As my first marriage crumbled (many years ago), I became deeply depressed. Also at this same time, I started having my first memories of sexual abuse, some of them clear, some of them fuzzy (and which I have only recently decided to believe). Sometimes looking back helps me see how far I have come but also to identify patterns that have continued on even after I left the marriage. I used to keep detailed journals and have only this year started to re-read them. This is from a day right before our family was supposed to take off on a road trip to visit some of my family.
Friday, June 9, back in the last century
In the car this morning, driving into town, Miguel and I got pretty irritated with each other. It was an odd exchange. I’m wearing shorts, and he reached over and kind of patted and slapped my thing. “Don’t do that,” I said. “It reminds me of my father.”
“So? Was your father a molester or something? What’s the problem?”
“No, it just bugs me. It’s so patronizing.”
That word “patronizing” evidently set him off, because it kept coming up over and over for the rest of the drive. He said I was wrong to call it patronizing. When I tried to explain that if I felt patronized, it didn’t necessarily mean he was intentionally trying to patronize me, he became furious. He told me that some feelings are just wrong, and there’s such a thing as paranoia.
Running parallel to this argument was another about Alejandro. As we turned onto the highway, Miguel removed the Raffi tape that the kids were listening to, took it out of the tape player. “Enough of this garbage! Let’s play [a Spanish-language story tape].”
“No!” cried Alejandro, tearfully, fearfully.
“Yes!” insisted Miguel.
“No, I don’t like that one,” Alejandro continued to protest.
“Are you afraid of the monster?” I started to ask him.
“Stop that! You’re five years old, Sandro. You need to start acting like it,” Miguel told him severely.
So this turned into an annoyed debate about how to respond to fears Sandro has. I said it’s a development thing. There’s still a fine line between reality and fantasy for children at this age. We should pay attention to making him feel safe and secure, provide reassurance. Miguel said that it was Sandro’s personality to have unfounded fears, and we should treat him as people afraid of heights are treated—by exposing him to the things he’s afraid of. Nobody ever died of being afraid. So we kept going back and forth, all a variation on the theme of whether or not people have a right to their own feelings. I guess it was good because it solidified my conviction have I have a right to feelings which are not the same as his—not only feelings, but also interpretations and taste and desires.
Last night I was feeling very, very down again, nearly like the previous week. I was exhausted again and having cramps from my period. Miguel had just cut the grass, so my allergies were kind of bad too. These days even minor physical problems are enough to destabilize a very precarious emotional balance.
I was thinking again about dying. It seems restful. But I can’t go far with these thoughts without wondering What is the impact on children of their mother’s death? Can they still be ok? Is it a terrible abandonment for them?
In part, I think about dying because I can’t really see any better future. It’s very murky. Where will I be in a year? Where do I want to be? And how did I get so lost in my life?
I’m in a very bad space again this afternoon. It’s like this time last week, last Thursday. It’s sort of a panic, sort of a paralysis. I feel utterly overwhelmed. My skin is crawling, especially on my arms and hands. I’m not really attached to this earth. Instead, I’m freefalling through a black space. What’s going on here? Why do I feel like this? Is it the list of things I need to do for our upcoming “vacation” that I’m dreading so much? What is it?!? I’m tempted to call Hannah again—but I hate to bother her. I’m afraid she’ll get sick of me.
Okay, I just left a message for her to call me. I feel guilty and embarrassed but maybe she knows something to help me put a brake on this fall through space. Even as I write that, I know she can’t, not really. She can’t get inside my head. I shouldn’t have even called. Now what if she calls back when the kids are awake or, even worse, when Miguel gets home? I had been thinking of telling him that I started to go to therapy, until he had such a fit about my feelings being “paranoid.” He’s not going to be understanding about this. Is that why I’m falling apart, fear of his disapproval? But I was like this yesterday too, before that conversation. Why am I like this?!?
I talked to Hannah. It was mildly helpful and stabilizing—but only mildly. She thinks I’m in a sort of panic about making changes in my life. I want to, but it’s very scary and part of me is just in a terror. Things she recommended to me: zone out in the car if necessary, talk about more neutral things, don’t think everything is going to be solved now, if possible confide in a family member on the trip, give myself some time alone (for example, go on a walk) every day. If necessary, call a hotline or even go to the ER, if I think I’m losing it.
I keep asking her for magical solutions, and she makes wisecracks but I have to deal with this life in the real world in a real way. Which seems like too much for me.
Miguel just called. He was feeling stressed and panic-stricken himself about all the work he felt he had to finish before our trip. I found myself calming him down. I said, it’s okay, this is supposed to be a vacation. There’s no big rush. It’s for fun. We can get what we need on the way. I said all of this in a very calming voice. The funny thing is, it calmed me down more than talking to Hannah did. He’ll try to come home soon.
Miguel still isn’t home, and now I’m feeling frustrated. He insisted on the phone that “he had no choice,” but I know perfectly well that he just wanted to get this task done of individually notifying the students selected to be Peer Assistants next year. Next school year is not until September, and it’s early June. He said he couldn’t let them wait another ten days to find out. So now it’s the night before our trip, and nothing’s ready, and I had a hard evening with Andres, who was very hyper and lashing out at Alejandro and me (biting, hitting, kicking). I remained calm until about 8:00, when my tiredness and frustration with Miguel began to catch up to me. Then my voice got a certain edge to it.
What I don’t quite clearly understand is why, when I feel frustrated with Miguel, I especially hate myself.
So what do I learn from this old journal entry? That at this point, I still wasn’t aware of my father’s abuse, but I was reacting to things that reminded me of him.
It also tells me I chose much better the second time I got married. No comparison.
I read in these words that I could be resentful of something I knew wasn’t right, yet at the same time put a nice face on things and be supportive of Miguel when he was upset. I still kind of do that, not at home but at work. I feel my supervisor’s expectations are off-base and try to tell her, gently, and when she grows defensive , I back off and calm her down. I’m braver than I used to be, but I still prioritize making others comfortable.
The other thing this old journal makes me think about is my sons’ mental health. Although I divorced their dad (which in itself is a psychic wound for them) and (mostly) got away from his daily manipulation and cruel words, they have grown up spending alternate weekends and parts of summers with him. And I know he does some of this same stuff with them, manipulates them, insists they see things his way. Not all the time–I know they have fun sometimes too. But overall, it’s been hard on them, and I’d like to know how I can help them now as they move into adulthood carrying this inside them.