Mary Gustafson


At the Pond © Christopher Woods Photograpy

Time Stops

I sat stock still, the same way I sleep, flat on my back with my hands folded, like a dead person. People make fun of me for this when they sleep with me. I laugh about it right along with them.

The doctor fired away:

Any alcoholism in your family?

I shift forward a little, tensing myself.


How many brothers?


How many of them have or had problems with alcohol or drugs?

Well, two are sober, but they had problems before.

So, two of your brothers have struggled with alcohol or drugs?


How many?


So, all of them.


How many sisters do you have?


Any alcohol, spending or hoarding problems with them?

At last count, one of my sisters had more than twenty coats.

Yes, yes, there are some problems with that.

Do all of them struggle?

Yes, well, no, one of them doesn’t even drink.

Ok. How about your parents? Any problems with alcohol?

Yes. My dad’s brother died of cirrhosis. My mom hid her rum in coke cans so she could drink during the day.

I mean, I would too, you know? Nine kids. Can you imagine?

I remembered so much about my childhood because I was writing a book about a childhood like mine. Her dad, like my dad, drank vodka out of a Styrofoam cup marked D A D in sharpie marker.

I giggled.

The doctor didn’t laugh or stop, but time did.

This moment sitting in that chair was one of those time stoppers, not like a positive flow and possibility rich time stopper, more like a dead spot, deafened by endless space and bright distant unreachable stars; you can’t see a thing it’s so dark-TIME JUST STOPPED UP- jammed down into a gnarly nasty ball by trauma and grief and the mess of my life.

And you? Any divorces?

He asked me in the plural, like he knew.

Yes, two.


I slept with more people than I could ever count. In high school.

Yes, some.

Money problems?



Yes, two.


I squirmed. Yes, two. (JesusChristwhatiswrongwithme?)

Sexual abuse?

My knuckles were probably white red, gripping onto the chair sides as if my life depended on emotionlessness.

Um, yes.

What happened?

Another time stopper, right there, a dead zone. I froze harder, trying to keep my insides inside, down deep where all of that belonged. It didn’t affect me that much. I said so in an article that I submitted- I wished my mom had just dusted me off and said, “Oh honey, let’s go get ice cream. That bad man didn’t hurt you that much, you are fine!” I wrote that in my “I am fine it was nothing no big deal” phase a few years ago, before I read the book The Lovely Bones in my book club and realized: Maybe my whole family was affected.

I was attacked when I was eight.

By a relative?

No, no (whew!) a stranger.

When you were eight?



He wrote something down. A sleuth, searching for symptoms. That’s all, not a mean invader, just a detective, a doctor, a diagnostician.

Were you sexually abused at home?





I worked up my nerve when I was in therapy the first time decades ago, to try to stop the bulimia and confronted my mom when we were at lunch, telling her the whole truth. She shrugged it off.

“Honey, that happens all the time.”

When my mom was five years old, her mom would stop speaking to her for two weeks at a time. Even at the dinner table, she would ask my uncle to “Please ask Mildred to pass the butter.” When my mom was FIVE. I didn’t have enough underwear when I was little. My mom told me she had drawers full of underwear and it was just awful to keep up with. I could not imagine having too much nice underwear!

Eating disorders?

Again, the goddamn plural.


Which ones?

Anorexia when I was young, then bulimia.

You made yourself throw up?


How many times each day? When did you start, when did you stop?

Three. I don’t know.

Can you estimate? When did it start?

I was in a pizza parlor, drinking with my high school friends. We got served pretty easily in those days- now I might be safer or just in bigger trouble, but I read about bulimia in a book and I tried it with that pizza for the first time.

I could eat more than a corner piece and not get fat. I was so happy. I remembered all that as I sat there. I didn’t say it. I was in no mood to talk.

I was fourteen.

And then when did you stop?

I, well, I was about thirty-six.

So you were actively bulimic for more than 20 years.

On and off, yes.



Please please PLEASE make this stop, I wanted to scream, but no one could hear me in my personal black hole where the only light was the pinprick dawning of my awareness – I was mentally ill. There was a pattern. My God.



Please stop.

How many?

I stay silent.



You know, it’s a miracle that you graduated college. I had one other patient, a rocket scientist actually…really, he was a rocket scientist.

He laughed and paused, thinking I might join in on the fun, but I was still frozen. Solid, like a rock thumped tight into my seat- Mental. Illness. Crap.

Well, anyway, he was the other patient with a case this severe who was successful. I gotta tell you, I hope you feel proud of yourself for making it and even succeeding in so many areas. You’re a writer, right?

No, well, yes, I mean I am just starting really, I am writing a book now-so what do you think I have?

ADHD, or bipolar.


This reminded me of when the eye doctor told me I needed Bi-focals. I turned around in my chair, thinking he was talking to someone else.

I was NOT bipolar. I came to talk about my problems with focus and organization. ADHD.

I think you have severe ADHD exacerbated by trauma.

Now I remember the moment in the back of the police car, when they took me back to the woods, so I could show them where it happened. They were also making sure I wasn’t lying. There was a moment when I lost it- lost my ability to manage my brain I mean. I couldn’t think straight. I think I never thought straight again after that, or at least I couldn’t predict when I would think straight.

The doctor prescribed a norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor and told me he would weigh me each visit to make sure that I didn’t start to lose weight like the eating disordered person that I am or was or whatever. He suggested therapy.

I asked him how he knew what to prescribe. He told me he strongly suspected ADHD and that if this medicine worked, he was probably right.

How will I know if it works?

He laughed. Oh, you’ll know. Don’t worry.

I didn’t go to therapy. I just took the drugs, and they worked for awhile. I remember the first time I was able to copy a part of a paragraph and move it to another piece and then go back to what I was doing and finish it. It felt like a miracle. I finished a whole book, about a monk.

In fact, I got the opportunity to write this book while I was seeing the psychiatrist and when I told him I was writing the biography of a monk from Sri Lanka, he glanced at his intern in a check-this-out-way and I realized- right, I am mentally ill.

The truth, that I met a monk from Sri Lanka and I was writing his biography for his celebration as a chief monk in North America, sounded nuts.

It reminded me of the mental patients that my mom introduced me to when I was a little girl. She was a psychiatric nurse and a champion for the mentally ill. She would take me to walks and talks and I remember meeting this super creepy man who looked sideways as he whispered hello nice to meet you and offered me a limp, too-short handshake.

I started to wipe my hand on my shirt when my mom said, “See, honey? You can’t even tell! Believe it or not, he is a patient!”

I could tell alright. I loved my mom fiercely for this, though, her way of seeing everyone as equally normal and deserving of respect and a chance. I got to be seen that way, too. Through all the years of bulimia, cheeks cut with razor blades, promiscuity, and so much more, I was always fine to my mom. Now that I am older, I see this as unconditional love more than abject neglect.

I was angry with her for a long time and then I forgave her and loved her as deeply as I always did. I would give anything for another minute with her, and my dad. They weren’t perfect but they loved me. I know that and I knew that always.

Like anything that causes an, “Oh that’s it!” reaction, the drugs didn’t last. By the end of the year, I was suicidal, even though I was focused.

Another time stopper.

Sitting at an intersection, contemplating hitting the gas pedal hard and shooting out into traffic, hoping to die, thinking this: My son would be much better off without me. Jesus please let me die.  That night, I sobbed so hard that I made myself sick and the next day I called the number that you called to get some free therapy from work.

That woman was talented and perceptive.

At the first session, I told her about some trouble with a friend.

I noticed that I felt intimidated and bad around him as I got into his nice clean car.  I didn’t tell her about my suicidal tendencies. I didn’t want to be hospitalized.

Do you remember the last time you felt that way?

What way?

Bad, ashamed, intimidated.

Um, well, I don’t know.

Do you remember the earliest time you felt that way?

Crap. Here we go again.

I felt this way when I was little.

All the time?

Lots of the time.

What happened?

I was molested by a stranger when I was eight.

She was silent for a moment.


In the forest preserve by my house.

Did he rape you?

That word. Another time stop.

I am holding onto my mom’s hand even tighter than I held onto the railing in the elevator when the doors whoosh open on the exam room floor in the hospital. The adults have to coax me out. I just want to go home. The air in the hospital feels cold and strange. I want to go home and sit in our hot house and play with my brothers in front of a fan. We would talk right into it and try to guess what each other was saying. It sounded spooky and funny and sometimes just crazy. I loved that game.

My mom is talking with a policeman as we walk down the shiny freezing hall, and they use that word- “rape.”

I don’t know what it means. I wonder how the doctor will know if that happened to me. I hope it didn’t because I am positive I will be in big trouble if that’s what happened to me. Rape is bad-that much I know for sure. I cross my heart and hope-please Jesus, don’t let me be raped.

I was never supposed to cross that damn dam in the first place. Damn. My best friend and I pinkie swore never to tell anyone before we did it, pinwheeling our arms for balance as we crossed the slippery chasm. A damned dam.

I just had to see the snake that the man was holding. He called to us and I remember, cupping my ears with my hands and taking a great big-girl breath before I stepped onto that dam, and crossed that river to hell.

I talked my bestie into it. She didn’t want to go.

I lay down on the table on my stomach and put my hands in the stirrups before the nurse corrects me with a little laugh.

No, honey, your feet go there.

There? Like that? But then everyone can see…I detach. My insides are outside. I never want that to happen again.

I am sobbing in the driveway and the police officer pats my shoulder. “Ma’am, let’s just go inside- get what you need and let’s get this over with.”

I don’t know what to take- I know my son will want his snow board I think but I have a little car I will need my teapot but there’s water in it and I need my clothes for work and is this really happening I am shaking so hard, just like when I was little I feel the same way I did when the man grabbed me and then when the cops blamed me, sitting all alone in the big back seat of the squad car while they asked me what I was doing in the woods by myself on the other side of the dam.

I see my therapist the next day who assures me that there are no coincidences and that the eviction was probably meant to happen to bring me back there and then we go back, together.

She uses a technique called EMDR, and I follow her finger back and forth with my eyes as I remember – this technique engages your whole brain in the healing process- it unfreezes me. For the first time ever, I can talk about my past without sitting rigid like petrified wood (or a petrified little girl).

She tells me to imagine the strongest, baddest-ass person in the world with me when I go back there. She tells me to imagine a safe place that I can just drop into through a hole in the earth when he’s on top of me and I need to escape. She tells me that going back there is the way to heal. She tells me we can stop whenever we want to.

Every time I see her she says, well, you know, we can just talk but I really think EMDR is the most effective way to heal this or that and yes even that.

I remember an incident in a car with an older guy. I was 15 and he was 20. Is that rape? I don’t know. I don’t want to remember but I do and I start to see sources.

Sources of promiscuity, divorces, rage, addiction, failure, loss, night terrors. Sources. It might not have been my fault.

I had a dream of an enormous shadow of a man in a cape with a knife lording over me at night. I learn that’s normal for a survivor. A survivor. Hell, yeah, I survived alright.

In fact, I thrived sometimes. I kept my smarts, my looks, my charms. I loved people and words and work and animals and kids. I didn’t become some bitter old woman who blamed everybody for her problems. I love my siblings, and they love me. My parents and I ended up close.

We were in it together you know.


He and I, I mean, he probably had a really messed up childhood you know?

He was at least twenty years older than you. You were eight. You weren’t in it together. It was totally his fault.

I wasn’t supposed to cross that dam, though and when I went to therapy when I was younger for my eating disorder — that’s the thing about trauma if you don’t deal with it then you deal with all the symptoms instead. For years I thought my problem was food or money, not some ancient injury — the therapist told me that I probably was abused at home because it was so easy for him to take advantage of me. I didn’t fight back. I didn’t run away.

Fight back? Run away?

Yes, I could have you know. My friend ran away.

Standing at the edge after we crossed realizing the snake he was holding in his hand wasn’t a snake after all, my friend stopped and I bumped into her and she just took off back across the dam while I dilly-dallied, still curious. I was a curious girl. What can I say? I was stupid.

He grabbed and dragged me back, into the forest.

Your friend was two years older than you. She knew better. That’s why she ran. You might have been too innocent to know to fight back. You had no idea. Then you were scared.

That was true. I was scared. I froze right up and did whatever he said. I was mortified that someone would find me and when they did I kept my mouth shut as best I could.

I know because I found my diary. I ripped out the parts from when I was 8. I never wanted anyone to know what happened.  Years later the leader of a seminar told me that a participant who survived sexual abuse as a child just stapled those pages together. “Close the book on it!” she told me.

I never went back to that seminar.

My best friend drove me down to Carbondale recently to some holy commune-like place. We detox from digital on purpose so I end up with my diary in the car. I figure it will give us something interesting to read in the car without cell phones. I found it on the bottom of the eviction stuff when my other best friend helps me organize all the crap in my basement, moved from a moldy garage to a storage unit to a basement in a big stinking pile of denial.

We laugh as I read about myself, trying to knit. For god’s sake! Knitting!

I have tears in my eyes and my friend has to pull off the road he is laughing so hard. I got one row together and the whole thing got hopelessly entangled on the bus.

I call my diary kitty.

Kitty, I am such a clutzo! I really wanted to knit this sweater but then the knots stopped me. I feel so stupid! We stop laughing.

On the trip my friend tells me the truth:

“You are like a puppy hiding its face between the couch and the wall. Everyone can see your ass. Everyone knows you are having money trouble! Everyone. It’s just numbers. Write them down and we’ll handle it!”

I can’t write it down. But when I get home, I get back into recovery where I remember that a power greater than me can restore me to sanity, especially when I really really REALLY don’t think it’s possible. When I can’t figure it out anymore.

I moved from food to money as my primary symptom. But my primary problem isn’t money or food or even a history of sexual abuse. My big problem is my lack of basic faith in myself, a dirty greasy haze smeared all over the rose-colored glasses through which most people see the world.

When I get back into recovery, I notice that my glasses are filthy, like my mind. I use soap and water and ritual over and over, to clean it all up. I back out from the crack between the couch and the wall and turn around and face the world and let the world face me.

I remember joy too, you know. Not all bad. Fun with so many brothers. They taught me to walk fast and kick ass, and I remember diving in a freezing pool with my best friend after all that happened and then laying down on hot asphalt in the sun to warm up and there is no better feeling than that. None. I was still a happy kid. I wish I could stop time there, too.


Mary Gustafson is a professional author, copywriter and an e-commerce editor who wrote a book about a Buddhist Monk called My Wish, The Story of a Man Who Brought Happiness to America. She is currently working on Summer, a novel about a girl’s childhood in the 1960s. She describes herself as an author with a long childhood and many rich experiences that have morphed into gifts. They have become fodder for writing as a result of therapy, practice, and time. Follow her on Twitter at @Maryswriting.