What we do not see

In the moments of waking up, when I slipped between dreaming and wakefulness, I opened my eyes into a rush of shame, or its equivalent.

In this dream, my husband on the bed beside me looked into my face.  Blood pulsed through my veins, with a sudden acceleration of heartbeat. I crawled into a foetal ball characteristic of one who wants to escape, then jammed my eyes shut again. 

 ‘Bessel Van der Kolk reckons this happens when we’re caught off guard,’ my husband said in the dream, as if he was an expert in such things. In waking life he has not read Bessel Van der Kolk, but I gave these words to him in my dream where he went onto say, ‘When a traumatised person finds themselves unexpectedly in the spotlight, they go into a shock reaction of panic and withdrawal.’ 

In between the agitation in my bones and trying to self soothe I found comfort in these words, as if a theoretical understanding of what had just happened could bring me back to the world of the living.

And all of this in less than two minutes.

Dreams are like this. They can stretch time or condense it. They can leave you with a sense you’ve been gone for hours, or with a sense that the entire night has passed in a heartbeat.

I prefer the latter, the entire night gone fast. It suggests I must have slept well and all night long, which these days is rare. I prefer the longer journey. The stretching of time that offers more opportunity for travel and exploration.

The point is not what we see but what we do not see. 

In my younger days I travelled in the slip stream of others. I imagined anything I did or said was only good if it could be reinforced by another’s approval. I would not send out a single letter to another person without my husband vetting every word, and even as I disliked the way he changed my words into a formal and legalistic structure, I hid behind his words, as if his edits guaranteed correctness, whereas my clumsy efforts could only get me into trouble.

The irony is that his excess efforts and legal language, which were okay in the world of his career as a lawyer, were not so helpful in the world of psychotherapy.

Not that it brought me down too far. 

When did I slide out of that slip stream and take my place in my own space without hovering behind another?

The body keeps the score. I sensed it in my dreams this morning in the tensing of my tendons and the racing of my heart. But now my mind is awash with clutter. I cannot get beyond the torment of a soul lost in life’s irritations. And a wish to get back into a story. Any story. The story of shame that got me to this point. 

The story of the day I first felt shame, bent over my father’s knee as he belted my backside because I had stolen lollies from the shop. I was a child of five or six. A child who knew the difference between right and wrong, a child who, even so, could not resist the allure of the shop that ran parallel to my bedroom in a place called Sunspot where we lived for one full year while my parents ventured into a business that began and failed in another heartbeat. 

My mother tended the shop alongside the care of her eight children, most of whom were away at school by day while my father travelled the hour plus into the city for his day job as an accountant.

They were migrants trying to make good, the two families, my parents and my auntie Barbara and uncle Gerard back from Indonesia and before then the Belgian Congo those once-colonial outposts of the Dutch.

My uncle had managed rubber plantations in both places where he met and married his 18-year-old bride, my aunt who must then have been in her mid-twenties with three small children in her care.

She and my mother surrounded by children tried to run a shop that few visited. By then, the late 1950s, the tourist trade to the outskirts of country Victoria and places like Healesville had dried up. My uncle took care of the residential cottages on top of a nearby hill where again few, if any, visitors came. They made no money and the business failed.

During this time two little girls stole into the milk bar while the family were at Mass on a Sunday morning and filled their pockets with lollies. When they heard the crunch of car tyre on the gravel outside the girls threw the leftovers they had not managed to eat out the window where one of the brothers later found them. He dobbed his sisters in. 

The shame of my father’s anger in front of my brothers and sisters, and of our eviction to the bedroom for hours until our mother released us at dinner time, stays with me.

A precursor to any other wrongs I have committed, a residue of what happens when those in charge decide to redden your backside and crush you with the indignity of the subhuman.

It’s not what we see, it’s what we don’t see. The rage that percolates below the surface of shame that causes us to hide. The rage that surfaces again and again whenever anyone is humiliated. And all for the sake of a few stolen lollies.

Shape shifter

‘You’re going to write, are you?’ My husband asked one morning in response to my usual weekend announcement that I was off to write. 

‘Not going to set things right?’ 

‘No, just w-r-i-t-e,’ I said, spelling out the word, and the joke flew overhead like so many bad Dad jokes, these days. 

I prefer not to engage with people for long before I set out to write. It clutters my head. I prefer some space to mingle with my dreams. Like the last one I had before I woke, to the sound of the dog’s loud yawn in readiness for getting up. 

On a tree in our back garden, I noticed a brown caterpillar that changed shape to camouflage itself along the tree bark and twigs. First thin and elongated, then lumpy and wide with ridges that curved in movement. 

The bug began small but as I watched it blew out to ten times its size, to basketball size, twisting and turning. And then it morphed into the man’s pullover, a grey knitted thing that held the torn threads and holes of age. 

The bug became a man who spoke to me. His words a blur in my memory now, but I told him I was not sure I could trust him. 

‘You’re a shape shifter,’ I said. And he argued the point about trust

A shape shifter is one who changes their outward appearance from one form to another. 

It’s on my mind, this thing about changing shape, like changing my mind. The thoughts I once held firmly morphing into some other conviction. 

It bothers me. Am I so fickle, so irresolute, I cannot trust myself to be the reliable one I aim for? 

Is it possible to watch something and not see it at all? To stand inches away from an event and still not observe the intricate movements of what falls before your eyes? 

The essence of dissociation, the process of cutting off from your experience. When people dissociate, they observe closely but from afar and they observe with the microscopic vision that renders a small object like an ant’s head unrecognisable, that registers the movements of a sexual abuser who comes down on you, who puts hands where they should not put them from the distance of another galaxy. As if this is happening to some other body and not yours. 

Everything in close and yet everything far away. So that the person who sees and does not see, need not feel the invasion of their body, while the active one engaged in the process is also caught in some manic abusive thing, they likewise cannot see. They are caught in their desires to rid themselves of the pressures of a moment. 

Whether they too have been abused. Whether they cannot bear their own subjugation and humiliated state and must therefore impose their desires and hurt onto another person, one who is smaller, younger, or more vulnerable than them. Or whether they cannot control their lust. 

I don’t know the answer to any of these questions about what drives one person to invade another’s space, but I imagine it has something to do with a confusion of boundaries, a confusion of feelings, a wish to be rid of pain they cannot contain.

Much like a baby lets out the most heart wrenching howls when left unfed. But a baby is tiny and can do no harm. A full-grown person can do untold damage, especially to the child they invade who cannot understand the assault and takes all blame upon themselves

My head is cluttered, but the sun is shining. I have no writing project on the boil, which leaves me free to wander, but the aimlessness of wandering is uncomfortable.

I prefer a few signposts ahead. A hint in the direction of some new ideas that might emerge if I’m following even the lightest of leads. 

But no such leads are visible for me at present. I look to the prompts I have plastered on fluoro coloured post-it notes at the back of my computer, as to where I might go next. 

Ideas I jotted down in the days beforehand, ideas that were once shining bright but now when I look, they flare up a flash of what once triggered them, but then fizzle. I am not in the state of mind when the idea first shone brightest. 

I am a shape shifter, reliant on the mood in which I find myself from one moment to the next. A mind that can change like the weather. A bright sun filled day can cloud over in a heartbeat. Those wispy clouds can soon load with the deep grey of impending rain. The gentle breeze morph into a raging gale and all of it dependent on what happens outside of me. The words I hear from others and the way they invade my inner space, already crowded by life’s events. Some of which will not leave me. 

The shape shifter, the one who lacks the beauty of the one who is gazed upon, who can then gaze out, like the insect in the tree, the one I met in my dream this morning who moved from a creature with no vertebra able to twist and bend into a person, a man no less, who could use his words to tempt me to trust. 

But I am still wary.