I saw an 80-year old Holocaust survivor speak once. Her entire family died in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Well, almost. She and her twin sister lived, because the Nazis decided to conduct experiments on them. They were twelve years old. In this speech, the woman said she couldn’t remember any of the experiments done to her until she was over 50 years old. She said she was grateful that she was able to rebuild her life after the war, but it took her nearly 40 years to feel safe enough for the memories to finally come.
I mention this woman’s story because I’ve been going through something similar lately. Well, let’s be clear. I was never experimented on by Nazis after watching my entire family be murdered. And I’m definitely not trying to diminish this woman’s experience by comparing it to my own. But trauma is trauma, and I’m discovering that the human body seems to have a certain way of dealing with it.
A few months ago, my five-year old daughter went through a growth spurt. It was like looking in a mirror all the sudden. I was transported back to my own childhood. I looked at her and all I could see was me as a child. I know that’s a common experience among parents of young kids. But it was especially weird for me because I actually don’t remember a lot of my childhood.
At first, the memories that came to me were kinda sweet. Like I could picture myself at this particular age so perfectly. And, aw, look how cute and innocent I was.
But then I started feeling spacey and disoriented. And then I started having panic attacks.
The attacks seemed to come out of nowhere, and the oddest things could trigger them. My kids were obsessed with the Moana soundtrack at the time, and this one song, Know Who You Are (the one that Moana sings when she finally meets the Lava Monster, Te Ka, at the end) would make me completely fall apart. Every single time we got to the line, “They have stolen the heart from inside you. But this does not define you,” (at 1:24) I had to literally choke back tears so my kids wouldn’t think I was, you know, unstable…
I started having second-long flashbacks, like snapshots, pop into my head during the day. Random stuff that felt like memory misfires or something—like my brain was having trouble keeping my past experiences contained.
And then came the nightmares at night. Vivid nightmares. The kind that feel so real you wake up sweating, panicked, and crying. I’m always an adult in these dreams. At least at first. I’m able to stand up for myself and my kids when we’re in danger, but the dreams inevitably end with me as a child. And every detail, from the clothes that I’m wearing (the same ones that my mom used to make for me when I was in elementary school) to the way it feels when the elastic waistband on my denim skirt is tugged down over my hips, are memories—or at least feelings—from a younger, powerless me.
Are they memories? Just worries, fears, anxieties creeping in? Honestly, I have no idea. At first I fought them because they scared me so much, but lately I’ve just been letting them be. I let them float in my brain and then float right on out, and I’ve been able to stay a lot more calm.
I wish I could say that the dreams and the anxiety have completely passed, but truthfully, I’m still in the thick of it. The only silver lining is that I believe I am actually moving toward healing. I think about the Holocaust survivor who remembered what happened to her in that camp. It took an environment of stability and love to finally allow her to feel that shitty.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these memories are coming to me now when I feel the most stable I have in years. My family isn’t moving all over the place anymore; we’ve been in one city longer than we’ve ever been over the past ten years. My husband and I are so in sync we’re basically Justin and JC. Our kids are, well, crazy sometimes, but also completely lovely and wonderful. And craziest of all, I’m really beginning to feel connected to people in my neighborhood. What a great feeling to be seen, accepted, and liked by the people around me. I feel safe. I feel cautiously hopeful. There’s a part of me that’s actually entertaining the possibility of experiencing the calm and loving environment I’ve always wanted.
I may not know exactly what is going on with my brain, with these memories or worries or whatever they are, but I can tell I’m going through a transition. This is me figuring out who I was—and also who I might become. For the first time in my life, I see a different kind of future for myself—one that is full of connection and acceptance, peace and stability. It’s unfamiliar and, frankly, scares the shit out of me. But I think, I hope, I’m ready for it.