Sometimes, we have to go underground, into tombs real and metaphorical, in order to face and vanquish our own long-standing fears. During the process, we often find that life underground (so often seen as synonymous with Hell and Hades) is not filled with demons, fiery pits and cloven-hoofed tormentors – but that our minds, and societal influences, have painted such visions as a control mechanism…
This past week, I have run INTO the centre of the fear rather than running away from it the way I always have. Thing is, if you run away (and I am an habitual escapologist), the imagination takes over – and, instead of SEEING reality (no matter how painful and devastating), you are HEARING the booming echoes of past programming in your own cranial vault. You are PREDICTING that the TRIGGER SITUATION will end exactly the way the primary trauma did – and your inner child is too frightened to stick around, see it through and be open to a different outcome.
My fear and denial has, over the years, seen me rip up countless poems, tear out hundreds of pages from the journal and delete thousands of blog posts. I was operating on the, ‘If I cannot see it in its raw state, then it cannot be true…’ system of thought.
To give you a stark, and pertinent example, the first journal I had when I moved in with my ex-husband, twenty odd years ago, has only two written pages in it, and is suspiciously thin, the remaining pages blank. The two pages left present a false picture of happiness and security. The rest, containing the warning signs I wanted to avoid, I disposed of.
To be fair to my younger self, however (given that I recognise this to be a lifelong habit), my mother – and, later, my husband – had a vested interest in encouraging me to deny reality, helping me to turn my back on the evidence of my own eyes and heart. My mother did it because she, too, was distressed by my dad’s partiality for this one sibling. Of course she was. Now I am a woman myself, I feel huge compassion for her. It (along with my father’s female friends) must have been a constant source of pain and anxiety for her. We children, trained from the earliest years to compete for, and please, the male, did not see/empathise with the wound and struggle of the female. A great loss and shame. A long-standing waste of female bonding opportunity.
When dominant figures in a child’s life are, in effect, saying, ‘What you think you see is not what is actually there…’ the child learns to distrust the senses; to swallow ‘negative’ emotions; to turn the mind inside out in order to rewrite painful incidents – and to run away. The child learns speedily that the problem lies with him or her.
I can see now that my habit of running away, though understandable, has made things worse. This habit, never questioned (by me), has become ingrained in the mind: It has become my default response to any kind of threat. But also, once I have fled, the dire expectations gleaned from the primary incident become concrete reality, in my mind, without any variation or diminution of the original little girl’s pain.
By dodging the feared end result, I failed to allow for a better one! Failed also to take correct steps when the outcome was every bit as hurtful as I had feared. To put it bluntly, by not being willing to look straight at the cruel behaviour of certain people in my life; by dashing from the scene and then blanking my fears, pushing them down; by squirming away from honesty; by all these means, I have allowed abusive individuals to carry on.
This time, I am keeping my pages of fury, fear and pain; in fact, I am sharing them on here. This is half for my own therapy – but also, I know (from many lovely, and moving, comments) that I am not alone, and that my open posts of this nature are capable of helping others in similar situations.
In keeping these posts, and sharing them so widely, I am giving myself full permission to feel such anguish, both now and in the future. As a child, my right to experience utter devastation at the unfairness of my father’s behaviour was denied me.
As an English teacher, one of the poems I used with classes was ‘A Case of Murder’ by Vernon Scannell: A nine year old boy, left alone and terrified, squashes the scary cat in the door, killing it and then hides it…
‘…in the spidery cupboard under the stair
Where it’s been for years, and though it died
It’s grown in that cupboard and its hot low purr
Grows slowly louder year by year:
There’ll not be a corner for the boy to hide
When the cupboard swells and all sides split
And the huge black cat pads out of it.’
Although this poem deals with the magnifying effects of buried guilt, it works just as well with any emotion denied to, and by, the young child. The dead cat is a fantastic, if macabre and disturbing, metaphor for all the strong emotions we run away from in our lives; truly, the cupboard of fear swells until its sides split and the thing we thought we’d killed by hiding it comes padding out, quadrupled in size and horror.
This metaphor reflects my experience over the past week with chilling perfection. But there is a part of this which, though lost on the child, can break the cycle in the adult. In fact, there are two aspects to it. One is that, yes, the cat grows – but so does the child. The second relates to the effect of air upon long-buried artefacts, including the remains of humans and animals, when tombs within pyramids are opened for the first time in thousands of years: They can wither, crumble and die.
Sometimes, we have to take the risk of opening that cupboard, going deep down into the darkness and entering the burial chamber of the pyramid, in order to see what is really there.
When we run away, that cat just gets bigger; that mummified king or queen becomes ever-more grotesque (and part of a haunting curse); both, when we refuse to look at reality, pad, or lurch, out and give chase. With eyes fully open, we can see that both are dead, and no more frightening than any other of the myriad messages of mortality this world has to offer us.
Denial shores up fear’s defences. Sanctioning the feelings crumbles them – and allows them, like the pyramidal artefacts, to blow away in wind.