Dreaming Awake

I had a glimpse last week of what it would be like to be normal.  At least, it's what I imagine normal would be like: to be able to look at my husband and feel nothing but tenderness and love for who he is and how much he loves me.  No threats, no anxieties, no misunderstandings.  Above all, no conviction that he is angry at me when he actually isn't.  I've been so deaf.  So blind.  So scared.  It didn't matter what he said to me, I couldn't hear.

Nor was it just my husband.  I've been living in fear of what other people were thinking of me pretty much all of my life.  Running scared.  Absolutely convinced that there was no way anybody could actually like me.  That there wasn't some hidden agenda or lie.  That they weren't angry when they said something about what I'd done.  I've heard criticisms when there wasn't even advice, challenges when all they were saying was "Hello," scorn when they were trying to invite me to join them. 

And so, I lashed out, pushed them away before they could get close to me, panicked at the slightest hint of their indifference (or what I thought was their indifference), desperate not to be hurt.  Is it normal to feel this way?  "Just because you're paranoid," as the saying goes.  Sometimes, they have been out to get me.  I have been hurt.  Worse than others?  Worse than I myself have hurt my family, lovers, friends?  Where did I learn so much fear?  So much distrust?

Our marriage counselor says that I am trapped in old responses, responses that I learned when I was younger (how much younger, she doesn't say).  That it is the child whom I once was crying out inside of me, using what she has to try to ward off dangers that may have existed but no longer necessarily do.  That her responses are so habitual that they prevent me from being able to hear or see what is going on right now, what my husband is actually saying to me.  I have ears, but I cannot hear because the child inside of me is screaming in fear.

And yet, for day after day last week, she was quiet.  I could see the smile on my husband's face, hear the love in his voice, trust that he meant what he said, that there wasn't something else he wanted to say and wasn't.  It was like a dream, the most beautiful dream in the world.  I felt so light, so happy.  Content.  And the wonderful thing is, it was all true.  Absolutely, utterly true.  "Oh, my God," I kept thinking.  "This is what it feels like not to be attacked by demons every minute of the day.  This is what the world really looks like.  Look, that woman is smiling at me.  And that one.  And that man.  How friendly they are, not at all frightening.  And my students like me.  Maybe even my colleagues.  Even my office neighbor wasn't really angry when she came to talk to me about my dog's barking.  It's okay.  It's okay.  It's okay."

I want to tell her that she doesn't need to be afraid anymore, that what she saw was real.  But how can she know?  Has she really been wrong all these years?  Has all of her anxiety been for naught?  I know, she knows, many of the threats were real.  Weren't they?  My first boyfriend in college cheating on me after the college annual dinner.  My father leaving us for his second wife.  My friends in high school avoiding me after graduation.  Being the new kid in town, being bullied, having trouble making friends.  Was it all just in my head?  Would it have been different if I had been prettier, sweeter, better able to get along?  Not as smart?  Not myself?

I know that she is in there, the little girl I once was.  I remember being her.  Before getting glasses.  Before moving to the new town.  Before getting fat and ugly and unlikeable.  Before disappointing my parents for not getting good grades.  Before getting frustrated because I didn't have the patience to learn.  Before learning that I was broken, wrong, loud, prone to temper tantrums, dangerous, frightening, bad, deserving of punishment, deserving to be teased and ignored.  After which I learned to punish myself.  And have been, going on forty years.

It's hard right at this moment.  My son is stressed about the homework that he needs to do, and I'm trying to think how best to respond.  I feel what he feels.  The fatigue, the fear of not being finished in time.  He just kicked the coffee table.  Which is very like something I might have done.  Have done.  In the not-so-distant past.  I don't know how to help him; I want to scream, too.  My legs hurt.  I'm anxious about what I'm writing here.  I don't want to think that being normal (as above) isn't possible.  I want not to be perpetually afraid.

If only my eyes would finish healing, then I could see.  Even now, with my eyes still oscillating, ghosting, I can see people's faces more clearly than I ever could.  And I catch myself looking in their eyes and seeing...gentleness.  Friendship.  Affection.  Love.  How long have I been blind to their kindness?  Does it really go back as long as I had been wearing glasses?  Hiding myself from the world behind my nearsightedness, literally afraid to see.  I read a book once that suggested that children become nearsighted when under stress; that giving them glasses rather that finding out what it is that they are afraid to see simply cripples them, like giving their legs braces so that they never get the strength to walk.  Maybe.  It would be interesting if it really were all in my mind at first, just given physical expression in my eyes.  And now, thanks to the antibiotics, in my legs.

So much has changed in the past three years since I started keeping this blog.  Three years ago, most of what I have just written here was invisible to me, buried under years of coping--and junk.  Just like our apartment, I was suffocating only I didn't realize it.  And my husband, I could barely see.  I've thrown out so much stuff, literally, I'm amazed at how much junk there was.  And yet, there's still more.  Shoes that I've been carrying around since college.  Sheets that don't fit any of our beds.  Portable chairs that we have never taken to an outdoor concert.  Musical instruments that nobody plays.  Coats that I no longer wear.  Stories that I've told myself about how I'm a bad person.  Habits of coping that I learned as a child.  Fears that I've carried with me in my body and soul for decades.  It's amazing I've kept going this long.

But I'm hopeful.  I caught a glimpse not so very long ago of what it would be like to feel loved, really, truly loved.  Now to wake up--and know that it is real.


  1. Sometimes, being on the other side, i.e. the person whose behavior is wrongly interpreted, is just as scary and confusing. Trying to reach out and being bitten is not only disheartening to me, but it is also the starting of questioning myself (What is wrong with me?), whereas sometimes, the other person has just projected his/her fears and insecurities upon me. But it is hard to tell the difference, and perhaps even harder to remain open and keep reaching out.

    Let me tell you a story. The first day I met Fencing Bear, many years ago, I greeted him enthusiastically because Dorothea the corgi-basenji mix had spoken very warmly about him after I had mentioned my interest for all things medieval. But Fencing Bear bit me! So I carefully avoided him eventually. Then a year ago, I started seeing him around a lot more, probably because our territories overlapped more tightly than usual. I was shy because I remembered the bite, but then, I thought, if I maintained a safe distance, I could always wave from afar. And then one day, Fencing Bear reached out! It was wonderful. I was not afraid of being bitten any more, and learned so much from him. Above all, I learned that I should not let one little bite scare me for years after, and that Fencing Bear is quite an extraordinary being I feel lucky I have met at last.

  2. Excellent point about being on the bitten end; yes, I hear you! How many times have I had to explain to people whom the Dragon Baby and I meet that she is barking at them because she is nervous, not because she doesn't like them? She just doesn't know them and is wary, but being barked at is never pleasant nonetheless.

    At the risk of sounding like I am barking, do I know you? Fencing Bear is a "she" so are you perhaps talking about another Fencing Bear? And I don't have any memories of Dorothea, although I feel like I should remember a corgi-basenji mix. If it was me who bit you (how exactly?), I apologize and am very grateful that you now feel able to talk with me. If it was not me, still, good for you having the courage to reach out again; I am encouraged to hear that you are now friends with Fencing Bear!

  3. I have been reading Fencing Bear's blog for years (since 2008?), but still dare not talk/write to her...

  4. Clearly, I am scarier than I realize, even though I am only a little bear! Thanks, both of you, for helping me see the other side of the picture.

  5. Oh, no! I didn't mean that you were scary. I'm just timid and paranoid: Fencingbear will think I'm ignorant and stupid if I talk to her about medieval history...if Dante has a circle for stupid people in the inferno, I'll certainly make my way there. When you're worrying what people are thinking of you, perhaps more people in the world are worrying what you're thinking of them.

  6. Aha, yes, that is very true, too. The lesson here is clearly to pay better attention to other people, rather than assuming we know what they are thinking. Maybe they're not thinking about us at all--or maybe they like us more than we ever realize. This, certainly, is what I've been finding these past few days!


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