I’ve been reading a lot of the secondary tiers of information on alcoholism – its causes, its effects, its development, its stages, etc. – mostly via first-hand accounts of people’s experiences with alcohol, and perhaps a few more research-based studies via A Hangover Free Life and Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women & Alcohol by Ann Dowsett Johnson. I am struck over and over by the mention of early trauma, and over and over I think to myself, “No, that’s not me. I had an amazingly happy childhood. Nowhere hidden away in my deep dark psyche are there any secrets of abuse or neglect.” For months, I’ve been of the mindset that I developed alcoholism, probably, as an offshoot of my bipolarismness. Comorbidity factors and the like. And really? That has been enough of and explanation for me.
About three weeks ago I got a hit to my chest. My heart stopped, and suddenly I saw a clue I hadn’t recognized for so long. During my childhood, I was morbidly obese. From the time I was in 1st grade through 6th grade, I was more than heavy. In fact, in 6th grade, I weighed more then than I do now. I have always thought it was genetics. My dad’s family is heavier, and so I thought I was just living the life carved out by my genes. But no. The hit to the chest was the idea that it was my first symptom of me trying to heal something. I was using food as comfort to heal a hurt inside. But I still couldn’t recognize the What. I wasn’t sure I could name it.
Then, another week went by, and I realized I had another clue. In my teens and early twenties, I went to the other extreme and monitored every little thing that went into my mouth. I had what I’ve always considered an intellectual’s version of anorexia, because my brain knew I had to eat for all that I was doing, so I did, but it was always just enough. I went through days of intense physical demand with dance classes, school, and swimming conditioning (the hardest kind of practices), and would often only eat a bagel for lunch. Even now, I remember thinking it was just a teen phase. It was just something most girls did because we were girls and we were young and because we could.
I’ve never linked my psuedo-anorexia to my childhood overeating, nor to my drinking. Until now. Really, I could now see they were one in the same. So what was I trying to numb? To control? Even a week and a half later with bubbles bursting full of ideas and realizations, I didn’t have the courage to name it. It hovered in the back of my mind and body (and even typing, I can feel my breath get shallower).
My trauma, my What, is Death.
When I was four years old, my baby sister died of SIDS when she was 4 months old. I remember the day, I remember moments surrounding her death in vivid detail. I remember her and her vibrancy and laugh, and I remember losing her and having the weight of her loss bear down on me. Like Atlas and the world. And like Atlas, I had to carry it because my parents needed me. I was the only one left. At four, I wanted to take care of them. I wanted to stick around. I didn’t want to die. I had to be enough to cover the pain and the hurt of losing her. I also wanted my sister back. Terribly.
Instead of birthday parties, and playdates (I had them, but they are not what I remember most from childhood), I remember attending a support group with my mom called The Compassionate Friends’. Families would gather together and share stories of their lost children. I met numerous other kids and their parents who had lost children. I loved opening up about my sister. I loved hearing other kids talk about their lost siblings. And I felt good in the basement of churches, sitting with people who really got me. But those people weren’t with me in my school, or at my piano lessons. Walking through my days, I felt like I had a secret that no one would understand, or that no one would guess because I looked so normal on the outside. Death was always at the back of my mind because it made me different from the other kids in my class. It made me weird.
Shortly after my sister died, in my memory, I remember my mother telling me about a second sibling, a brother, who had died less than a year before I was born. So not only did I carry my sister’s loss with me, but now I had lost a brother, too. One I didn’t know about until then. And instead of a family of five, I had a family of three. Our family felt empty. It felt lonely. It felt smaller than it should be, because everyone in our family knew the truth. We had lost two babies. They weren’t with us. And their absence was present in my life every day.
I loved being an only child, but I always thought in my mind that I wasn’t really an only child. I would draw family pictures, over and over again (it must have hurt my parents’ hearts to see them), with our ideal family at the park. My mom and dad would be there, with a baby (my sister we lost), and my older brother and I would be climbing an apple tree. Over and over and over again. I would draw the same picture. I can still draw it today. I know exactly where everyone is supposed to be.
But they’re not.
And the irony is that I also know that, particularly because of my brother’s death, I was able to live. Had he survived an early delivery (26 weeks in 1978), then there is no way my life would have happened. I know that in my bones. So, really, it is thanks to Death that I am here at all. And I am so grateful to be here. However, I still hold onto a little girl’s fantasy of having an older brother who watches out for me, and shouts at stupid bullies, and picks on me when we’re home on our own because I’m his stupid younger sister. All of this, even though, I know now, after 35 years, what really happened. He couldn’t survive because of his early arrival. And, had he survived, by some miracle, his life would not have been a typical, ‘normal’ life. He most likely would have had a thousand challenges both physically and mentally. But in my growing-up-mind, I created a perfect world where the two of us were thick as thieves, and he was my Big Brother.
But instead I’m the oldest. By a lot. My sister is eight years younger than me, and when she arrived, it was amazing! And exciting! And finally happening. My family was finally growing. … However, her arrival was not all roses. At her birth, she stopped breathing, so she came home with an ear-piercing monitor that ripped through our sleep on an almost-nightly basis, whenever she turned the wrong way or accidentally disconnected a wire. Her arrival also meant that I had to learn infant CPR as a second grader. I remember the room we sat in. I remember the woman who taught us. I remember the feel of that dummy doll heavy in my lap, and the sticky rubber under my fingertips. I was hopeful with the lesson because we had the power to save my sister – unlike my other sister. However, in that lesson of life saving, Death was also ever-present. A threat. A menace. A what if.
As an adult I learned my mother also had trouble with a number of miscarriages. I can’t even imagine the heartache and pain she and my father endured over many years as they tried to build their family, while along the way, the pain was intensified by my brother’s and sister’s lives and deaths. What loss. What pain. What sadness. My childhood pictures captured what my younger self imagined and yearned for, but as parents in a family filled with so much loss, I can hardly believe they found it in them to move forward. To get out of bed every day. To go to work. To hug their daughter. To try and try again to bring a new life into the world. They are incredible, remarkable people whose strength and compassion humble me to this day. As a child, I really was happy and content and living a charmed life, and it was thanks to may amazing parents. It is not until now that I recognize the struggle it must have been for them, and how little I saw of the truth of their pain. The innocence they kept and nurtured in me within our family dynamic truly made me who I am today. I am playful, and hopeful, and a doer. Had my parents multiplied my grief with their own, I believe my core self would have grown into someone very different. Growing up, the presence of Death was almost all my own making. My possession, my companion.
In the past couple of years, I started to try and take ownership of my fear and awareness of Death, and make it more comedic, less threatening. I began to devise an idea that perhaps I should create a series of essays with Death as my sibling, my sister. It may sound morbid and macabre, but really and truthfully, Death is part of my family. I remember it as clearly as drippy, sweet watermelon spitting contests in the backyard at my babysitter’s house. And really, the thing about Death is that she was always right there with me. On my shoulder. Or standing behind me. Or an idea in my head even when everything was fun and carefree on the outside. She was my constant secret. The thing I kept hidden, but not out of shame, more out of the belief that no one would understand.
When I was younger, I had extreme separation anxiety. I remember my sister’s funeral. I wasn’t tall enough to look over the casket, so I would stand on the kneeling rail and lean over and kiss her cold cheek or forehead over and over. I remember the smell of her stillness, what I now know to be the embalming fluid. I remember her sweet, still, sleeping face. I remember the doll we tucked in next to her, and the lace and ruffles on her dress. I remember my grandma picking me up and taking me to a pew to sit with her. I remember not feeling like I had given my sister enough kisses, and that I wanted to give her more. I remember the smell of the chapel, ripe and crowded with flowers. Later, as a grade schooler, I would cry deep sobs and waves of grief would wash over me whenever my mother left me with someone else. I can still feel it in my chest behind my sternum. That ache and worry, my memory of loss. I was always scared to lose her, or my dad. I was inconsolable about being left behind.
To this day, I still finish the most mundane conversations with ‘I love you,’ because I need them to know. I can’t let my last exchange not have those words of love in them. And that’s a bit of horrible, too – the idea that every conversation is our last. Some days are worse than others, but all days, the urgency to leave things on this earth in a place of love is there. To leave things in a ‘finished’ way. To make sure my loved ones know I love them.
As I grew, Death took on greater significance. My bipolar episodes began to develop in my late teens and early twenties. An interesting “fun” (sarcasm) symptom when I have a depressive or manic episode developing in the wings is that I experience paranoia. The paranoia heightens and exaggerates inside my brain the closer an episode gets to manifesting. And usually, my paranoid imaginings are full of death. Walking down a street, I know the person walking towards me has a gun and is going to shoot me. Lots of guns in my paranoia. Strangers walking into school are hiding guns. The person driving next to me down the highway is going to flash a gun in their window. Other times, complicated, horrific, scary things happen to my loved ones in their offices, in their homes, or on a simple errand to a store.
Walking from day to day inside those days of paranoia is exhausting. I started a ‘fix-it’ plan with my therapist about a year ago, where I would take the imagined tragedy and recognize the paranoia and then reimagine it with a better ending. I would fix the problem by creating a surreal and happy solution. So, for instance, an imagined car accident would then become a car spinning, and then floating, and then lifting up into the air and flying over the almost-accident and over the line of cars to home. I am particularly fond of surreal fixes. They’re magical, and definitely make me feel better.
However, in those times of paranoia building, they come faster and more frequently during a day. They’re a good indicator of what’s going on mentally – that depression or mania is on the verge – but as they are, for me, they are full of Death and morbidity. It is daunting and difficult to keep up with them. Not to mention, now my childhood secret interior has become my adult interior as well, but in a worse, more tragic way.
And, to be clear, I have these fantasies even when I’m not developing into a manic or depressive episode, too. They’re just not as numerous or as frequent. And usually, they’re not as violent or scary. But Death. Hello, Death. Death is always there.
…. So now, here I am realizing that Death is my trauma, and has been my trauma since my early childhood. My attempts to soften the blow, or comfort myself have found a variety of solutions, but none of them have worked. Obviously, I guess. All this time, I didn’t know that I was hurt so profoundly by my siblings’ deaths. From the outside, I am a happy, highly functional, accomplished woman. And that is true. It is also true that I addressed my sister’s and brother’s deaths throughout my childhood. It wasn’t a secret at home. I attended therapy, I spoke with other kids about it, I was always trying to work it out. They why’s of their deaths. It was not as though it got swept under the table, or hidden under the bed, or in the back of a closet. We explored the idea and reality of death pretty regularly. On the whole, I knew my childhood was wonderful, and I cherished it as such – both in the moment and now as an adult. But all this while, I was carrying Death with me.
My question now is what is at the core of my fascination with Death? The thing that flutters just under my skin is that I don’t believe I should be here. Alive. Living. Why was I the lucky one? How come I got to live and my sister and brother didn’t? Connected to those questions, why were they taken from us? From me? Why was my family the one to endure so much loss so soon and so early? Why couldn’t we have grown in size and shape? Loss and emptiness and not-full are all feelings I carried with me growing up. Nothing clearly tangible, but just the feeling of less than whole.
On the other hand, I believe my life is incredibly precious and rare because of the lives my siblings didn’t have the opportunity to live. I know first-hand the value of life and how dear and how precious and rare and fleeting it is. I should be making the most of my life and all that I am doing. Am I enough? Have I done enough? Have I proven myself? The worth of my life?
And also, a question of belief. Are my brother and sister still out there? Are they with me throughout my days? Part of me truly believes they are. I feel like I carry them with me (along with Death) everywhere I go. I imagine what they would be like – the ideal versions from the mind of a child. I picture them at each birthday and wonder who they would be and what they would be doing and where they would be and what we would have done together in the past year. As a grown woman, I still have these fantasies. In other ways in my life, I believe they have been my guardians and saviors in a million situations where I should have gotten hurt or died myself. They accompany me right along with Death. In fact, I feel like they do overtime duty on the whole guardian scene because I am so reckless and careless, ironically with the life I hold so dear.
Sobriety has helped me a great deal. I am not filling in my holes with something ‘other.’ I’m not bandaging myself, or submerging myself in a way that hides my truths. However, I still can’t quite identify what my holes are. Not completely. I have an inkling that I am scared to die. Terrified in fact. But on the other hand, I feel like every day I am counting down to the moment I die. Because Death is so present. Death is such a reality. I’m scared, but I also know Death is inevitable. When I was drinking, I felt like I was just hurrying things along because life was so hard and difficult, and what was the point of living anyway? I would immerse myself in my glasses of wine and numb my worries, fears, and avoidance. Now that I am sober, I see my fears for what they are, but I also have rediscovered the wonder of the world and of Living. Now I am holding onto Life because I don’t want to lose it. Of course, I can and I will some day and I have no power over those truths.
So what is my next step? Where do I go from here? I have so many realizations and deeper understandings of my relationship with Death, but I don’t know what to do with them. I want to live and I want to experience as much as I can. Is it possible for me to soothe and comfort the little girl inside of me in such a way that she heals more wholly? How do I help her? Can I still heal myself after all this time?
Day 105, feeling quiet and small and unsure.