Old Haunt

We are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.

 Once, it was quite important to me to talk about myself as a woman tossed about and striving for calmer seas or even better, dry land. I suppose we all identify with that while we’re young. There is a sense that, this shouldn’t be happening to me, and this has only happened to me, and this is significant to me, and I must make sense of it. (Strange how the very young identify with nihilism while all the while making a great big fuss about themselves.) Once, it was important to study the piercing nature of my memory and the sinking heartsickness that came over me if I had too full a schedule, or the air was cold while the sun too bright, or there was coffee with a friend I didn’t much care for, an obligation to participate in a world that felt hostile, a beige shade pulled over the clear-eyed optimism my mother failed to stitch consistently into my being. There were countless attempts to not only make sense of this, but to root this out and rip this out. I think back sometimes to that young lady at twenty-four and twenty-six and twenty-eight, at the shallow philosophies I held so dear, thought so profound, at the bland sense of self shaped by a recovery-oriented culture, as if I were a blown apart soldier delivered at the doorstep to a fledging small town medical center, and shudder, almost have to audibly shout away the memory, and then I remember: that was the best sense I could make at the time, and I’ve carried myself further down the road from out of there, and though I am not at all there any longer, will not go back, and barely hold it in reverence, it does no good to snub her. I nod.

The shadowy edges of eighteen, perhaps could require a curl up with a blanket and sip coffee kind of tenderness. Who at such a fragile age can bear any kind of responsibility other than simply admitting, I didn’t know? How was I to know that 200mg of Zoloft would destroy my capacity to lift my head out of soups and cause me to seek to feel something through desperate searching soulless sex? Numbness became a feeling. I didn’t know that getting better could be found in higher places other than church basements and packs of Marlboros and too much coffee and a terribly dull part-time job. How could I know that, morally, as if I had imbued my parents mid-century cowboy consciousnesses into my skull, I was far too hard on myself and there were different ways to be reckless? I did not know the hand I was playing. I didn’t know how to play. I can do more than nod politely at her. When life is somewhat supposed to start at eighteen, and floors collapsed beneath me, and I was both too smart and too stupid to make sense of any of it, it all went inside, swirled with the sertraline and razor scars and out of body pain that even my melancholic friends shrunk away from. How could I think that self-destruction was meaningful since it was wrapped in the romanticized ideal of recovering from addiction? I didn’t know. I can embrace her, but I can’t for very long. Her, at eighteen was so internal, so vacuumed into darkness like an almost-out candle; and besides I spent a decade with my hand held tight to hers, believing that could break the spell and it would all no longer hurt, but it does in fact still hurt if the very act of going to her, and sometimes we have to leave people behind. Mostly, we have to leave people behind. Maybe always we do. You ask the ghost to leave for good, and expect only the occasional visit.

 And isn’t that the point. To leave things behind. To not think so very much. Who couldn’t dwell on an abuse, a loss, a moment of violence, for a lifetime. A scene in a film of a child dying erases whatever smile might later appears on screen. One cannot think of much else. But the memory only lingers for several days, like a cold, or a mild sprain, or a bad meal. A childhood of suffering leaves little room for moving on, but a few years of joy do help. A healthy marriage, a beautiful boy birthed with ease, a stack of novels beside the bed. All of that is part of who I am now, so far removed from the ghosts of the past.

 But people tell me, perhaps I would not appreciate and enjoy it all so much, had I not had selves that I sometimes look back upon with a wince, selves that loathed themselves and wanted so deeply to not, selves that were working so hard to get better.  They say, perhaps those selves prepared me for this, fulfillment in the ease and simplicity of motherhood. Was any of that really necessary? Would I have landed here anyway, had once I not been so high-mindedly self-involved, perpetually concerned with excavating badness and and grasping desperately for meaning and connected dots, so nobly, long-sufferingly paying attention? I guess that doesn’t matter, considering the point is not to know what might have happened had I ever at any point been different, but that all those selves were just fine, even in their frustrating ignorance and stubbornness and contracting rings.

 I believed for a long time that the periods of heavy drinking and drug use, the periods of starvation and bingeing, the periods of suicidal ideation and struggling to get out of bed were all connected and all mattered. I believe they were all the same horse, just regularly changing color, and that they meant a switch had been flipped in me either at birth or somewhere in the young years that proved I was defective and doomed to aimlessly wander. I can understand now that some of it was the inherited soup of genes, and some of it was the memory of my father and the ceaseless buzzing to be not here, and some of it was a cascade of untruths that came hurling at me via the well-meaning and the unwise. It can be quite seductive to build an identity on being broken. I suppose the allure is that it gives us a story, it’s a signal to others of mattering, at least enough to feel pity; most of all it’s the rough edge. A broken person has been through something. She has a dark tales. She is not like you. She doesn’t have to be tattooed and dyed and sick-looking; listen to her heart beating and wait.

 It took me until my 34th year to understand that it was all a lie. I think I was put together just fine, but I felt it all, every goddamned miserable and pleasurable sensation, and to intuit so sharply draws you inward. When you go inward too much, you forget to lift your head. I lost the the outside world a while. I forgot I was apart of it. I was always too smart and too stupid for my own good, a great collector and denier of remembering. I kept myself close to myself and in rooms and in beds and in cars and in spaces where the jittery aliveness and brightness could not get me, and I studied the lies and I grew to believe in the specialness of brokenness and the nature of diseased, and I stayed still for years.

 There is never an encouragement to hate that old person, but there is also no need to love her so. I think we only affirm ourselves loved when we know we’re kidding ourselves. Today, I’m content with whatever organized mess of a human I am, and I let it be. I am much more interested in the nature of things than insuring that I like myself. Oh, how that once used to matter. Funny how we feel better when such a concern disappears.

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