I love to swim. I always have. It was healing for me. When I was in the water, nobody could get to me. Nobody could hurt me. I was in my own world, a world that flowed, a world where all the darkness and pain of my reality was far away. The physical pain stopped too. The aching in my shoulders, hips and knees didn’t weigh me down when I was in the water. The buoyancy was just what my beat-up body needed. And it helped that I was good, very good at swimming. I knew how to flow through that water. I knew how to win.
Fast forward to my own little family and it is predictable that I want to continue that swimming experience vicariously. Unlike many parents who dread long swim meets, I don’t. I breathe in chlorine like some breathe in a field of flowers. It is relaxing and healing. My twins are new to swimming this year. And I would be fibbing if I told you they were rocking their strokes. They usually come in last or disqualify, but I don’t care. And they don’t seem to care much either. I really am blessed with kids that enjoy everything they do.
And so we are making our way through our first swim team season. And I am loving watching my kids swim and participating as a strokes and turns judge. I could not be happier with it. I am focused. And this part of my life is completely unfettered by my past … until last week.
Last week’s swim meet did not go as planned. At first, I was focused on my job as judge and things were normal. But then I moved to the other side of the pool, and I started to lose focus. After losing focus, my behavior started to shift. I became a child again. I was manic and insecure. I was chatty and gossiping with others at the meet. I even used my judge status to change my son’s disqualification (to be fair, it was a bogus call). If I were a pre-teen, it would have been blamed on hormones and immaturity. Of course, I am not. So I am sure I was judged by others. As the night wore on, I went from watching my behavior with frustration to forgetting events entirely. I was completely dissociated.
At first, I had no idea how it happened. I had met a woman who grew up in the same neighborhood. However, she didn’t live there when I did and she was a different age. We only seemed to know one person in common. It just didn’t seem like enough to send me off to the land of nod. But I had this sense, this feeling, that someone else was there, someone from my past, someone very significant.
You see, there was this boy. He was barely an adult when I knew him. And I was still very young. I was living in pure hell. He took me in as a little sister. He was supportive. Sometimes, when home was just too bad to handle, I would run in my nightgown and bare feet to his house. I think he wanted to help me, but didn’t know how. I was absolutely sure he would save me from my hell. I pinned all my hopes on him. But instead, he left. He went off to college and I was not saved. It was that event that dashed my last hopes of escape. My broken heart and dashed hopes were too much for my little brain to understand, so I repressed the abuse … and him. I had no choice. If I had remembered him, I would have been forced to remember the abuse and the abandonment. And that pain was just too much. Besides, I was never going to see him again.
So I thought. That is not what happened. He kept coming back. At first, he was angry that I would blatantly forget him. Then, he was distraught. Then, he became vindictive. He was sure I was trying to avoid and ignore him because I was mad that he left. In reality, my unconscious mind was not strong enough to hold all those repressed memories while facing one of the primary subjects of my repression. It was exhausting and produced tremendous anxiety. I had no choice but to stay away. So, the cycle began. He kept coming around. And I kept running.
This has been the dance of the past thirty years, unbeknownst to my conscious mind. He comes around. I dissociate and leave. And now, at a swim meet, he is there. And my reaction is no different than the previous years. I am torn about this. I am sad that I have not moved further in my recovery. I thought recovering memories of him would have allowed me to be conscious at our next meeting. At the same time, I understand that I figured it out quickly. I knew within twenty-four hours of our meeting. But it wasn’t fast enough to have a conscious interaction with him.
While I know I am making progress, I am continually awed at the hold that dissociation and memory repression continue to have on the functioning of my brain. It is a powerful defense mechanism that can save a life, but at the same time, wreck havoc on that life. After seven years of recovery, I can still become a shell of who I am when placed in a triggering situation. That’s hard to understand. It is scary.
But it is my reality. And while I took a ribbing from my well-meaning friends at the meet who found my behavior somewhat amusing, I know that it was a trauma response, a very complicated and hard to explain response to the pain that my child could not handle. And that is why I tell this story,
not because it is interesting and dramatic, the stuff that movies are made of,
but because it is happening everywhere,
because I am not the only brain on trauma,
because most people don’t understand how trauma response works,
because it is happening to people unbeknownst to them,
because how can we remember, what we already forgot.
Note to the subject of this article … you know who you are: While I have worked hard on my own dissociative response, it has become clear to me that I will not remain conscious during an unplanned face-to-face meeting. If you happen to see me around town (because I know you do), maybe you could give your contact information to whomever I happen to be there with. You might also want to explain to them about my forgetful state so they know to repeat themselves if necessary. It is a plan that just might work.