Chapter 1, Part 2
The Dark of My Youth
When I was about nine years old, I was sitting in my grandfather’s rocking chair, utterly comfortable watching tv. Slowly pushing my foot to keep it rocking, I zoned out to “Scooby Doo,” one of my favorite cartoons. It was a part of my daily, after school routine. I remember sitting there and all of a sudden, I felt and “saw” this dark mistiness zooming right towards me from outside the back of the house. I can’t explain this – it was simply a deep knowing.
Filled with dread, my heart pounding, I froze for a second before dashing to the door. Slamming that door shut, I ran into the sunshine of the yard in open view of the neighbor’s house where I immediately felt better, safer. Then, I went searching for my grandparents, not going back into the house until they were available to go with me. I never said anything, but I just knew with certainty that whatever that was was bad.
Also, during this time there was this dark, shadow man, who stood just outside of my bedroom door, leaning against the doorframe, looking in at me. I was terrified of him. I would lie there with my closet light on, watching this man, who stood looking back at me night after night. Petrified, I would eventually fall asleep from sheer exhaustion only to be woken the next morning by my mother calling for me to get up. Sometimes, I couldn’t move because I had literally cocooned myself in my blankets, my arms and legs trapped so tightly that they were completely immobilized. I would have to ask my mother to unroll me from my blankets so I could get out of bed. Often, both me and my blankets were soaked in sweat.
When I hit the teen years, I went through a period of night terrors, waking up screaming bloody murder. I scared my mother to death the first time.The terrors continued for a full year. Sometimes, my mother would come in and hold my sweaty body until the shaking stopped before going back to her own bed.
The night terrors prompted my first visit to a mental health professional. He was a psychiatrist, who apparently took the whole doctor thing uber seriously. He had one of those monk-like tonsures, a super thick mustache, and wore an actual white lab coat even though we were smack in the middle of an office park – no lab anywhere nearby. He sat in this armchair adjacent to the couch on which I sat hunched, holding a yellow legal pad, and staring at me with bored, watchful eyes. To me, a sixteen year-old girl, he was about as warm as nurse Ratched.
He asked questions, wrote stuff on his legal pad, and then proceeded to tell me I needed a sleep tape, which he gave me. It actually turned out to be a good one. The tape walked me through creating my own inner, peaceful place, which for me was Sunset Beach, an island off the coast of North Carolina, where my grandmother owned a vacation home. Whenever we visited there, it was peaceful because my parents were on their best behavior and more relaxed themselves.
At this time in my life, I would go a couple of days at a time with zero sleep while attending school. Most days I had a super hard time falling asleep. Often, I read late into the night, a habit I had developed as a child, shutting myself in my closet after shoving a towel beneath the bedroom door so the light wouldn’t be visible to my parents.
I sat in the corner, devouring books: the Little House on the Prairie series, Emily of New Moon series, every Beverly Cleary book I could get my hands on, as well as many, many others. I could read a 300 – 400 page book in about three hours. I would read as many as six books in a week, sometimes more. Books were the magical places of friends and adventures; the escape hatch. They were and are one of my greatest pleasures. No one hurt me in books. No one yelled or threatened. No one was disappointed in or shaming me. No one was putting me down. Books were my peace.
In my teen years I read 1,000 plus page books in a day, engulfing history, fantasy novels, biology books, and rereading favorites from my childhood.
As I grew into adulthood, my love of learning stayed with me. I adored biology, languages, classical literature, and nature. However, I didn’t get people at all. I was usually confused by them because they said one thing, but meant another. It was like a secret code to which I didn’t have the key. People accused me of being rude, of being a snob, of being abrasive or brash. The South was all about gentility, manners, and momma raising you right.
Apparently, my momma did not raise me right.
What I didn’t understand was that I was actually responding to peoples’ body language and fascial expressions, what they really meant, rather than their verbalized words, which was socially unacceptable. I simply didn’t know. So, things were pretty hard at times.
Plus, I had my own schtick: I didn’t know how to socialize with people. I viewed everyone through the trauma lens. I was also a massive introvert, a total nerd, a bookworm, and I couldn’t catch, hit, or kick a ball. Period. To put the cherry on top, I was a clarinet-playing, band geek. When your worth as a kid is how well you play sports, how pretty you are, and how pleasing you are – well, I was screwed.
I had acne at eight, was the tallest kid in school until sixth grade, had a massive overbite that put you in mind of the donkey from “Shrek,” and was the girl, who needed a bra in second grade and got her period at the end of third grade. Plus, my nose was my biggest feature, and I was so bow-legged you could drive a Mac truck through with room to spare.
Geek, grandma long-legs, nerd, dork, gnoosher nose, and potato nose were some of the insults kids flung at me. I was the girl with only one friend at a time, and I was the girl, who sat alone many times, wishing with all my heart to be like every other kid, who seemed to so easily make friends and always knew the right things to say at the right times; the kid from the Norman Rockwell paintings. Or just the kids at church, who seemed like they had loving homes.
Instead I was the girl, who got a run in her stockings right before church and had to go bare legged and was told, “You are disrespecting Jesus.” I was one of the girls this man at church liked to trap alone and press his body against and “accidentally” touch my breasts. I was the girl, who tried so hard never to be caught alone with him, but he invariably hunted me down and often caught me. One of the girls actually had the courage to tell the pastor what was going on years later. The pastor talked to him. Nothing happened.
When I was twelve the pastor gave a sermon on the sins of Eve and that was why women bled each month and why we had to bear the pain of childbirth. We were sin incarnate and must pay over and over again for leading man to be thrown from Heaven, for leading man into sin.
I learned in my college women’s literature class that those beliefs are a bunch of misogynistic bullshit. However, as a twelve-year old, I didn’t know about misogyny or that a minister could or even would say untruths. So, I took the pastor’s words to heart, believing that I was evil, that I should be ashamed, and that the reason men looked at me the way they did wasn’t their fault, but mine.
The final nail on the religious coffin was when I was sixteen. We had a new pastor come to our church, a woman. I adored her. Her husband was the pastor of our sister church. She and her husband had been married for years, and I assume neither remained virginal. However, when Pastor P. became pregnant, the men in the church began talking about how she couldn’t be a pastor because she had carnal knowledge and so wasn’t fit to be a pastor.
It became a hullabaloo, and she eventually left the church. So did I. The fact that all the previous male pastors had been married and also weren’t presumably virgins never entered the conversation. I guess the thought was that we women can’t be sexual and remain spiritually “pure” but men can.
Once I left church, I never went back. It felt wrong, rotten, about people, not God or Jesus. So, I rejected all of it with one exception. There is one shining memory that has served to keep me connected spiritually. I remember running to my room, I no longer remember why, falling to my knees in front of my bedroom closet, and praying as hard as I could to God for help. Every fiber of my being was focused on this prayer. As I knelt there, tears streaming down my face and my throat squeezed down tight, a beautiful, warm golden light descended and surrounded my entire body. Somehow, I just knew that things were going to be alright. That was God to me, not the Bible, not “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” not the scary God from the church pulpit, but that loving, golden light.