The Un-Making of My Insanity

20 Feb 2018


I called it my prison then, and it was a beautiful one, whether or not I felt it then. Now, at twenty-five, I know many more metaphorical prisons existed in that house, but back then it was physical, hedged by the gardens you only find in suburbia and a long, thin backyard with a wilting wooden playground. I had older cousins, ones that lived far away and made their way through life with their own bank accounts and career paths and romances, their own mobility, and I remember genuinely wondering to myself how they survived to reach adulthood, how they lived long enough to really breathe. 


I don't mean that I was chained in place. I don't mean that my bedroom door was locked from the outside or that I was threatened with violence if I so much as stepped foot outside. Indeed, I was never threatened with violence, at least not anything worse than the corporal punishment standard to a Caribbean household, the kind my Jewish-American fiancé, bless his heart, deems wholly inappropriate. They told us then as they tell us know, those hearty Caribs, that it's how to raise a child; it's what made them, in their day, of such stern stuff. "If you don't hear, you will feel," my mother repeated to me growing up. She learned it from her mother. I don't doubt that saying is an heirloom passed down through the generations, a birthright. 


No, the control was something less tangible than clearly delineated physical boundaries. They were mental boundaries, emotional and interpersonal boundaries. Edges of reason and ambition of the kind the old disparage in the young for fear of losing control. And control was important to them. Absolute reign was important to them. It might have worked. It had the force behind it to reach some real success, if they had been a team, the two of them. But they were not, and never have been, for as far back as I can remember. They were two horses bridled with the bonds of their marriage and pulling in opposite directions, as though they could split the yoke in two. 


It might have been the religion, the oil and water of Catholicism and stern Protestation. Or it might have been the plain blindness of youth that had brought two incompatible opposites to come together for worse or for worse. Or it may have been, and most likely was, him and his flavor of logic, lack of love, sword-edge of reason, totalitarian leadership, and, perhaps the most egregious of all his sins, smothering patriarchy. 


I called that house a prison because it's where my demons came to haunt me. It was there -- with my father denouncing any sort of mental illness and delusion, any sort of sickness of but that of the body and soul -- that the darkness of depression, oppression, loneliness, and helplessness first came to make my acquaintance, first made a home in my head. 


It was never truly normal, but it was my only reality then. My parents' arguing was the best of it. The worst was what they turned on me. My mother said later that my father was harsh with me because he saw himself in me, because he wanted to make me sharp, to make me a thinker without emotion, well-argued or scientific, perhaps. He wanted to make me into him. But I think it's because he saw her in me, and his resentment for her was visited on me, yea unto the next generation. I think was because the spirit, the defiance, the resistance to being controlled for my sex or youth or the emotion behind my desires. I think it was because he had lost control of her, and he craved it. I think it was because he wanted to own outright the things he called "mine."


And he did call me that, "Daughter of mine," which might have been endearing in another's mouth. He had money over me. He had the entitlement of the law. And he had the years it would take me to age out, the years of middle school, high school, and college when I was dependent, had no choice but to be dependent. And I bent. I bent to his threats, recycled words of warning that had worked on my mother, threats to withdraw support. By the end, it was all he had left. It was a relationship based on need, and so it stayed. When the need was gone, it was all gone. 


But I think, in truth, it was ignorance. It was their own inability to make sense of themselves that shaped me, that taught me to live in the way bloodletting cures an illness. That was why I studied psychology, to understand the drives of my prison wardens and the shadows their rule visited on me. It was the isolation in a crowd, the worry of making a misstep, of falling out of favor. It was the doubt that my reasons were not reasonable and that my emotion was not valid. It was the resentment that I had been left bare to bear the brunt of disapproval, of reprimand and consequences: a child in an invisible struggle that even those could see count not -- or would not -- stop. It was the constant manipulation, the refusal to negotiate. It was the knowledge that every argument I had would fall on deaf ears, the lack of agency, the utter helplessness -- the confinement of it. The prison. 


From the outside, they didn't see that he demoralized his wife. They didn't know he put down his daughter, that he dismissed her fears, expressed indifference for her accomplishments, always expected his bar to be met, his word to be obeyed. They didn't know his inability to be reasoned with, the impossibility of winning any argument with him, the stoicism of his resolve, when I broke down, even when I screamed with crying. They didn't know that when I opposed him, challenged him, he held up my younger brother as a model child by contrast and so tore down my confidence, my self-esteem. They didn't know about the harsh judgment I felt from both sides, failures to praise and eagerness to criticize, their unwillingness to relent, my craving for validation, for support, and the fact that there was none. Money yes, enough to live on, enough to get an education. But nurture, never dream of it. How could they know is "My way or the highway" philosophy? Would they believe that he was dead serious when he said it? Would they believe he would truly let me walk out before he lifted a single finger in support? I believed it. They didn't know the tools he used to subdue, to make her question her every impulse. And they didn't hear the insults, the ones that cut to the bone. 


In college, I learned about disorders. I learned about the subtlety of depression, the reality of a malady in the mind. I learned about the sort of illnesses that make people behave like sociopaths, that make people turn on people. And I learned about repression. I learned about the force the mind has, the long memory of its scars, the scar tissue it forms to bandage them, the duration -- sometimes endless -- of their effects. I don't remember the worst of it. I know I wrapped it up in a physical place, that beautiful prison, and was glad to be abroad and away when they sold the house and moved elsewhere. They divorced too, at last, after I was moved out, and there was happiness and bitterness in that, in it coming so late but, yes, coming at last. I have panic attacks when I go back there. I haven't been back there in over two years. 


I do remember the bits and pieces, the remnants of emotional abuse that reach me now, escaped that I am, when I do speak to him. I remember the insults he leveled at my fiancé, about his background, about his intelligence, about his place in my life. I remember them as evidence of his own illness, which his wife still believes will fade with age. Remarriage is a funny thing. It makes such little sense in this case, when it's to the man you divorced, when it's to the source of near thirty years of tearful loneliness. But I learned, too, about the aftermath of emotional torture, the Stockholm Syndrome of abuse of the heart that keeps the victims returning to the scene with fresh optimism. She wouldn't see reason, the kind that helps, the kind that cares, and we all tried to tell her to remind her. She didn't save me when I needed it. In the end, I couldn't save her from going back. 


What I could do is get out, move away, outrun my disillusionment that spread in its affect and thus needed a larger area to claim and maim. I escaped to heal, to find confidence and true reason and, better still, to find it living in confluence with emotion -- to find balance. I didn't leave the scars behind, but I made sure I didn't gain new ones. I got away, taught myself to love, made myself a life, a bank account, a career path -- I survived to gain mobility. 


I do still see him: in the snide remarks of others that cut me down, the retorts that take my problems, my struggles and make them about themselves rather than about my recovery. I see him in my own taste for confrontation, my willingness to bring the argument where argument was not. And I see him, too, in my fear of it, the tremors that rack me in a conflict, the tears that bleed my eyes dry. More than anything, though, I see him in my compassion, in its deepness and complexity. I see him in my own validations of other's fears, my need to help stem the tide of raw pain, the stifling current of insecurity, the oppression of worry or dread. I see what I have become to move beyond, to rise above. And I am proud. 


The shadows from those days do return when I am lonely, having made their own place in my head long ago in those early years. They return when I feel undercut or debased, or when fear, need, or anger choke out my sanity. But I have people around me now to reassure me, to escalate and calm my ravaged heart. 


And he's nothing like him, my fiancé. He is like my brother instead: mild and kind, mindful of resistance, inclined towards peace. Patient. Quiet. The things I was not. But he loves how I fit around him, like a supplement, an augmentation. I am a positive, to him, and not a negative. And to him I am everything I believed I was not: strong, confident, ambition, discerning, careful, competent, wise. And sensible. After it all, there are those, him chief among them, who find my mind sound, my sentiments just, my reason valid. 




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