fire ants course through the forest to eviscerate a carcass,
this bite of time following that next one
following on: the heart and the lungs and
the intestines, winding themselves down
the dark hatch of my throat and
I swallow them all
because when adrenaline cannibalizes
my limbs I must
Every time I wake up, it is with a start, a panicked urgency that I must be alert, all of me “on” now. I wake with a start next to a new lover, an old friend I’m reconnecting with after years drifting apart after college. We’ve just slept together for the first time and we are in my home, in my bed. His body is soft and absorbs the shock of my body jerking awake. His arms around me are unshifted by my terror. I am safe.
I am safe, I am safe, I am safe IamsafeIamsafeIamsafe.
Breathe in, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, hold, exhale, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.
“It’s okay,” he says, and my breathing settles.
There’s no reason for me to be afraid when I wake up, not anymore. Before, though, I might have been shaken awake by an angry parent because they needed help making breakfast for all the kids, help with the dishes, or maybe I had forgotten to take out the trash. In the mornings during high school, my mom used to send my young twin brothers up to wake me so I could come help her downstairs. They would jump on me, tear off the blankets, flip the lights on and off, scream in my ears. In the evenings, my father would rouse us out of bed if we hadn’t finished our chores to his satisfaction, and once we’d done them, we could expect a discussion of a sinful pattern he “observed” and wanted to “confront” us about. And if I didn’t get out of bed, if I didn’t spring to action and help out: spankings, elimination of privileges (no reading books other than the Bible for a month—you stayed up too late reading Les Miserables again). My act of seeking out rest always signaled to my parents that I must be available to help out with the family. At that time, I existed to make my parents’ lives easier. My time and energy belonged to them, not to me.
Later, when I was no longer living at home—when I was in the college dorms or when I was newly married and working in DC—I found myself sleeping through alarms. I would feel physically sick looking at the clock, realizing I was going to be late. I would be paralyzed, afraid of the anger I might receive on the other side of my commute to class or work, afraid of facing a professor mid-lecture when I walked in, and then later, facing the irritation of Chad, my (now ex-) husband, at my sluggishness, making us both late on days when we shared a car. No one at work noticed that I sometimes showed up fifteen minutes late for work; no professor thought twice about a freshman slipping in at 8:05 a.m. once in a while. And still, I spiraled every time. The idea of being caught wasting someone else’s time made me feel tense and anxious, like I was actively, selfishly harming them. Choosing rest had always been presented to me by my parents as harming our family or my siblings. I could not confidently practice taking up space in time as if it belonged to me, as if I deserved margins, rest, or slow deliberation.
Now that I sleep alone most nights, if I wake up next to a partner, I am forced to remember that it’s not normal to wake up in utter terror. I see the fear in their eyes when I jolt upright sometime shortly after I’ve finally fallen asleep. I feel their hearts beating at panic rates in response to my own startle reflex, and I realize that this is probably a really strange experience for them to witness: my panicked breathing, the clutching for something solid to hold onto, the instant relief and collapse when I realize that I’m safe, that there isn’t anything to be afraid of now.
These lovers—the handful of them who stayed around longer than a night or two—all eventually got used to me jolting awake with a gasp, but they have all been initially concerned. Are you okay, there’s nothing to be afraid of, honey come back to bed, slow down, come back, breathe with me, let me hold you. And I would lie in their arms, awash with gratitude for this kind of love but wide awake still, my body tense and ready to run.
Sometimes, when it’s been an exceptionally mentally exhausting day, I’ll startle as I’m falling asleep, too, waking myself up like a baby does when it’s lowered into the crib too quickly. I’ll feel myself relaxing and then all my muscles tense up and I jolt. A second later my lungs kick in, gulping down air as I remember how to be alive in this body, at this moment.
After a brain is exposed to enough crisis situations to keep a body in flight or fight response mode over a period of years, it stops being able to distinguish between a real threat and a perceived threat. The body stops being able to rest and instead sustains itself in a state of perpetual alert. Anything could be dangerous. This is how the therapists in my life (practitioners, and friends who are practitioners) have described hypervigilance to me. On a daily basis, I struggle to discern if an old threat is reincarnating itself in a new situation. If my boss is kind and patient, but asks me to come to his office without a cue to tell me it’s an invitation to a positive conversation, my body’s adrenaline circuits activated by the emotion will transport me back into a moment when I was a twelve-year-old child being told to wait in the bathroom for a spanking.
I’ve stopped being able to trust my senses because of this. I don’t know if I can trust anyone, because I don’t know if they’re about to explode in my face like my family used to do. Body signals that indicate frustration are cues for me to brace for a fight, for angry words and bitter put-downs. I can’t tell if it’s going to escalate or not. For the longest time I had trouble reading facial expressions—is this person mad at me? Are they just pretending? Am I about to get hit? And because my trauma was immersive—an entire lifestyle strung through with constant fear—almost everything can be a potential trigger. So, when I take this to therapy, I find it’s hard to pick just one thing that triggers me to work on at a time, to isolate just one ticking bomb in my brain to defuse. I exist in a field of landmines, never quite sure when one will go off or why.
My hypervigilance keeps me from sleeping and feeling safe. What are you doing? Did you ask her if she needed help before you sat down here? Did you finish your chores? Go ask her again if she needs help. Stop slacking.
Why aren’t you out of bed? It’s 7 a.m. Get up, we need help with the kids. Don’t come downstairs in your pajamas. Feed your brothers. You’re tired? Why did you stay up so late reading? Stop complaining, we need your help.
I can fall asleep on my own again. Now that I live alone, no one can tell me when to get up or what to do. No one can make me feel guilty for how I wake or when. My cats can fuss for food, but they depend on me—I’m not going to be punished. I can read, I can rest; no one is watching what I do. But still I jolt awake, my heart jumping out of my chest in terror.
And so I keep trying to tinker with this landmine, trying to find the right wires to dismantle it so I can finally convince my body that I’m safe to rest now.
A week after my tryst with my new lover, I went on a work trip to Vegas and my friend Rachel joined me for a few days. She is a surgeon. She also grew up like me (big family, homeschooled, fundamentalist), and she is one of the few people who can tell at a glance if I’m dissociative, because she’s been there, too. In fact, her complex PTSD (C-PTSD) is worse than mine, and I think that’s why I feel so safe with her. Because she has lived a life parallel to my pain, I can relax when we’re together.
At dinner on the second night, she noticed I had a migraine, that I’d left my body during our meal—my responses to conversation were too light, too quick, my movements clumsy, my laughter a little hysterical. Back in our hotel room, she took my head in her hands and drew me back down from the ether. I was restless at first—I am unused to this kind of care. But slowly I settled in, allowing her to try to fix the tension, which was running up my neck and behind my eyes like daggers. She methodically adjusted the muscles in my neck over and over until the migraine began to release me from its claws, and I fell asleep under her hands.
Hours later when the terror arrived and I was sitting up in bed ready to run, to fight, to answer for myself, to explain what I was doing resting when I should have been… should have been what? I didn’t know. And then Rachel was there, looking at me. Under her gaze, I don’t feel like a problem under examination, a curiosity to surveil. She was unmoved, present, waiting for me to remember that I was secure, that no one needed anything from me in that moment, nothing more than obeying my own body’s mandate to rest.
“Baby,” she said, taking my hand in hers, and then she was asleep again.
I realized that my head didn’t hurt anymore, and then I saw us reflected in the hotel window, transposed over the twinkling lights of Vegas and the black of the mountains and the night beyond. She was lying at a diagonal, her head and shoulders pulled in toward me like we were orbiting each other’s presence. She has night terrors, too, but not when she sleeps with someone else in the bed. That night it was only my body that couldn’t accept that this was safe, that rest was possible.
I laid back. Her touch brought me completely back into my body, and then I felt heavy and tired. We fell asleep again.
When Facebook shows me photos or statuses I posted from this day last year, this day five years ago, and so on, eventually they show me a girl in long skirts, carrying a baby in a baggy t-shirt, awkwardly looking out from under a too-tight ponytail and a slouchy hat, and I know she was me but I can’t recognize myself in her at all. My written statuses from that time are another matter entirely: archaic language and the occasional hymn lyrics aside, that girl was witty, loyal, and incredibly careful about what she said or didn’t say about the difficult things in her own world but passionate for justice for everyone around her.
I recognize that mind; it’s less articulate and informed, but it’s mine. I do not feel disassociated from my former self in my writing because we still love all the same things. We’ve grown up and lost some belief, some naivete, and some pronouns, but we’re still essentially the same person.
I married Chad because we shared this same curiosity and passion for justice. We wanted our world to be more expansive than the one we’d grown up in. I felt safe questioning things with him, basic things about the church and patriarchy and how raising kids in fear was hurtful. But as we grew further away from our families and explored our own beliefs, the landmines of our separate upbringings became dangerous—not just to ourselves, but to each other. Where we had previously found comfort in recognizing our own experiences in the other, now we curled around our wounds, each needing to be the only one hurting at a given time. And, the seeds of patriarchal marriage were still firmly rooted in our imaginations.
The wife was supposed to be the helpmeet, existing in response to and support of the husband, so I adjusted and wired my emotional existence into unnatural shapes to give leeway to my husband’s ups and downs. While he was not overtly patriarchal in ways we were raised to perceive as normal (we agreed to share labor, and I had work outside the house), the habitual dynamic of prioritizing the man’s emotional needs over that of the wife was still our norm. He expanded to fill the space, taking up all the air in the marriage with his anxieties and fears. I collapsed into myself more and more, apologizing constantly, even when I had started the conversation to ask him to change his behavior in some small way to alleviate some discomfort of mine. He stopped touching me if he could help it, stopped seeking out time to be alone with me.
I became afraid of waking up next to him and discovering that I had crept closer and closer to him in my sleep, seeking comfort that was never there. Chad resented being touched like that in the night even during the best of times, and eventually would get up and leave in a huff to sleep on the couch if I was too close and woke him in the night. I was unaware of my creeping closer, and waking alone brought new panic—I’d offended him in my sleep. It was as if he wanted the privilege of being the only one to initiate tenderness, and during those years I craved being held like a child craves their mother after a scare. But he kept pulling away. When we divorced, I cried myself to sleep for a full year, afraid of jolting awake in the morning to the nightmare reality that I had lost him.
For months before we separated, several of our fights escalated to the point where I would be hyperventilating and in tears, and he would walk out the door and walk down to the train tracks near our apartment and think about jumping before he would turn away and have a drink at a bar and then come home. Once he told me this was his routine, I began watching the DC Metro Twitter alerts go past—they tweeted alerts of slowdowns, accidents—until 2 a.m. when the Metro closed for the night and the account had stopped tweeting. If no accidents had been reported at Friendship Heights, I would be able to sleep.
Since shortly after we separated, Chad has been telling his community and our mutual friends that I was abusive to him and that’s why he left our marriage. No divorce is tidy, and I was prepared to accept my share of wrongs: codependence, insecurity, my childhood traumas. But this claim shocked me. Before, he had told me and others that he wanted out because he had never loved me; the pressures of purity culture had trapped him; he had been in love with someone else all along. The shift in narrative occurred when he learned that his family had offered me their guest bedroom rent-free for a little bit to get back on my feet. He was angry that they opened their home to me, and was perhaps afraid they were choosing me over him. That’s when his story shifted from “I never loved her” to “she was abusive.”
During our last months together I began to push back and show anger. I defended my needs as a wife and a lover, and asked not to be subjected to hours and hours of nightly discussions about whether or not he’d ever been in love with me, whether or not I could tell people that he thought he’d never loved me, how much he wanted to die and that it was my fault. The moment I did so, he stopped being apologetic for taking me for granted, stopped telling me I was so good to listen to him and help him. These fights repeated over online messages early in our separation, until, after years of asking me to keep his secrets for him, he began telling people he was afraid of me, that I was the reason he wanted to die. I would replay our fights over and over again in my head at night, my mind unable to stop re-spooling the conversations when I would try to sleep.
After we separated, my insomnia never went away, and my jumpiness about how much space I took up in the bed stayed, too. I was exhausted and feeling increasingly alienated from our families and the community we’d built. I was angry at being set up by bad theology to get married faster than I should have. I felt betrayed at Chad’s insistence that he had married me under pretenses of love that never existed. I’d loved him, and it had all been a farce.
When his mother made the passing comment shortly after I moved in with them that she had agreed I could be scary when angry—my anger prior to the divorce as witnessed by her had been directed at: my father’s manipulativeness, our church’s cover-up of longstanding sexual abuse of children, and the condescension of our pastors—my confidence in my memories of what had transpired between Chad and I was shaken. As his accusations of abuse were repeated back to me through different channels, I became exhausted from being the only person advocating for myself.
It felt like there were no words left to summon in my defense, so I said nothing. Maybe as a result, I began to doubt myself, wondering if he was right—maybe I was abusive? Maybe anger was a sin, as my mom had taught me as a child. Maybe I hadn’t been submissive enough, maybe I should have been more patient, not demanded that he listen to me when I finally burned out emotionally from listening to him talk about other women. Maybe I deserved alienation because of my divorce. I stopped writing, stopped processing my experiences for an audience, and just felt my own emotions, no longer needing to mirror positivity or perform supportiveness for him. I began to feel like I was losing my mind—what was real? I lay awake night after night trying to figure out what I had done that he thought was so awful.
Seven years later, I’m confident that my earliest assessment was the right one. I know I wasn’t the problem. I’ve fallen in love again since and had breakups that were messy, but no one has suggested I was abusive—and many of the people I’ve dated have stayed around as dear friends. The data correlates with my conclusion that Chad and I triggered each other so badly that he lost sight of who I actually was, and who I was becoming. I’m still unsure what about me he’s so afraid of. His sister, my best friend, who had stuck it out and stayed close to me after the divorce, called me after Chad threatened to end relationships with anyone who stayed in touch with me. “I have to ask you to keep our friendship quiet. I can’t have him remembering that we’re still in touch. I love you, but he says it’s all or nothing.” Two years later, a decade into our friendship, she called me about him again. “He and his wife are having a baby, and he’s asked me to choose. I’m so sorry. I have to do this.” Another friend got the same request: “It’s for the safety of the baby,” he told her. She laughed at him and chose me. “What are you going to do to the baby, make it a baby blanket?” In the fallout, though, despite the joking and my knowledge of the truth, I would fall back into the rabbit hole when insomnia visited: what was real? I cried myself to sleep when this happened, just like I had at the start of it all.
Triggered or not, no matter how sure I am of the goodness of the friendships and romantic relationships I am capable of cultivating and cohabiting within, deep sleep eludes me most nights. I am still on edge, sleeping at alert, waiting for a crisis.
To hear my body, when I wake up alone,
I try to remember very basic facts:
1. Where your head fell against my chest,
2. The shape of your hands,
3. How your tongue hits those words at a slant;
I may not be sure that myself will emerge
whole from the devouring
After three years of living far away from Washington, DC after my divorce, I returned to town for a visit and stopped by the parish house near my old church—the Episcopal one that had felt like a sanctuary after leaving fundamentalism. I wanted to say hi to the priest and his wife who had embraced me and my Chad so warmly when we were newlyweds, when we had just left the cult. This couple had listened to me grieve the end of my marriage, had helped me get myself together to move away and start over, and I wanted to see them again. I wanted to thank Father Ed and his wife, Patty, for loving me before I knew this, back when I was still a heartbroken mess first over losing my old cult community and then over losing my husband. Their church was the last church I’d felt safe in, and while I’d moved away, I trusted that I’d be able to stop in and be welcomed. I wanted to tell them about all the ways my world had grown rich in love and healing since I’d moved away.
But Chad still attended their parish and I was nervous. I didn’t want to stir anything up (which I know is a fear based on his gaslighting). I knew I was the focus of his anxiety and trauma responses when they occurred, but I knew that they were mists, conjurings of a caricature that I am not and will never be.
Getting off the bus in Chevy Chase, I walked around the circle to the old stone church, where I found Ed in his office. He was on a call, but he smiled at me, excited to see me there. “Go to the rectory and have lunch with Patty,” he said. “I’ll be there soon.”
I walked down the beech-lined block and knocked on the rectory door. Behind the glass storm door, the second door was flung open, the implicit invitation to all comers an echo of their practice of ministry, and why I still loved them dearly. A small dog came to the door first, then Patty, who was all delight and warmth. She brought me inside, asking after my family, my job, my writing. “We miss you here,” she said.
I was about to cry, because this church was the last place where I felt like I could still try to believe in Christianity, where there was hope and comfort for me in faith. This kind couple still loved me, even after I’d been gone so long. Early on after the divorce, when my brain cycled at night, looking for the thing I must have done that was so awful to him, I would remember this, holding onto it like a talisman. Maybe I wasn’t the problem, I had reassured myself. Ed and Patty still love me, I told myself then. And I was right, they still did.
Patty made me a ham and cheese sandwich, and when Ed arrived and joined us, he also hugged me. His voice was as warm as his embrace. “I’m really glad to see you, you have no idea,” he told me. “I wish you were still part of our parish, we miss you here.”
“Really, even after everything Chad said?”
I knew Ed had heard more about our split than Patty had. Chad had gotten remarried here, had done premarital sessions with him and his new wife, and Ed had counseled Chad through his waves of depression when we had first arrived at the church, our faith nearly shipwrecked from leaving the cult.
Ed shook his head. “He’s not in touch with who you are. He’s hurting. It’s not about you.”
“I’m just glad my friends didn’t believe him.” It had taken a while for me to realize it, but those closest to me had always dismissed his claims out of hand.
“No one did,” he said. Patty nodded. I knew this finally, then, but hearing that it was true even in the early days of our separation felt like being wrapped in a warm blanket after walking for a long time in the biting November wind.
“Are you still writing?” they asked.
“I am. I’m working on a memoir in this grad program,” I said. “And some poetry, like always.”
“Good, keep writing,” Ed said. “You know, you can come back here anytime.”
He was repeating himself now, but it felt so good to hear it. Seeing the relief on my face, he continued: “This is your home, too.”
“Thank you,” I said to them as I left, and I thought to myself: Maybe this is what I needed? Maybe I can sleep well tonight.
I wait for myself to reappear,
metabolizing in the dark,
waiting for her to come back online.
On the Amtrak back to Virginia from DC that night, I close my eyes and feel the motion of the train and replay the lunch in the rectory over and over again in my head. The lines of a poem begin to form as I think about how to talk about what I’ve come to call “emotional metabolism,” the process of digesting something so difficult that it requires small bites before you can look at it head-on and see it as a whole. I imagine ants running over a carcass, picking off tiny shreds of flesh, whittling away until only bones are left. The last few years, the therapy, the other lovers, the slow rebuilding of my trust in myself as good to those I love, have been the ants, carrying away bit after bit of the phantoms Chad had left behind in my mind.
I watch as the sky outside the train windows darkens, and my face appears. This person looks tired, but today they feel like me. I feel present in my reflection as I watch it. I feel my hand as I lift it and watch my wrist turn and my fingers twist on the flat surface of the window. I feel comforted in this recognition of myself. Perhaps I don’t need to know what I did wrong. Perhaps I am just a person recovering from C-PTSD, who was a cis-passing girl with undiagnosed C-PTSD, who loved hard and lost hard. Perhaps I am simultaneously the same person I was then and this fuller human self now at rest with who I’ve become. Perhaps I can remember my marriage without looking so hard for a monster that I don’t recognize, who may not have existed at all.
Feeling full and exhausted, I fall asleep to the swaying of the car and the hum of the wheels on the tracks. The conductor announces that we’re entering Charlottesville when I wake up, and I am not startled this time. My breathing is steady. No one is next to me in this seat, but I am not afraid, nor am I alone. We are here together, all of my selves are present. I see the station lights with my own eyes, and I leave the train present in my body.
Author’s note: Since first drafting this essay in 2018, I began EMDR therapy, a somatic approach to trauma. The results have been remarkable and while I still struggle to sleep, the ambient hypervigilance I describe here is significantly lessened overall.
Rumpus original art by Honey Gilmore.