This photo was taken the year before my mother married Danny, my stepfather. I scarcely remember myself pre-trauma, but here’s the visual record: I existed before the condition of my victimhood, and before the condition of my survivorship.
The revisions to healthcare currently under consideration will allow companies to discriminate against survivors of violence and assault, citing those experiences as “pre-existing conditions.” Danny’s abuse of other girls existed before I was born, and yet I am the one with the “condition?” No.
So much of therapy for survivors of sexual trauma consists of reframing fault, of taking displaced self-incrimination and redirecting it externally, but here’s the thing: even as a child, I knew what he was doing was wrong. I knew what he was doing was not my fault. What else I knew, though: the world would hold me accountable for what he had done to me.
And the sheriff that took the deposition from my teenaged mouth implied the fault was mine and my mother’s. And the culture over and over again touts Personal Responsibility, Personal Responsibility, Personal Responsibility.
Here’s some personal responsibility: I have paid thousands upon thousands of dollars out of pocket for mental health care in the 19 years since my stepfather’s arrest, and I have come to terms with knowing that I may never function “normally.” The condition of abuse was his disorder, but I am the one who will carry the symptoms for the rest of my life.
I went to the gynecologist last week and had to have a cancer biopsy done. Thankfully, the results came back fine, but the procedure set off my PTSD. For three days, I shelved my emails and my finals writing work, and instead I read in bed, I knitted a sock, my daughter read me fairy tales on the couch. I asked my loves to keep close so I wouldn’t be alone with the old shadows in my door frames. They brought me sorbet, they drank rum on my patio with me while I chain-smoked, they took me to dinner, they took me to the gym even though I felt weak and pushed me just enough to remind me of my strength. I talked, but not about the abuse, because I am sick of talking about the abuse.
The people closest to me do an inordinate amount of caretaking and emotional labor, in addition to the therapist I see, even this many years removed. But because I now have the resources I need to keep myself on keel, I’m able to be high functioning. I have to monitor my thresholds like anyone else with a lifelong condition, though, and I am careful with myself. I know I am hobbled. My community labors to keep me functioning. When I am functioning, I give back everything I can muster.
After my mother found out what happened to me, her brain broke full-stop. I don’t know how else to contextualize that, as mental illness is so complicated, and its sources so multifaceted. I’m sure that she likely was cycling in the years before, on a smaller scale, and knowing she could be claimed crazy was likely a perk for my predator. But the intervening trauma sent her careening. In the years since, she has had multiple psychotic breaks and suicide attempts. She has been hospitalized and hospitalized, hospitalized and hospitalized. I have power of attorney over her care, though I prefer to give her as much autonomy as she can manage. Officially, her diagnosis is bipolar disorder. It’s easy to use the Personal Responsibility argument against someone with bipolar disorder, because the disease itself impairs rationality and decision-making. In a manic state, my mother is capable of all manners of literal madness, making decisions that baffle anyone whose brain allows them to keep conscientious control of themselves. She is wild and wily. She is easy to vilify. She is easy to blame.
My mother and I are post-existing in someone else’s condition, not pre-existing. We do have damage that can not be undone. I know full well that we are not at fault for those damages, but the reality is that our entire support systems continue to bear the brunt of the care we need to keep functioning.
I am constantly frustrated with myself for what I need. I’d like my living to be something that’s a manageable given, and I’d especially like for my brain to quit mooring me in past horror. But then I remind myself of the Dutch woman that I wrote about here. Plenty of us wind up so moored in past horror that there is no present, no future. Some of us wind up dead.
Every time I think about what’s happening in our government, I’m baffled. I don’t know how to grapple with these people, people who’ve so convinced themselves of their own superiority that they think other lives are disposable. People who want dominion, who think dominion is their rightful place in the world, are people I do not want to understand.
I had five years pre-existing in my own sovereign body before Danny came in. The real condition, the source condition–thinking one has a right to violate, control, and dominate other people’s bodies–that condition is not mine, and it is not my mother’s. That condition is sicker than we will ever be, and I won’t let it convince me that the problem is me.