Everything Leads Back to Where It Starts
(Editor CW: for rape)
I was about six the afternoon my father came in from the fields with a tiny field bunny in a cardboard box. When I’d heard my father in the yard, I squeezed into my hiding spot between the dresser and the wall and peered into the kitchen. He was worried his combine dust had blinded the bunny. He was always saving wild animals—a baby crow with a broken wing, a pelican caught in an oil spill. I didn’t understand how he could love these injured animals but not Maman. Not my older brother, and not me.
After my father left, I came out to see the bunny. It was cowering in a corner of the box, barely blinking, barely breathing. I understood how the bunny felt because whenever my father was near, my heart stuttered, my lungs wheezed, and my thoughts swirled in bright colours. I promised the bunny I’d keep it safe, but the next morning the box was gone. I found the limp body in the burning barrel. My father must have tossed it there on his way to the fields before dawn. We never spoke of that bunny afterwards, but its memory surfaces again and again.
Mom and I talk and laugh and joke, yet we rarely say anything important because we’re scared of offending one another. Afraid we’ll have to stand up for ourselves. These days, Mom is embarrassed that cancer is about to kill her, and she was certain she’d win. She’s angry about everything she pretends never happened—the violence that existed in our home, the men who hurt me, her inability to put her foot down or stand up for herself. She sees how quickly the end is approaching but refuses to acknowledge it.
Studies show a link between repressed emotion and breast cancer in women. Even when emotions are shoved out of sight or numbed, they never vanish on their own. Instead, they huddle in a corner like a panicked bunny barely able to breathe and wait to be set free. Caged emotions affect self-esteem and reactions to stress. They eventually go rabid. They attack our physical well-being. They attack our families. Sometimes, they even kill us.
Mom fills her appointment book with visits from family and friends she hasn’t seen in decades. While the cancer feeds on her, she laughs and reminisces about the good old days. She is dying in hospice but refuses to unearth buried truths. She lets them rot. Lets their poison eat her from within. I’m afraid that if she refuses to talk about things I need to discuss before she dies, I will be trapped until I die. Maybe she clamps her teeth because she has no idea where to start.
I should be screaming. My whole family has come up for my nineteenth birthday and are asleep in the bedroom next to mine. If I yell for help, my big brother will burst through the door and kill the man holding me down and tugging at my clothes. But I am not screaming. When he yanks down my red flannel pyjama pants, I go limp and listen to the bass thumping from the living room where my friends are singing karaoke. I shrink until I am a bunny paralyzed in the corner of my mind. From the corner of my ceiling, I watch this man who lured me here with the promise of a gift tucked inside his pocket. I watch him do what I do not want him to do to my body, but I cannot make a sound.
After he has finished, he rolls off of my body. Fastens his belt and heads back to the party where my friends are celebrating me.
I’m not sure what to do, so I take my body to the washroom and scrub the evidence of him away. I want to disappear, but I reapply my fire engine red lipstick and join the people who love me. I want to tiptoe into the bedroom where my family sleeps and crawl in amongst them, fall asleep with my back against my brother’s. I want to die. I focus on the empties and Cheetos littering the floor because I cannot look at this man who did what I didn’t want him to do. He is sitting on the couch between my friends, pretending nothing has happened. I am drunk, but I snatch the keys for my mother’s car so I can drive my rapist home.
When my brother’s girlfriend and I met a month ago, she squeezed my trapezius muscles. I felt relaxed enough, but she said they were a “5”—which in a massage therapist’s world means critical. I’m not surprised when she asks me to participate in a case study in which she will attempt to reduce tension in the traps by releasing the fascia associated with the Vagus nerve. My story arouses professional interests because it defies odds. Despite childhood sexual, emotional and physical abuse, poverty, several critical illnesses including lung cancer, single-parenting and multiple failed relationships, I am successful, independent and carefree. My calm exterior does not suggest the panic inside, but my autoimmune system continues to remind me that I still have traumas to process. It attacks my organs when I’m stressed to remind me about the bunny huddled in a corner of my mind, waiting to be released.
My brother’s girlfriend stands behind me, one hand on the crown of my head. Her other hand doesn’t quite touch my back, yet I feel its tug. She says, “You feel that pull, don’t you.” Most people don’t notice the tremble or sway of my body, but she senses my body tilt back and to the right, and she says, “It’s your kidney or your liver.”
Must be the kidney, where fear is stored. These days, I’m petrified that when Mom dies I won’t be able to hold my pieces together.
People born in the year of the rabbit, like me, are gentle, sensitive and avoid quarrels and conflict at all costs.
Facts about Rabbits
- They prefer to hide or dash back to their burrows when feeling threatened.
- They frighten easily, sometimes flatten tense bodies to the ground and try to draw as little attention as possible.
- When in shock, their bodies become still and limp, heart rates slow until almost undetectable and extremities grow frigid as body temperature plummets.
- They generalize their learning, which means they are often triggered in situations that recall prior trauma or pain.
- When anxious for too long, they practice self-harm by overgrooming, overeating or undereating.
- They often fear people. For example, a bad experience with a teenaged male babysitter could result in a fear of being in dim rooms with older men.
Each time I visit my mother, my shoulders slump under the unbearable weight of the baggage I bring back home. This started long before breast cancer spread like an infestation hopping from breast to lung to stomach and mutating cells until it overtook her thoracic cavity.
My mother’s demise is a blinking neon light warning me to let go of what weighs me down. As her light flickers and dims, I cry myself to sleep more and more. Layer by layer, I unpack, purge my trapped emotions—burn my father’s moth-riddled straightjacket, snip up my mother’s too-tight martyr’s robes. I must purge because I’m suffocating. Because I’m half-buried in the past. I must free that little girl trapped by the monsters who stalked her childhood. We both want this nightmare to end.
I’m seventeen, having drinks at my cousin’s when her contractions start. I volunteer to stay over to watch their daughter if need be. My cousin waddles to her bedroom down the hall while her husband and I get comfy on the couch.
An advertisement about rape comes on at commercial break. It makes me cry. My cousin’s husband feels safe—I’ve known him since I was 12—so I tell him about the night before. About the boy who tried to force me to have sex and how maybe it was my fault because I was drunk. My cousin’s husband rubs my shoulder while I cry, but when his fingertips feather across my bare shin, energy zings into my thighs and calves and my heart starts pounding dan-ger, dan-ger! I want to run. I want to hide, but I am frozen. Now he is unzipping his jeans, so I close my eyes. He asks, “Do you want to pet him?” so I tuck my hands into my armpits and try not to throw up the rye and Cokes and pretend his pants aren’t chafing my knee. Then he moans, and his belt jangles as he gets off the couch. I want to disappear. I want to die.
I open my eyes as my pregnant cousin enters the room and asks, “What are you up to?”
My heart knocks hard against my ribs, but I smile and say, “Just watching a movie.” Maybe the truth would make it worse.
My brother’s girlfriend decides it’s my liver. While her fingers clack against the keyboard I climb up on her table and ponder my anger.
Fury used to light fires beneath my heels, trail me wherever I went. It used to build up in me like static and zap everything I touched, but that was decades ago. I should be angry. My mother is dying. I never got to be a child. My father is an abusive and narcissistic asshole I haven’t spoken to for almost 40 years. I wonder if I’m so good at pretending not to be angry that I am even fooling myself.
When my brother’s girlfriend cradles my head between her hands, I’m surprised at how gently she touches me.
After a few minutes of her light touch, she says, “I’m surprised at how well your body responds.”
She moves her stool to my right side and says, “You are so connected to your emotions and what’s happening inside your body.”
Moments after she places her hand between the bed and my liver, I begin to shrink. I shrink and shrink and shrink. She senses it, too, and says, “Tell me when it gets too intense, and I’ll stop.”
But I can barely hear her above the thump of my heart dan-ger, dan-ger. My heart beats faster and faster. I shrink and I shrink until I forget how to breathe.
Decades ago, a baby bunny twitched its little whiskers, hopped through rows of golden crops. It was happy, free, out of harm’s reach until it crossed my father’s path and froze with fear. I understood how that bunny felt.
Sometimes, I forget about the bunny, but it still cowers in a cardboard box in the corner of my mind. It is blind and trapped, but I am not. Maybe I can lift it out of the box and we’d both finally be free.
According to psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, a child who is curious and trusting often becomes fearful and tries to blend into shadows after trauma. This distressed child may create a false self who concocts strategies to deal with pain and loss. In extreme cases, the child feels dead and empty.
I am attempting to untangle my authentic self from the jumble of my grief. I know that I am safe now, that I no longer need to escape my body. I am not a victim, so I can puff out my chest and attack. I have a voice, so I can yell and scream. But sometimes, I still can’t stop myself from fleeing my body when it needs me most.
She burrows beneath the fuzzy blue bedspread. Tries to explain to her parents what the babysitter did after he closed the bedroom door. After she tried to hop across the bed to the safe place beneath the dresser. How he grabbed her ankle and yanked down her pyjama bottoms. She does not have the words to explain where exactly he pushed his hands. Only that it hurt, that she is still afraid, so she grips her mother tightly. But then her mother is gone, and her father is spanking the little girl. This is the first time she floats out of her body and hovers in the corner of her bedroom ceiling, so she does not have to feel what is happening to her body.
The next morning, everyone pretends nothing has happened, but the little girl has changed. And she has learned there are punishments for telling truths others do not want to hear. This memory becomes a bunny hidden in a box in her mind.
When the girl is fourteen, the man-the-babysitter-has-become re-enters her life. This wakes the bunny she has forgotten in her mind. It is frantic. When she asks her mother questions about the babysitter, she responds, “I thought you’d forgotten,” and swiftly steps out and shuts the door to the conversation. They keep pretending nothing ever happened. But the bunny and the little girl trembling beneath her covers are still trapped in her mind. When she cannot bear what is happening to her body, she rises to hover in ceiling corners.
My brother’s girlfriend reminds me, “You have to tell me when you want me to stop.” But I’ve shrunk into my five-year-old self. I cannot breathe, so I tap my right pointer finger against my left forearm. I’m going to die. Danger is coming, but I can’t move. I’m trapped. I cannot talk.
Firmly, “You have to tell me to stop.”
I nod. My forefinger taps my forearm, but I cannot ask her to stop.
More firmly, “Tell me to stop.”
I can’t. Even my tears are silent.
“Tell me,” she commands.
I take a tiny breath. Tap tap tap. Tears drip into my ears. I am so afraid, but I whisper, “Please stop.” When my brother’s girlfriend removes her hands, the little girl inside of me is still trembling, but she has poked her foot out from the fuzzy blue bedspread.
Rachel Laverdiere writes, pots, and teaches in her little house on the Canadian prairies. She is CNF editor at Atticus Review and the creator of Hone & Polish Your Writing. Find Rachel’s prose in Grain, The New Quarterly, Atlas and Alice, The Citron Review and other fine journals. Twitter: @r_laverdiere