The Sunday Rumpus Essay: (On My Throat)
“We can sit in our safe corners mute as bottles, and we will still be no less afraid.” –Audre Lorde
When has enough time passed for me to write it—how long do I have to wait before I am not in it anymore. I am waiting, but when can I rightly say in the past tense (and keep it there) that I was choked within seconds of losing consciousness by my husband—and have that be a statement of fact rather than perceived catharsis. When am I no longer emotionally there with my back against the fridge—the way everyone tells me I am still—still healing.
Perhaps when I stop saying within seconds of losing consciousness, a phrase I have only begun to include in the narrative today. It is a curious phrase because it is both specific and new. I question my ability to write any of this (the way others also question my ability), because I cannot determine the phrase’s accuracy: I cannot predict when I would have lost consciousness, and science only tells me that it could take anywhere from seconds, indeed, to minutes from initial squeeze to ultimate collapse. (That is all it takes, as my legal advisor said.) Inability, here, is not a question of (mis)remembering; it is a question of hyperbole or closure or—. What I remember—thus, the truth of it (thus, I have lied, I suppose)—is that I could breathe. It was difficult, labored, but I could; and I could speak, and I used that ability to speak the most aggressive and certain phrases I have ever spoken in my life. I could speak, so I did—which seems to be the logic in writing this too.
What I recognize now is that he squeezed more than he pressed. And having wanted to write about this ever since it happened, I have come to learn that we lose consciousness because either our tracheas or our carotid arteries are constricted—and I am sure there is a language difference between these (strangle versus choke; strangulation, pass out, asphyxiate, black out, gasp, smother, stifle, garrote), but, ultimately, both result in lack of oxygen to our brains. The only difference seems to be whether we are unable to take oxygen into our bodies or if we are unable to move the oxygenated blood to our brains.
I bring three fingers to my neck in an attempt to locate the referents of the diagram at which I look. I move my fingers across my right clavicle to the clavicular head. I tilt my head back as in the picture, and I feel for the sternal head. I trace my sternocleidomastoideus. And I speak this and the rest of the terms now, quietly, to myself, slowly mouthing the unfamiliar syllables, touching lightly so as not to stifle any vibrations as they occur—because the vibrations seem more important than finding and touching the objects themselves.
Speaking anterior belly of digastric fills me with a great deal of pleasure, although there is not much to feel aside from those vibrations (seemingly nothing hidden below), and there are two parts of the diagram that particularly unsettle me—how they sound, how they feel, how it feels to speak them: mylohyoideus (which is rigid and small, although I am unsure if I am touching it or the hyoid bone) and supraclavicular fossa (sensitive, deep, pliable). These highlight my vulnerability, my sensitivity and weakness. These are the places I think I harbor my weaknesses. My vulnerability (perhaps another weakness), though, rests in the arteries.
I come away from the diagram knowing only that the carotid arteries are conveniently placed the same distance apart as a man’s thumb and fingertips, as if by design. The discovery, though, has nothing to do with the diagrams at which I look, nothing to do with research. Just experiential data, confirmed here, sitting here, by finding the arteries in the diagram, then again under my flesh, stretching my fingertips across, and squeezing.
I became lightheaded—and I do again now, as I squeeze the arteries myself and feel the pressure build around my eyes and forehead—and my vision became tunnel. I know the lightheadedness was caused by that lack of oxygen to my brain, but I am unsure if the sudden shift in vision was physical or if it may have been emotional (as if emotions never cause physical reactions).
And as much as I like to sit here and consider my physical response to such trauma (which is a word I have only just now used to describe the event, in part because it seems most accurate, in part because it matches the physicality, the medical in this—but is ultimately a word I have avoided because of how it indicates damage, which I did receive, as I almost lost consciousness, of course, though it was short-lived, not lasting the way we experience the trauma of, say, a heart attack or stroke or car crash or—)—
(But isn’t that the issue here: that I have not yet determined how much this has affected me and in what ways, to what degree. Maybe a husband’s violence is as traumatic as a car crash. Maybe being strangled is as damaging as a heart attack. (I could research this.) Perhaps it is traumatic to know that your control over your own body is no match for another’s control.)
(Or is the issue really that being victimized asks us to become victim and employ an uncomfortable discourse that includes words like victim and trauma and carotid and unfairly imposes the responsibility of choosing between words like choke and strangle. Is the problem here how I am victim or how I am asked to (and do) refer to myself as a (instead of as a survivor, which I also am (in the sense that I lived)). (And of course with my type (my type) of domestic abuse, there is the question of to whom I was a victim (or who I survived) (which is a rhetorical indication that I am, in fact, on the other side of this now) (as if it is over) (past tense): victim to the one who perpetrated the abuse or to the one who subjected me to it after the first incident (for those individuals are not the same).))
When I convey the relationship’s narrative to others in any capacity, it is usually only the end I speak—the neck, the fridge incident. (The fridge incident, because I don’t want to say strangling or strangulation, in part because those deny the emotional aspect of it all and seem too violent (because I want to, at least verbally, minimize the violence (I don’t know why, since it was, in fact, violent—was, in fact, violence)).) It shouldn’t surprise me, then, that people react with not only shock but also disgust at what he did. Oh my god, that is horrible is what I hear most frequently. The reaction is a little frustrating, though, because, while the end of the relationship was horrible (traumatic), when I consider the arc of the relationship, it seems less so, because it seems expected.
And perhaps that is part of the problem I have in considering this: it was expected. It was lead-up-to. It was anticipated. Unprecedented, but expected. It was something to dread. But I was apparently unable to leave until it happened. Trauma, then, functions as necessity. Trauma as crisis, abuse as impetus.
Perhaps this is another indication that it is not yet time for me to write this: my resistance to saying that (I feel like) I subjected myself to it. (If this is the reason, though, it is what I must resist, because I know that that conflict in myself—whether I demonize him for hurting me or demonize myself for allowing him to—will never go away.) Logically, I know that the abuses were never my responsibility and were never under my control; but there are two facts that complicate the issue of agency and responsibility:
I could have and should have left after the first violent incident; and
I did finally leave.
As much as I consider my physical response to this, I also consider his response to his rage, how it asked him or forced him to strangle (choke) me. But why squeeze more than press—more fingertip than palm. What would the effect have been of pressing down on my trachea. And did he know which he was doing—and does that even matter, since, even if he did not know, he would have been performing the same action regardless.
And why did he let go.
Despite his rage, I do not think that he wanted to kill me. (It is not my responsibility to know (despite how the question suggests that others want me to shoulder it).) He could have—and ability, here, acts as an indication of desire. Or lack thereof. And I have to stop here, because I can imagine all I want—and I will, I do—but I cannot know what he desired or what his intention was.
Neither can he. He cannot address his own desire, his intention, nor even his ability. He (says he) does not remember doing that—choking (strangling) me. (I can’t know if) He has believed me when I tell him he did (and, when I have said it to him, I have said, You almost killed me (which may or may not be true)), and (I think that) he recognizes that I would not lie about it, but (he says) he cannot explain it, because he doesn’t even know that it happened. And the gaslighting is perhaps more frightening than the physical abuse: how I am forced to second-guess that which (I think) is true, how the incident (the one I only think happened) is excused (by one or both of us), how at any moment (I think (he thinks)) he may jump in to overwrite (or simply erase) the narrative, my narrative, my feelings, my words.
He had been drinking that night, and, when it happened, he lost control. If that is what happens when we drink. It could also be that inhibitions dropped, and he was finally able to do what he wanted—and he chose it. He would say to me often, when I chose not to drink as much as he, Being drunk is a way to see who we really are, deep down, inside, as a way to persuade me to drink as much and as often as him—to demonstrate the erotics of inebriation. And maybe he was right—maybe that night I saw who he really is, deep down, inside.
(Whiskey makes me inordinately angry; wine makes me cry; tequila makes me laugh, makes me childish. This was not the first time he drank rum around me, and this was also not the first time he demonstrated his violence, but this violence crossed a threshold; so no pattern emerges from which I may glean a reason.)
I do not know if we do not remember because alcohol prevents us from forming memories or if alcohol prevents us from being psychologically present (as in black-out) (if these are even separate phenomena) (I could research this) or if, perhaps (and here, I potentially go out on that proverbial limb), his reaction to causing trauma (trauma) was not to record it for the sake of ego-preservation.
That word, trauma: I always immediately make the associative step (not even a leap) toward Freud’s notion that trauma is repressed, but indexed in (even) the most seemingly inconsequential of memories: when we cannot account for those four hours, for that car ride, for the sleep-over, for the accident but can recall the print of the wallpaper, the dead fly in the windowsill, the only song that played twice on the radio, the exact color of the sky and shapes of the clouds. But events are only repressed when they are psychologically traumatic—to our ego or our world-view. This, then, is a way of saying that if he in fact does not remember the event, it may be because it was repressed because it negatively affected his ego. And this, then, is also a way of saying that I remember, and that, psychoanalytically speaking, the event must not have threatened my ego or world-view. So. Trauma as insufficiently traumatic.
I find myself saying regardless to everything here: The physical or psychological mechanics and devices that simultaneously (supposedly) prevent him from remembering and allow me to remember do not matter. (I have to learn to not excuse the violence—it is not my responsibility to rationalize any of it, not my place to determine cause.) (The desire to do so is a byproduct of the years of gaslighting, because, if he can’t explain it, I can only assume that I am wrong (but I can’t (afford to) be, so I have to explain that, be as thorough and precise as possible in proving my own logic).) What matters (all that matters) is that (he says) he can’t remember. So this is less an attempt at finding justification or effect or reason and more a place just to speak (these unfamiliar syllables (without fear of being wrong)—as if the utterance is enough to get me through this).
The morning after, perhaps (definitely, though not verifiably) still drunk, he told me that I (physically) hurt him first—that I broke something, that what he did was wrong (whatever he thinks he did, since he did not think he even physically touched me), but it was justified (whatever it is), because it was an immediate response to a real incitement. For a short while, perhaps only while he was still drunk, I believed in his conviction and thus in his actual statement. (This is the gaslight dimming.) His certainty and how he admitted no question, no other possibility, no possibility of misremembering had me convinced that I was to blame for the handprint on my neck, my sore throat, and the torn skin.
The reality that he presented was just that: (his (I know)) reality. And I think that he still thinks that that is what happened. And who is right. And, the question that is perhaps more personally immediate, how do I account for the possibility that he is right, that I am wrong, and that my memory may be more distorted than his. (I do not think that his is clear; instead, I think that all memory is imperfect.) (It is almost comical (and very frightening) to see the ways in which the effect of gaslighting overlaps the process of essaying.) I could be wrong. So how do I account for the existence of the memory and the pictures of the wounds.
I consider what would happen in court: Favor would be given to the (presumably) sober party, to the party who was woken up by the aggressor; but, ultimately, only the one with evidence is right, even if he is wrong: all one must do is shore up enough proof and fact. And that recognition is terrifying—because it is a fact that could work in either party’s favor, regardless (regardless) of fault or blame or abuse.
Of course I recognize the legal discourse and proceedings that would have been involved in this (had I pressed charges), and I recognize that I shoulder no blame in this. But maybe he was right, before, during other fights: Maybe I didn’t love him well enough. Maybe my gaze did linger too long on other men. Maybe I did grow less affectionate toward him (of course I did—how could I not have, given the manipulation and abuse, their escalation). But I refuse to believe that I was ever wrong when I told him Nothing is ever bad enough, severe enough to be met with violence.
I have learned (in my studying to write (and process) this) that there is a nerve to stimulate the vocal cords, and it is the same nerve that tells one’s heart to return to resting rate. I consider, then, the connection between the throat and heart and that which they represent: voice and love. Maybe it is possible to keep the emotion (any emotion) outside of reach, unable to be felt, by never speaking it; or maybe we only feel that which is spoken. Or perhaps, as with love, we feel it most intensely only before the voice tells our hearts to calm.
I attempt to spread out now—to occupy as much verbal space as possible—because for all the time we were together, I was vocally cramped, unable to voice individual desire or opinion (or, as is true in this, that which (I think) I can prove), unable to say no (as is the case with codependent relationships and, perhaps, with abusive ones (and how often are the abusive ones also codependent)), essentially muted. The manifestations of my voice are sometimes childish: I speak to my dog more often and about more. I sing loudly, and I sing badly. I talk to myself—and then I talk to myself about talking to myself. I read aloud, constantly, everything (including this—each time I have rewritten it).
The manifestations, though, are not all as inconsequential as these: now I refuse not to write about the event despite his hand (metaphorically) still being here (on my throat).
Questions and tense aside, I want to speak it—I want to write this (I am writing this) (this, including the event and everything since—because it is all one (and certainly not over)), because I believe that speaking it (whatever it is) is the only way to get out of it (because I (know I) am not yet)—out from that imposed silence, out of that night where my voice was unregulated, seemingly out of my control, and full of anger and despair. Because I do not want to become victim to the idea that I should not write it or speak it because I am in it. I will always be in it (the way I still live in an apartment with missing (broken) doors and holes in walls and with that same fridge against which I was pinned) (the way I am still consciously shifting responsibility and blame) (the way he physically and emotionally relocates me and locates me here and locates me in a terrain in which I do not want to be) (the way others assume everything I say is in reference to him).
I cannot allow for anyone to force me to excuse the fact that this must be written. To say—to tell me—it is not yet time is to say, then, this should never be written; to say that if one is too emotionally in an experience, he should not write about it, because he will not be thinking clearly or only thinking cathartically or too sentimentally, cordons off a section of deeply felt experiences from language and forces us to have the answers and reasons—again, places responsibility on the victim.
I don’t know that we ever stop intensely feeling the emotions produced by these experiences. Just as I had the voice then to yell, so too do I have the voice now to pick at the wound and say the words I have never seen before, have never spoken, and am not even sure how to pronounce.