This story is about the impact of early childhood trauma in times of stress, years after the fact. You know I won’t be offended if you need to take care of yourself, and can’t read it right now.
My anxiety has been through the roof. I certainly have some valid reasons for stress. My organization is going through change (which is good but I hate change... you should hear me when they rearrange the shelves in my grocery store), I'm disabled every day, I've had to process a lot of information in a fairly short amount of time, I’ve been reconnecting to my extended family & tribe, finances are always a challenge, I haven't had any good introvert time in a while. These are all very valid reasons to feel some stress. But the feeling that's keeping me awake this week doesn't feel like my normal anxiety.
When I experience a new physical symptom, my doctor likes to tell me that “you don’t need another thing wrong with you to explain this symptom; there’s enough wrong with you and we don’t always have to look further.” What she means is, don’t get on WebMD in the middle of the night and determine that it must be cancer because your body is being weird. So as I explored this fear, I began with what I already knew to be true.
But this stress has been much worse than is common for me, and as I thought about this I began to wonder if this wasn't anxiety at all. When I'm anxious it's like I'm my usual self in a heightened state. My anxiety affects all my emotions. It’s as if my interior state has been transposed into another key on a long-neglected piano.
But this feeling isn't like that at all. This feeling is fear. Wholesale, straight from the source, pure terror, served neat.
I took some time last night to meditate. My brain is a funny thing. The aspects of me that led me to disassociate regularly have largely healed. Which is good, but it also means that as my brain doesn't do that all the time anymore, so when it does I don't have the same coping skills in play that I used to.
Meditation helps me sift through what I think my brain is doing, what I wish my brain was doing, and what my brain is actually doing. After meditating, I realized that I knew why I was so afraid all along. It's not a new fear; it has shadowed my entire life. It's not a new ghost.
You see, when I was very young, my family was held hostage in the back room of my father's church. And for a long time, I believed that even though they let us go, they could find me later on no matter where I went.
I’ve known these ghosts for much of my life.
A year or so after this happened, we moved out of state. Shortly after moving, my father went through a psychotic break and a pre-existing mental health condition went into overdrive. And we moved, and moved, and moved again. We had few friends…certainly none like we had back home, where we could show up without warning for an unplanned Sunday meal and wile away the whole day without being an imposition. But eventually, I did find some help, and began unpacking the various traumas that grew me.
But I couldn't talk about that back room where we were held. I could talk frankly with friends, therapists, counselors, and leaders about most everything, even things that most people would never talk about... but not this. My jaw locked up and my mind shut down every time I tried to speak of it. Eventually, I did manage to tell my husband in one night of gasping hyperventilation. Later still I told my mother, who didn't know that I remembered.
(Her face when I told her that not only did I recall what happened, but that it shaped my whole life...)
Years after speaking to my family, I wrote a piece for a poetry show about the event. I wrote it down because it’s hard for me to tell. I didn’t want to keep figuring out how to say it. "Ghosts in the Night" is written in the voice of my child-self, and has only been performed that once, though it is in the book I’ve been working on.
I hope you’ll forgive me when I say that I’m still not ready to tell this one in prose.
I didn’t know their names. I only knew their
vests and jeans and belts and the dark
shiny thing sitting all pressed up to
one of them’s side, like me
against my mama
when the night
They told my daddy that if I was still and
quiet, everything would be fine, and
we could all go home, and no one
would be taken outside to be
shot like a dog.
They said I wouldn’t remember, but I do,
so I must have done something
Their specters followed me, you see, every which
place we drifted to and landed in. They were
the ghosts in the night, the monsters
under my bed, the reason
I wouldn’t open my
closet in the
It was some years before I realized that they
couldn’t follow me no more, not them
ghosts, they hadn’t the right. But I
still feel what it meant to be small
and stupid and young and all
held up in my father’s arms,
afraid, and so
still. As quiet as
I could be...
...Two people left—just you and me.
Perhaps I am the ghost...
Excerpts from the poem “Ghosts in the Night” from Instead of Dying, I Wrote this Book, copyright © Audra Almond-Harvey, 2017.
This poem is about many things. It is about the fear I felt that day. It’s also about the years of guilt I carried (which my grandmother reinforced) about the fact that in mere measures of hues of skin, I was nearer in countenance to these ghosts than I was to my father. It’s probably even connected to the generational traumas I’ve written about before—I hail from centuries of hiding.
I don’t feel the fear all the time. In fact, I often go years without it.
But it still comes up. They’re going to find me and hurt the people I love and nothing I do can protect anyone is a specter who visits occasionally. And then the fear feels just like it did that day, deep in my throat, and I can't make myself small enough to escape it.
I’ve realized the trigger: it arises when I feel people are depending on me. As soon as the thought if I can't do this thing that is in front of me perfectly, I will let people down slides even partially into my thoughts, the fear is triggered. And then it’s transformed into my presence and my voice destroys people, even when the worst doesn't happen.
The traumas that occur when we are very young often become part of the fabric of our brains. It’s not just the memory of that one scary thing. It becomes a part of our identity all the way down to the bedrock. I’ve made countless choices in response to that memory. The fear born then has delved so far into my psyche that I have ran from it in some form or fashion for over three decades.
And so, it came up again this week. Just like clockwork, as soon as my brain realized the import of what I’m working on, it wanted to remind me that it’s possible that this time, the worst might happen. I couldn't stomach another day of silence about it. Even though I still have a lot to get done and have spent two hours writing this. I'm done keeping this story in the dark.
I have found that confession is truly good for my soul. Every evil I struggle with is anchored in this sense that if I fail to be perfect something in the universe will collapse, but also that I will never know how to be perfect. As soon as I choose to speak, to not worry about behaving, the power of the thing I feared slowly dissipates until only a mild scent remains. I never forget, but the fear no longer rules me. I can exorcise the darkness haunting myself and my surroundings simply by telling the truth.
And then my silence is merely mediation and simplicity, not proof of past trauma. It’s a silence free of ghosts.
I am lucky to have a chosen family who does not need me to take myself so seriously in order for my stories to be worth the oxygen and time spent in telling them. They have provided me many weapons of humor and grace and humility. They’ve helped me connect to the me that might have been when I was young—a silly, brooding, quiet, loud, creative, destructive, playful, contemplative person. I'll never forget the sense of relief I had when I realized that nothing I had been through had stolen my laughter, or my wit. When I laugh, I define the true size of the events that shaped me, and how they will affect me tomorrow.
And so, I speak to the ghosts, in yet another broken cadence… to the ghosts that have followed me everywhere, through every sizable transition, uncertainty, feeling of impending doom, free-floating anxiety, overarching sense of failure, and every single success… even though dread is lodged in my throat as I type this, I was born defiant... and despite the lack of specificity that double-negatives can add to a sentence, I only have this to say to what spooks me:
I ain’t afraid of no ghosts.
NOW THAT, is what I’m talkin’ bout!