good fit for us, as opposed to just a “well, we’ve gotta live somewhere” situation. And as we’ve talked to people, informing them of our change in residence, there has been one response we’ve gotten over and over again. So much so, that it has started to wear on me.

“Oh cool! Did you guys buy a house over there?”

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***

I’m not qualified to give you a real lesson on Detroit real estate, I haven’t been here long enough and I haven’t studied in thoroughly enough. But I can tell you that in Detroit, a lot of families have lost their homes due to foreclosure in recent memory. Detroit is a big spread out kind of city, and there are empty homes here. As newcomers, especially white middle class people, have come to the city, they have often seen it as a place where home ownership was more readily accessible to them. I have known young professionals who’ve bought huge mansions in Detroit and fixed them up, because in the suburbs they’d only be able to afford a fairly modest home, and working folks who bought houses on the cheap at auction (from the city) that probably wouldn’t have been able to achieve that American Dream of home ownership without that opportunity.

Again, I don’t know enough about all of this to give you a good run down on all the ins and outs here. Detroit is, like all places, a complicated place. What I do know, though, is that one of those realities (newcomers, who are mostly white, being able to buy homes for relatively cheap) is directly related to and often dependent on the other reality (long time residents, who are mostly black, losing their homes due to foreclosure). And the new residents who are cashing in on this are often very resistant to acknowledging any connection.

***

My wife and I are white, and we live in a predominantly black city. As such, we carry a lot of white privilege. Sometimes we fight against it, but other times (like when you know you’re being more seriously considered for a job because of your race, but like, if you don’t get the job you’re going to end up homeless) we can’t really afford to. Though we have lived near or below the poverty line for years now, we are often assumed to be middle class because of our race. It is assumed that we both have college degrees (we do not) or are currently in school (we are not). If people are aware of our financial situation, it is assumed to be temporary.

In essence, white privilege gives us the benefit of the doubt. In a culture where the poor are vilified, being assumed to have more than you do is a kind of power. People who come from upper middle class backgrounds, people who are afraid to take the bus in Detroit because of poor black people, people who assume that homelessness is the result of laziness, those people often treat us as their peers. Their actions and words seem to say, “oh, but you’re not like those poor people.”

And as we move through the city, a white couple with our white son, we benefit immensely in ways that our neighbors of color do not. Yes, sure, we definitely face homophobia from time to time, but our whiteness acts as an incredible shield to many of the harsher realities of life in the city. It is not fair, and it is not ok.

That is how people can look at us, people can know that we were, only six months ago, technically homeless and crashing with friends, and assume that we’re now home owners. It feels like a weird moment of cognitive dissonance, it feels like the odd place where race and class intersect, and along with the politics of place, this is what we get. “Did you guys buy a house?”

***

I was briefly chatting with a friend about the very concept of long term renting. To a lot of people, in a lot of communities, it’s normal, but to others it is a foreign concept. Long term renting is, in essence, contrary to the American Dream. The American Dream says that we can own the land, with a deed from the government in our hand that says so, and that ownership will give us the control and stability that we crave. We might not have much, but with home ownership, we can all be some kind of upwardly mobile. There’s some truth to it. I knew a family that, a few years back, suffered major financial hardship. But their house was already paid off, and because of that they were able to weather a storm that would have destroyed them otherwise.

But aside from the practical, it’s about the ideological. America is built, largely, on the backs of white homesteaders who stole native lands. Private ownership is one of the cornerstones of American culture. It’s how we manage to pretend we are self sufficient. It’s one of the reasons capitalism, and my own personal boogeyman the nuclear family, took hold so completely here. To many, the idea of paying a fee to live in a building that someone else owns is insulting.

***

But I cannot, at least in the foreseeable future, buy a home. I don’t have the credit required for a mortgage. I don’t have the cash to buy a home outright or frankly, even for a downpayment. And I don’t have the skills, time, or energy, to fix up a fixer-upper. My family hovers around the poverty line, my wife has serious back issues that prevent her from doing a lot of manual labor, we both work, and we have a one year old. For us, the dream is just a decent place to live, that we can afford, where we can feel good about raising our child. Our last rental was not that, our new one is. We’re extremely happy with that, which is not something that I think a lot of middle class people can wrap their heads around.

When we were discussing renting this house with the wonderful people who own it, we mentioned being sick of moving around. We mentioned wanting to live in a neighborhood we could maybe put down roots in. We mentioned wanting some stability for our kid. One of the questions they asked us, kind of in response to that, was whether or not we would be happy in a rental, or would be looking to buy as soon as possible, as part of that “putting down roots” idea. It was difficult not to laugh.

***

“Did you guys buy a house over there?” acquaintances ask me excitedly when I tell them which neighborhood we’ve moved to. When I say no, we’re renting, I catch a brief moment of confusion cross their faces. Their excitement evaporates, and instead of congratulating us on this next chapter of our lives, they say “Oh… ok.”