The Mystery Inside of Me

When I look down I see my breasts covered by my bathing suit top which drifts up exposing my bare belly.  Then I see my shorts, naked legs and feet moving gently, slowing just enough to keep me afloat.

I see this all through the wavering yellow-tinged water of the Battenkill. This time of year, the water is usually clearer, not so deep, but it’s been stirred up by the hard rain a couple of days ago.

I’m floating on my back and when I look up I see the rock shelf that emerges as the bank of the river.  It leads to thick woods, both deciduous and evergreens.  The sun, low in the sky, is a small white orb breaking through the branches.  Some of the pine needles sparkle in its light.

My mind is murky like the water.

But as I look into the woods, I can distinguish hidden spaces between the branches and leaves, and I am suddenly sure that there is a mystery inside of me.  An unknown part of me waiting to be deciphered.  And that there are clues in my dreams or hidden in my art.

In the morning I read the last pages of Natasha Trethewey’s Memorial Drive.

She writes about the murder of her mother by her stepfather.  About the trauma, memory and a recurring dream that she had for the first time three days after her mother died.   Trethewey writes, “To survive trauma, one must be able to tell a story about it.”

In writing the book and revisiting a past, that through the necessity of survival she had forgotten, and reading the police reports of her mother’s murder, Trethewey, finally understand the metaphor of her recurring dream.   She comes to understand that  “the wound that doesn’t heal” inside of herself was the unconscious guilt she felt that she survived and her mother didn’t.

Reading Trethewey’s insightful and poetic and deeply personal writing about her trauma helped me understand my own in a way I hadn’t before.  Even though I did not experience the kind of physical violence that Trethewey did.

As I put the book down,  I was reminded of a recurring dream that I had as a child.  I’m not sure how old I was, I do remember waking up from it and being in a crib.  But as Trethewey writes, often our memories, when researched, are confused.

In the dream, I was in the living room with my family watching TV.  We were all sitting on the couch and they asked me to get up and turn the TV louder.  I didn’t want to. I was afraid.  I knew something bad would happen if I did.  But they all teased me and yelled at me until I did.  There were doorways on either side of the TV and when I got up monsters came out from the doorways. They grabbed me and took me to an operating room empty except for bright lights and a metal table.  I would wake up from my dream when I was lying on the operating table with all the monsters looking down on me.

Therapy has helped me see more clearly the division between me and the rest of my family.  How my issues with trust, fear and anxiety are not a fault within me but come from the circumstances I grew up in and a family system that continues today.

It seems clear to me that my subconscious, through this dream, was telling a story of the reality of my place in that family dynamic that a child might understand.  Although as a child, it was just a nightmare.

It took me over 50 years to understand it’s meaning.  To actually believe the fact, that the family dynamic is toxic to me. It is not an environment I can be in without doing damage to myself.

Yesterday I saw my mother for the last time before she moves into an assisted living facility.  She is in a new stage in her life.  And while it is sad and I feel for her, the fears that I’ve had for the past ten years, of being drawn back into that family dynamic that is so frightening to me are, practically, becoming less and less possible.

And through the work I’m doing on myself, with my therapist, the psychological obsession that kept me engaged in the family system I grew up in is diminishing.

Yesterday, after visiting my mother, I came home and floated in the current of the Battenkill as the deep cold water flowed around my body.  There was something going on inside of me that was unfamiliar.  I was trying to understand what I was feeling.

Now I know that it was actually a lack of emotion.

I wasn’t feeling the lifelong fear and anxiety, the guilt, or the sense of having done something wrong that has plagued me most of my life.

That’s not to say I won’t ever have difficult times again, this is a continuing process. As if an old pattern is broken, the struggle is over and I’m okay.



12 thoughts on “The Mystery Inside of Me

  1. Maria, I have appreciated your posts about dealing with family dynamics. I won’t go into what mine were all about but when you commented about the lack of emotion as you were floating in the water, it reminded me of how I felt when my Mom died after a long struggle with heart disease. It took me a long time to admit to myself my sense of relief first because she was just existing but not really living but also I was relieved that the feelings of anxiety I had experienced my whole adult life about our relationship were gone. At first I felt guilty and then as I talked about it with my husband and daughters the feelings of guilt disappeared and I had a better sense of why she was the person she was and why I was more at peace with my life. I think what you have written and expressed is not just helpful for you but you are performing a service to so many who feel uncomfortable about their feelings with regard to their own family members. My relationship with my Mom helped me to forge a different kind of relationship with my daughters. Thank you for being open and honest. Your courage will help so many of us say “It’s OK to have my feelings. They are legitimate. “
    Sincerely, Pat

    1. Thank you Pat, this is just what I hope my writing will do. I appreciate your writing about your experience too. So often the people who we chose to be with and love can help us see things clearly.

  2. Wow. You have come so far. Thank you for being willing to talk about it in this public forum. There’s a lot of pressure in our society to be “loyal” to your family and keep giving them chances no matter how bad they are for your mental or physical health. I walked away from much of mine over 20 years ago. To this day I still occasionally have people tell me that I will regret it one day if I don’t rebuild those relationships. I used to find it unsettling and would worry that maybe they were right. Now I ignore them realizing what they’re really talking about is how they feel about their own family.

    Anyway, a long way of saying I’ve been on a journey with some similarities and I’m both happy for you and proud of you.

  3. I have goosebumps……

    I love this definition of courage — Courage isn’t acting in the absence of fear, but acting in spite of fear.

    I applaud your courage….. and grace…. and vulnerability to share this…..

  4. I liked your piece on this topic very much. It resonated with me. I don’t know if I have the nerve to read the book – we’ll see. Thanks. Oh, I received the magnets and have placed them appropriately and will give a couple away to other appreciators.

  5. I cannot wait to read this book, Maria. She is one of my favorite poets, a wise and eloquent voice to listen to in these noisy times. I just heard her being interviewed by Teri Gross, and was moved to tears by how near to the surface her past trauma still feels. But old and deep wounds never really heal fully do they? We may come to understand them better, and to mask the pain more artfully, but there they still are. Anyway, looking forward to receiving this book soon.

  6. Thank you, Maria, for writing this and sharing your story. Your writing is so deep and beautiful and honest. There is much to think about here. I know that when I am reading through tears. Bless you. Wendy

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