Self-Portraits and Paradoxes

“Self Portrait,” Joshua Reynolds

I am aware that my honesty about my struggles in this digital space might well cost me the next job. I hope it does not. But I have paid much steeper prices than a future job to maintain silence, and I don’t have it in me anymore. So I write here to work through what I have left, since writing is kind of my thing, and I hope sometimes that someone somewhere will decide silence isn’t worth it for them.

Yesterday, I saw myself through a friend’s eyes. Saw his perplexity at the dark and bewildering losses to which I refer here, saw his confusion in the face of an otherwise gentle and successful life. I’ve got a job. I am what I say: a young professor on the West Coast with a book on the way to presses, conferences to visit, new ideas spinning through my head, students who adore me and whom I adore right back. My friend might have you reminded that I am considerably talented: he thinks of me first as a poet. I will admit talent with words and languages – I can read eight of them, and I love translating – and a certain sharpness of mind that I think I’ve only begun to welcome. I’m really fucking good at my job. I want to get better. I don’t ever want to stop getting better.

I tend toward being gentle and perceptive, and I don’t have much violence in me. And damn do I love listening most days. Most people aren’t saying what they’re saying, and I can close my eyes and hear the words underneath the words. I can carry those words with me, and find a way to affirm the secret without giving it away.

It shocked a lot of people when I tried to kill myself. The summer just after my successful dissertation defense: that crowded event, one of the highest attended. People fucking loved me. I didn’t.

It shocked my parents.

I didn’t tell them.

Someone else did.

That says so many things: that they had no idea, that I didn’t trust them with my feelings. I just about lost it all over again when someone went and told them anyway. I didn’t trust them at all. That says too much, too much about what I thought of them, and it still hurts. And I know it hurts them, and I wish it didn’t, but I can’t fucking change what I did as if it weren’t true. As if I did trust.

I am intelligent, and I’ll work hard. That’s how I got a bunch of A’s even though I basically didn’t attend high school. I was too sick. So I taught it to myself. Graduate school just felt like more of that, except it was allowed. I’ll never forget one time when I snapped at a friend who complained at how quick I was at tasks: “You didn’t fucking have to teach yourself! Of course I learned to be fast! What other choice did I have?”

I blush now at my rage. I didn’t know what an angry person I was underneath. I hid it from myself.

And sweet Jesus, how very far A’s go to hide a teenager broken by trauma.

Once I hugged my mom and I lied to her with a straight face. “Mom,” I whispered, “it’s going to be okay.” Then I walked down the hospital hallway by myself, and I knew it wasn’t. I was ten.

There were so many hospital visits. I lost count. So many procedures and faces. It is difficult, psychologically, to grow up under the hands of other people. By the time I’d hit my early teens, I was fully traumatized by years of invasions. I didn’t know that. I knew that I didn’t want to be touched anymore. I remember that part. It was some kind of fucking cruel joke: I would have paid absolutely anything not to be touched. And as the other kids awakened to sexuality, I got needles and cold hands.

Jesus Christ, what that does to a person.

Here in the Bay Area, where people openly ask me about my sexuality – because that’s a thing people do here – I have to try so hard not to laugh. Laugh bitterly until I can’t breathe anymore. Laugh until I’ve started crying.

I was sexually abused. No, I don’t remember. Somewhere with the doctors and nurses and sometimes I think I can see his face, but I know I really can’t. The mind does not register many things when it is protecting itself. Years and years of… Those things. And, no, there is no evidence – none I could give and rest my case.

Nothing but the nightmares and the coping mechanisms that, in the hands of experts, clearly mark me out as incredibly traumatized.

Years later. I told my parents years later.

Like I said, I’m not one for trust.

I was the child that had learned that adults never figure it out and must never be trusted. So I told no one. Not even my best friend.

In psychology, the measure for truth is physiological. What the nervous system has got programmed into itself – that can’t be overridden or faked. Based on that evidence, I’m a torture victim. I just about threw up after the second time an expert told me.

I didn’t believe the first time.

I am told that, as far as psychological experiences go, I was handed all the bad cards. And I didn’t any good ones to help me hold it together. They’re amazed I’ve survived as intact as I am.

“Fucking intact torture victim,” I muttered, unimpressed.

And so it is. I’m not a bad person, mostly, though I’ve done bad things. All kinds of responses to my own suffering that don’t make me proud. I can be very good, especially to people I think need a little gentleness. I’ve seen a lot of things, a lot of not very good things, and the nice part about collapsing is I don’t have much shame left for lies or for judging someone else.

And I am a contradiction. Broken and survived. (Damn am I good at surviving, and it makes me so fucking tired too.) I understand that I am more than the scars that mark my mind. I understand, too, that I’m very different because I have them. And different because I acknowledge them.

I’m a torture survivor and I was sexually abused and I tried to die. I’m a professor of theology and I really love people and my favorite part of yesterday was the hug I got from my colleague, Paul.

And I do think God is redeeming me as I breathe.


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