This month's column is another lyric essay exploring the fluidity and persistence of memory in the body.—-Marin Sardy
The poignancy and the human suffering of many of these children and their families can be obscured by our research output. Our literature can shelter the reader from the despair to which these children bear witness.
Before my mother becomes psychotic, her teeth are white and healthy and perfectly straight. Then as schizophrenia entrenches itself into her life, her eating habits deteriorate. Over the course of the first few years, she sometimes doesn’t eat at all. For a while she chain-smokes, and drinks a lot. At times it seems that she lives on screwdrivers, or black coffee, or ice cream bars. At one point all she seems to want to eat is cheddar cheese with green onions. She was an excellent cook before, but now she barely cooks at all.
Her teeth go crooked, splaying outward in the front, and shifting so there are large gaps between them. My father speculates that malnutrition has caused her gums to go soft. Scurvy, most likely. When I am fourteen, she tries to correct the misalignment by placing small rubber bands around her teeth in a kind of self-orthodontics.
I tell her that she should go have a dentist look at her teeth, but she won’t. She just says that it’s her business—“It’s my business”—and I should leave her alone about it. After a while, the rubber bands disappear and she develops the habit of grinding her teeth. She sits on the sofa and scrapes them across each other for hours on end. I tell her to stop. I shout. I yell about it, saying she is destroying her teeth and that she should go to a dentist. But she doesn’t listen.
Her teeth turn brown and remain crooked, never getting fixed. Toothaches finally get so severe that she agrees to go to a dentist to have the rotten ones pulled. Now some of them are missing, leaving a handful of gaps.
I have come to understand that memories are not snapshots; not inviolable records. They’re webs of associations that have been divided up to be stored in the brain, and have been embedded with the emotions that give them meaning. Each time we recall a memory, we reconfigure it from these pieces, infusing it with new feelings as we examine it again. When there are gaps, we smooth them over; when things don’t add up, we correct them automatically. Each time we draw up a memory, its meaning can shift, with shifts in the details following along to uphold the new significance.
The meaning of this memory: the part stands for the whole. The teeth for the woman. The mouth for the life.
The principal reason for the lack of attention to pressing problems seems to lie in the children themselves. All too often they remain silent about their sufferings, and can seldom be motivated to discuss them. Even after they are grown they much prefer to keep to themselves all the horrors of the past.
I was a gymnast girl. I used to sit in the backseat of my mother’s car and imagine myself bounding over the landscape that whizzed past us. I was forty feet tall, running along the side of the highway at the same pace as the car, and when the scene was flat I tumbled in long strings of aerial-roundoff-back-handspring-whip-over-back-handspring-back-tuck-with-a-half-twist-roundoff… I took my first gymnastics class at age twelve and didn’t spend more than two weeks away from a gym until I was eighteen. The need was mental as well as physical. In my mind I would visualize myself performing whenever I was bored or worried or trying to ignore my mother. In my visions my routines were perfect, I was weightless, and the air itself seemed to carry me through the moves.
Some memories happen in your body. Gymnasts know deeply the feel of fine chalk powder on the skin of their palms. The idle habit of rubbing your calluses with your thumb, knowing the hardened skin, its texture, its dimensions. The smell of the leather grips you pulled from their plastic bag; the chalk-dense wristbands drawn over your hands, letting loose a cloud of white dust. Then the grips, each with a strip of suede worn and bent and tugged and wetted and dried to follow the contours of your hand; looping up around the dowel that gave you the extra inch of reach to link your limbs to the bar as you swung, spun, turned, let go, and caught it again.
When you wrapped yourself around the bar, the chalk rubbed off into the crease of your hips, penetrating the stretchy cotton of your leggings. It wasn’t unpleasant, just pervasive. Back on the mat, you could pull at your leotard and let it snap back, releasing puffs of chalk from the fabric. You breathed it in. The smell, the sense of it against the roof of your mouth: a little bit alkaline, a little bit interesting.
It would get in my hair, a coating on my long, wavy strands, so the shininess and the slippery texture vanished. When I was too tired for a late shower, I’d sleep with the feeling of a slight edge everywhere. Nothing slips around or over chalk. Most times I was so tired I didn’t notice. I crashed the crash of teenagers, awoke at a miserable pre-dawn hour to get to school on time. Every day: class, class, lunch, class, class, gymnastics, homework, dinner, homework, sleep. Regularity was my tether, a defense against madness.
This memory’s metaphor: chalk for schizophrenia. Surrounding, covering, pervading our world.
I had to learn how to figure out what was real on my own, and decide for myself what I saw and believed. My mother’s perceptions became meaningless to me. I stopped listening. She lived inside an elaborate delusion that flattened human beings into chess pieces and rendered my own little idiosyncratic self irrelevant or, worse, unreal. She had a way of bluntly disagreeing with everything I told her. Sometimes when I was talking to her I began to feel like a nonentity. She was so utterly unable to see me that sometimes I wondered whether I was actually there.
Psychologists have a name for this phenomenon, which children of delusional parents are subject to. It’s called “gaslighting.” The term comes from the eponymous movie in which a man attempts to drive his wife mad by telling her everything she sees is false. He turns down the gaslights, and when she comments that they’re low he tells her no, they’re the same as always. Then he turns them up and says the same thing.
I developed mental blocks. They set in when I was fifteen and hobbled my aspirations as a gymnast. Twenty years later, I see that I didn’t want to get better. I didn’t want to have to spend so much time near the edge of control, or, worse, beyond it—subject to larger forces, at the mercy of something bigger than myself. A gymnast must trust the ground to hold her up, the beam to remain still, the bar to flex as usual; her own limbs. Gaslighted, I trusted none of these things.
The past creates us and we are powerless to change it. We can only—if we are very persistent and very lucky and usually not even then—change ourselves.
Sometimes an event, usually the interpersonal kind, will trigger the old feelings and I fall into something like a flashback. It is more like re-immersion in a prior self. I am eleven years old again, and I feel as I felt then—that the floor of the world has fallen out from under me. I see myself in a place of utter disorientation, no horizon visible, like a scuba diver in turbid water who loses track of which way is up. It’s pure terror, a kind of fear that usually only children feel, a fear not only for the loss of oneself or of loved ones, but of the structure of one’s reality.
I have been told that undergoing a two-month round of “exposure therapy” is the most effective way to permanently and dramatically reduce trauma-related anxiety. The aim of this therapy is to expose me to memories of my childhood in a carefully regulated setting so that I don’t become overwhelmed or re-traumatized by them. This approach, ideally, enables my brain to process the events and to learn that the danger has passed.
I have chosen four memories—one to focus on each week. I begin with one I title “My Mother’s Teeth.”
Little by little, I react less intensely to the memories. Still, it feels awful.
The effects are familiar enough. I wake up with a headache and a dry cough. I find myself fighting off a cold. Hives invade my inner elbows, knots take over my shoulder blades. My diaphragm freezes up. I take deep breaths into my belly to relax.
I used to feel this way all the time. How did I ever get anything done?
If I had learned to surrender more fully to life— to physics; to the shape of myself, however imperfect— If I had been able to let go in order to take hold—
—but those days are gone. Those full-twisting layouts will never be mine. Nor the giant swings, nor the piked flyaways I mused I could surely pull off. Exposure has exposed me to my own secret truth: I wear mistrust like a fine powder, even in sleep.
N. Garmezy, “Children at Risk: The Search for the Antecedents of Schizophrenia,” 1974
M. Bleuler, “The Offspring of Schizophrenics,” 1974
D. Hohn, “Falling: Confessions of a Lapsed Forest Christian,” 2008