By Erika Turner
In a dark room, I hear the crash of glass and a sudden string of profanities. Where am I? A blurred outline of my childhood possessions comes crisply into view, and I see myself in the bedroom of my Las Vegas home, with light purple walls and white wood furniture. My door is slightly ajar and there is noise – voices yelling. Someone is crying, and there are feet pounding on the ground. Up the stairs. Toward me.
My breath grows shallow and my heart begins to race, drilling into my chest an imprint of desperation. I stand facing the doorway through which he enters – a drunken vision of rage. Black eyes wild and rimmed with red, glaring at me. Have I done something wrong? What could I have said this time? The stench of cheap Heineken fills the space between us as he advances, and my small 11-year-old limbs begin to shake. “Bitch,” he slurs. “Fucking dirty bitch. Just like her mama.” He is inches from my face, breathing his sixth beer into my nostrils, and my back is pressed against the door of my closet, several feet away from the spot I had claimed seconds before. “Don’t know how to fucking shut up, respect a man.” He spews, “You slut.”
Suddenly, I come to life, my lungs filling sporadically as my eyes open. My back straightens like a rod before crumbling forward with a shallow release of breath. My partner is at my side in an instant, swiftly pressing her hands to my back, her forehead to mine as she takes in my newly alert state. “Baby, what’s wrong?” she asks. I look at her with confusion, searching her eyes as if she might be able to answer her own question. I push out of her arms and sit back on my own hands, looking around the room, reminding myself of where I am and where I am not.
“I think…I think I just dreamed about my dad,” I say to her. “I don't know why. I never…I’ve never done that.”
In 23 years, I can’t recall a single moment in time in which dreams of my stepfather have assaulted me. Perhaps this is because I spent the first eighteen actively living the nightmare, and those thereafter processing. In many ways, I have been able to come to terms with the violence and emotional abuse I grew up with, accepting it as a fact of my childhood that is no longer relevant to my present life. It is not something I keep as a secret from most, because I feel distant from it. Explaining this history often feels as benign as telling the story of that one time I was six and fell on the curb at my uncle’s house, scraping my knee. It hurt, I’m sure, but I don’t remember the pain, just the fact that it happened.
But when I experienced that dream, emotions I could never recall came crashing down upon my memory, tearing through the walls I had built between my childhood and me. I remembered, for the first time, what it felt like to be afraid. I was no longer simply recapping that time I scraped my knee, but experiencing the impact of bone against cement, the friction of skin cutting across gravel, and the feeling of millions of tiny rocks ripping into new flesh, releasing a shallow splurge of blood. I was remembering what it felt like to be 4, 7, 11, 14, 16, and waking up at 1 am to the sounds of profanity and heavy breathing as my mother wrestled with my stepfather on the first floor beneath my bedroom. I was remembering what it meant to be small in the face of an angry 40-year-old man, and what it meant to feel like your blood had melted from your veins, leaving only a shuddering, pale shuck of child skin.
To the surprise of many, the monster of my dreams is still active in my present life. Sober now, and riddled with disease and ailments brought on by age, my stepfather is a much smaller giant. Moreover, our relationship is punctuated with complexities that cannot be explained cleanly and have not yet been explored fully. My stepfather cares for me, even if he doesn't know how to love me. And though I am still angry in many ways, still bitter and hurt and frustrated, I care for him too, because that is what a child is taught to feel toward a parent, no matter the scars.
But the scars are hard to ignore. Reflecting on it now, I realize the dream came at a time when I was experiencing another type of fear, one more constant and, it seems, harder to escape. I was falling in love and my subconscious was watching in terror, attempting to remind me with extreme clarity what exactly “love” can look like. This terror is still very much a part of who I am. I am still overwhelmed with fear and doubt at every new love, mistrustful of strangers and their intentions.
I believe that it’s very difficult for those of us who grew up in abusive and unhealthy environments to recognize the ways in which we are still affected, especially if we do not succumb to the usual signs, like addiction or “bad” behavior. Because I graduated high school with honors and attended a fancy college, I appear “healed” to most. But I am not. It took me years to recognize that I was still hurting others and actively choosing friends and partners who hurt me. It took me years to realize that trauma cannot be fixed simply through time and distance, but with intention, reflection, and work.
To most, “broken” has a dismissive connotation, but one cannot heal the wounds they choose not to see. It’s hard to admit, but my childhood did break me. I did lose myself. But I am strong enough to heal, now - to grow, to love, and to find myself again.
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