It was a harmless question. It was an innocent question. It was a question which quickly resulted in my undoing.
Sitting around the dinner table about to enjoy our Christmas meal, a cousin offered up what she thought would be a touching holiday ice breaker. “I just learned of a lovely Christmas tradition. People go around the table and each person shares their favorite Christmas memory. I thought it would be fun if we did it. Would anyone like to share theirs?” “That’s easy” I was about to say. Instead, one cousin quickly provided one of their own. It was from their childhood. I winced. They finished their story. It was met with widespread approval. “Ouch! Let’s not do that again!” I thought. Undeterred, another cousin shared his tale: his first bicycle. My heart sunk. I could feel it coming on. I buried my face in my plate. Two minutes ago, I was a famished. I hadn’t eaten all day. Now, I felt sick to my stomach. I kept my head down and concentrated on my fork. A little to the left, a bit to the right. I toyed with my food hoping my appetite would come back. It wasn’t coming back and his voice was growing louder. “After all the other gifts, there behind a curtain that hung in front of an empty wall, was one last gift…the bicycle I had seen gleaming in the storefront window! My dad had picked it up shortly after seeing me mesmerized by it weeks earlier. Of course, being a father now myself, I have many more favorite Christmas memories but they all involve you” motioning to his children. “So I think it best to tell our favorite Christmas memory from childhood.”
Trauma is a strange thing. Most of the time, for me, it floats underneath the radar, completely undetected. It’s not that I deny its existence, it’s that at the present moment, I feel immune from its late grasp. “I’m over it. It’s in my past” and then suddenly, it becomes my present. I’m in its clutches and I can feel the black curtain descending. I start sinking into the circular black hole. As soon as I wrote those words, I fell into yet another one. It happens like that. Sometimes without any warning and after a few thousand years that pass by in a flash, I come up and I’m numb. It never happened.
Yesterday, it did. It happened right at the dinner table. I grabbed my blanket (my can of flavored Perrier) and ran straight for the bathroom. Once the door closed behind me, that empty black void opened wide and swallowed me whole.
Science says the force of a black hole is so great nothing can escape its grasp. Time. Light. Pain. They don’t vanish when they slip past its event horizon. They become eternal, stretching into but never reaching the bottom of a bottomless black hole. That’s what it feels like when I’m reliving my hell. In fact, I read recently, that one of the curious features of a flashback is that the mind doesn’t realize it is recalling an event from the past. Instead, the body senses it as though it is happening at that moment, all over again. I’m not safe in my living room watching holiday classics recalling an event from forty years earlier. I am being abused again…and again…and again. And those few seconds, sometimes couple of minutes, last all nine of my unlucky lifetimes.
You see, I have no positive childhood Christmas memories. I have only Christmas curses and holiday haunts. The closest I can conjure is huddling under the warm glow of a lighted tree, getting lost in a fantasy of peace and protection while staring at a harmless nativity scene. That was much better than waking to the reality of an entire childhood of torment. So what for most people might equal a lovely Christmas tradition, a question about pleasant childhood memories, for me, is a rebirth of unending abuse.
Luckily, my black holes never last forever. In my universe, they’re constantly put back on pause. If I can sit with the pain long enough, it always passes. The veil lifts, light comes into focus and that hole beneath me closes up. At least, so far, for me it does. I’m lucky. I imagine, for some, the gravity of their ordeal is too great to overcome.
Once I regained myself, I sat back down at the table. It was at dinner’s end and as a few people were getting up, I was able to contribute my story. I offered it as an aside to a couple of my cousins. “Earlier, you asked about a favorite Christmas memory?” They nodded. “That’s easy,” I continued. “It’s this one. And each one I’ve got to share with you since you brought me into this fold after my mother died. The Christmas I always hoped for as a kid, I finally get and each year, I get to live it all over again.”