The Paradox of a Smile

I got a lot of interesting feedback from my last post.

Mainly bewilderment. I blame myself. I use this blog as a way to flex my writing muscles, but if you ever read one of my novels or my recent poetry, you’d notice a difference in tone.

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For instance, my current work in progress contains a character with PTSD. One of the ways I insert her struggles into the novel is by interrupting her thought process with flashbacks. When she’s triggered and begins to lose her grip on the present, I drop tiny hints at what she’s thinking. A sentence. A word. Little bits disrupt the narrative to give the reader a taste of what it’s like to have your mind revving up into the frenzy of a triggered panic attack.

Basically, my writing voice leans more abstract and poetic than I tend to be here. My last post felt normal to me but made many well-meaning people think I go to therapy for my acne.

I struggle with symptoms of PTSD, which I left too long untreated. Six months ago, the triggers multiplied, culminating in my inability to view my own face in the mirror. I don’t see me anymore. I see red blotches that echo past trauma. Makeup doesn’t help. The haircut didn’t help. I just can’t look at myself right now.

I’ve exorcized the house, one room at a time, and covered all the mirrors with towels.

You probably think I’m overreacting. So rip off the crude curtain and make me stare at myself, at the hot red slap on my pale European ancestry, the angry flush of heredity that makes me hate my skin. I’ll try to crawl out of it while you watch, clawing my way to the surface before the scream suffocates me.

~ Rachel Svendsen, Rosacea

I avoided treatment because I feared the outcome. I guess I needed to become ill enough that I wouldn’t care.

I just want to be well. I can hardly keep up with the few things I’m still involved in and dread adding anything new. I’m too exhausted to keep up with relationships or daily duties. I’ve questioned my will to keep trying.

I needed help. Part of that was a doctor prescribed mandate to eliminate as many triggers as possible. Some of those triggers were relationships. This move generally goes unsupported. People turn it on its head and the abused individual is forced to forgive in ways that permanently tie them to toxic relationships. You’re told to be stronger, to stop “making drama” or harboring hatred.

I questioned myself so much that my therapist actually bid me stop. He told me to imagine I was a soldier injured in battle. I’m now in hospital, fed, warm, resting, and hating myself for abandoning my comrades. I cannot obey the call of my guilt. I’m wounded. Things have changed.

Abuse changes things. It breaks relationships in a way that cannot always be mended into a happy ending for all.

In closing, one of the most confusing responses I received was people finding it impossible to insert my wild, tormented rantings into the mind of my smiling social media face.

First: I fear this is a danger in our Instagrammed society. Never, NEVER assume someone’s life is idyllic because of their social media. We’re programmed to just show the comfy parts to the world, a sort of emotional keep up with the Joneses we’ve been enacting since the beginning of the Facebook generation.

Second: Living with a mental disorder is to forever walk the line between okay and falling apart. Healthy people don’t understand how this feels. That’s why it’s so hurtful to tell a depressed person, “I get sad too sometimes.” Depression is more than that. That’s also why I write my abused and mentally ill characters semi-poetically. It’s my attempt to capture the jolt and jar of walking through the day with a fractured mind. That’s what my last post was about, so if it confused you, I guess it was almost meant to.

Third: Just because I’m ill and suffering doesn’t mean my life has no joy. The LORD has filled my life with loving, supportive people, essential to my survival during this time. I have a beautiful daughter who gives me endless snuggles and fills my ears with bubbling laughter. I have a warm, generous husband who holds me when I cry and scream. I have hope in a God who promised me Eternity in His healing presence.

A smile can hide brokenness, but it’s not always just an act. Sometimes it’s just a testament of survival and God’s grace.

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Photo by Katie Emma Photography

Rosacea

 

I’m having so much difficulty, as of late, finding a way to vent my pain. It’s currently backed up in my head in the form of an endless scream. I drown it out with books and cooking shows and crushing candy. Plastic screens and magic black squiggles that envelope the here and take me anywhere else. The pages flip, the colored squares pop and for a moment I can make myself believe I’m accomplishing something instead of standing still.

If you bothered to pry me up, to shake me out of anywhere to here, I’ll admit I’m not okay. And if you make me stand in front of a mirror, you can watch me fall apart.

I dragged myself to my therapist’s office and blinked awake long enough to let the scream out for a diagnosis. Then I shut it back inside, handed the prescription to my husband, and took my diagnosis down to the place where the scream began.

I’ve exorcized the house, one room at a time, and covered all the mirrors with towels.

You probably think I’m overreacting. So rip off the crude curtain and make me stare at myself, at the hot red slap on my pale European ancestry, the angry flush of heredity that makes me hate my skin. I’ll try to crawl out of it while you watch, clawing my way to the surface before the scream suffocates me.

Yes, I could make a believer out of you. I could show you the madness that creeps around the edges of my I’m-just-fine. But nevermind, I’m just drama and attention wrapped in the paradox of attempting to live life unseen.

So I’ll swallow the scream and let you think what you want of the diagnosis, the prescription, and me. And I’ll wait for the day when the trauma is cool enough that I can take down the towels, look in the mirror, hear silence and see nothing except rosacea.

 

Looking Back with Button Eyes

Coraline horrified me as a child. So much, that I purposed never read Neil Gaiman again. Years later, I read Neverwhere and he immediately became one of my favorite authors.

I decided to revisit Coraline this year. I spent my read trying to dissect what it was that upset me as a child. I mean, it’s intentionally creepy. The heroine, Coraline, is a self-proclaimed explorer who finds a hidden door in her old house. It leads to an alternate version of her life, with an “other mother” who has buttons for eyes. The other mother invites Coraline to live in this new world forever. All she must do is allow her other mother to replace her eyes with buttons.

But I remember it being more than the danger and suspense of the plot that unsettled me. The feeling went deeper, into a dark place I feared to explore as a child.

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picture by pointblizzy

She seemed lonely to me, forgotten and ignored. She had no friends her age to play with and the adults dismiss her frequently throughout the story, even when she’s in danger. Her interactions with her father reinforced the story’s atmosphere of abandonment. He always seemed to have his back to Coraline when she spoke to him.

Enter the other mother who is eager to meet all Coraline’s needs, including Coraline’s desire for affection. But the intensity of the interest is unsettling, stalker-like. A silent watching and waiting, that quickly turns dangerous.

“It was true: the other mother loved her. But she loved Coraline as a miser loves money, or a dragon loves its gold. In the other mother’s button eyes, Coraline knew that she was a possession, nothing more. A tolerated pet, whose behavior was no longer amusing.”
~ Neil Gaiman, Coraline

Back then, Coraline read like the story of a girl offered the choice of living as outcast or prey. That is what made the book true horror to me. Ghosts fade in the daylight and demons can be exorcized, but if everyone abandons you, then loneliness is always.

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illustration by Chris Riddell

I often describe my childhood as silent. I combated my loneliness by retreating behind the door of my imagination, where I lived my hours in daydreams of closeness and acceptance. I had a whole other family in my mind, whose button-eyed gaze never looked through me. I wasn’t superfluous to them; I was loved.

Coraline disturbed me because I would have traded my eyes for buttons. In some ways, I already had.

During my reread, I paid close attention to how her real parents treated her and saw that they weren’t as neglectful as I’d remembered. There is, however, enough repetition in the text of her father turned away and of her desire for physical touch, that I don’t blame my younger self for picking up on it. It’s difficult to filter out the part of a story that speaks directly into your life. What encourages me most now is how, despite his neglect, she turns to his wisdom to cope with the oncoming darkness.

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illustration by Chris Riddell

Coraline’s story is actually about how bravery comes from fear. Fear is essential to bravery, for without fear, bravery has no purpose. This is a lesson Coraline learned from her father. He helped her choose to face her fears by walking back into the claws of the dark.

“‘Because,’ she said, ‘when you’re scared but you still do it anyway, that’s brave.'”
~ Neil Gaiman, Coraline

Coraline’s parents may have denied her the closeness she needed, but she was still able to learn from them, lessons essential to her survival and maturity. Dysfunctional, even broken, families have something to give.

My childhood will remain silent. But now, in the family I’ve chosen to be part of, I can fight to fill the rooms with love. I know the mistakes of yesterday because I lived them and braved their shadows alone. And as Coraline reminded herself that she was brave many times before she believed it, I will preach the pain of my past to myself again and again until it makes me stronger.

I will be brave. No, I am brave.

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