When I was ten years old, my family moved across the country from South Carolina to Texas. For several months, while my parents looked for jobs and got on their feet from the move, we lived with my grandparents, and spent a lot of time semi-living with our other grandparents simply so that we wouldn’t dominate one set’s time/space (since all six of us were pretty much living in a single bedroom). During one of the visits to my other grandparents’ house, their dogs got a hold of one of my stuffed animals, a dog named Arfie that I’d gotten for my fourth birthday. I had no idea they’d found Arfie until I discovered him partially torn apart in my grandparent’s field.
The dogs had ripped Arfie’s nose off, but I found the plastic nose and brought it, and what was left of Arfie, back to the house. My grandmother, who is very good at sewing, stitched him all back up. Part of the line of stitching that made up Arfie’s mouth was crooked, and his facial shape was flatter than before (because I hadn’t bothered to gather the stuffing that had been lying beside him in the field). The latter isn’t really visible in photos, mostly because I don’t have any photos of Arfie in profile before the incident, but the stitching change is clear:
But it wasn’t the stitching that upset me. It was the shape of his face, altered, so that his expression was so different. It was the way his face went from friendly to sad, the way he had been permanently damaged and changed by the injury. Lying in one set of bunk beds in the room all six of us shared at my grandmother’s house, I would cry myself to sleep every night, thinking that I’d never be able to feel the same about my beloved friend again. Not that I would love him less, but that things would simply never be the same, no matter how hard we tried. They were irrevocably different.
So why tell you about this incident from 26 years ago about some stuffed animal of mine? Mostly because of the way it relates to the way I see myself before and after the trauma that caused my PTSD.
My trauma doesn’t sound like traditional trauma. I never underwent some major traumatic incident. Instead, after that cross-country move, I spent four years bullied, mostly friendless, terrified of the world, paranoid, broken. When, in sixth grade, a fellow classmate was accidentally shot and killed by another classmate with a gun they both thought was empty, I thought it was a lie. Peers, friends, bullies, teachers, school administrators – all in on this practical joke, trying to get me to believe something so awful so that when I did, I’d look like the worst kind of fool. It wasn’t until I saw it in the newspaper and attended the viewing that I fully believed it. Don’t get me wrong – I knew this was pure paranoia – but logic didn’t keep my brain from being terrified that They were waiting to strike out at me. (Notably, it was after relating this story that my counselor first put together the beginnings of a PTSD diagnosis.)
For years, I have seen my own life much the way I saw Arfie back then: irrevocably changed, broken, damaged, mauled; something less than before. Missing something that can never be retrieved. I viewed myself before that cross-country move as a solid glass sphere, dark semi-translucent blue, whole and healthy and undamaged. The move was like those dogs grabbing Arfie; the bullying that followed was like them ripping Arfie apart. Afterwards, I did my best to sew myself up, hold myself together, but I didn’t have all the materials needed, and even if I did, nothing was ever going to be the same again. I saw myself sheered in two, a clean slice off the glass ball, a break that could never be properly repaired.
One of my counselors – not the good one – told me that this was a “beautiful” image. It’s not. It’s a desperately sad and discouraging image, no matter how much I try to give myself the advice my mom gave me about Arfie back then. Just because something is damaged and changed, she said, doesn’t mean that it is any less. Maybe something can be more beautiful, more loved, for its imperfections and broken pieces. It’s advice that maybe, if I’d found a good counselor years ago, I could have internalized. Instead, the damage just got worse. Three months after my oldest son was born, the two halves of that glass ball were shattered into thousands of pieces. It was new trauma, rather than just a triggered renewal. And 18 months ago, the thousands of pieces that I’ve been trying to hold together in my hands were ground into dust, until there was absolutely nothing of me left. Until I was nothing but powder.
Maybe it’s a good thing. Maybe I can eventually become like a phoenix, rising from the ashes of a former life. Maybe one day, I can reemerge as a new glass ball, new and whole, rather than the imitation of one made up of disjointed pieces held together by the frailest bits of glue. This is the hope that my good counselor gave me over the last year. Of course, she’s up in Massachusetts, and I’ve yet to find someone I can really trust down here. I know that’s crucial to move forward. It just takes time. And everything is so much harder when you have nothing, not even pieces, left to hold onto.
Dear younger Manda,
I am so sorry for your pain, for the things you struggled through and the things you missed out of fear. There’s is nothing I can do to make that better, and when I look at pictures of you before and after the slicing, it breaks my heart. It breaks my heart to see you withdraw, to see the light in your eyes die out. I don’t have any advice. I don’t know how this gets better. I’m just so sorry.
Love, modern-day Manda