A classmate and her mother were murdered in their home when I was a sophomore in high school, first her mother, who was shot in the basement where they were both were watching tv, then Karol, who was chased up the stairs into the garage where she was raped and shot. Later that week, Karol was buried in a bronze casket, corrupt in its beauty. After DNA technology came into the forensic equation years later, it would turn out to be the act of Monte Seger, a drugged-out classmate obsessed with Karol.
Mt. Pleasant is a small town. There was no distance in this occurrence for anyone, on top of which Karol was well known….a popular, smart, flute-playing football cheerleader — the highest of the high of cheerleaders. But she was also getting pudgy, having reached that cruel point of growth that slows in the bones but not the appetite, something I would come to know myself the following summer.
The downfall of her chubbiness must have been too unthinkable for one of my friends* to integrate, however, who in attempting to make sense of this unreal event just flat out said that Karol’s death had at least saved her from where things were going with her body…and maybe that was best.
Out sunbathing in bikinis the following summer, this same friend would reach over and momentarily cup her hand around the pooch of belly fat I carried below my belly button. I could see how she couldn’t help herself, how, mesmerized, her hand was compelled to feel for itself the reality of my blubber, so alien to this slim friend who held whatever grams of fat she had in her ass. She, herself, had one of those taut bellies you could bounce a dime off.
As much as I grieved over fat, I could not get inside the mind of this smart girl who thought Karol just might be better off spared a life of being chased down by fat — a mercy, really, to be chased down instead by Monte Seger. I could not understand how pudge equaled better off dead.
When I was in my 30s, a friend suffered a miscarriage. In her grief she found herself removed from her body. She knew her legs were walking forward but her sense of her body trailed behind, as if she was a shadow of herself. As if she couldn’t integrate her mind with her body and bring her realities of self together — this body of hers that a child had slipped away from and a mind that could not let her baby go. The very ground she walked on felt spongy with way too much give.
Carrying around our own life often feels like fragile enough cargo, but it’s nothing compared to the terrifying responsibility of carrying the precious life of another. A different friend was tormented for a period of about 6 months by a repeat fantasy of her baby flying out the car window as they drove down the highway, reflecting her sense of powerlessness and lack of control. Over the decades this story changed in my recollection and I added to it, remembering my friend’s traumatizing nightmare as the vision of she, herself, pitching the baby out the car window, shifting the locus of trust. Mistrust. And making it more mine, like we do in memory.
It turns out tormenting thoughts — even mis-remembered ones such as pitching babies out car windows — and other visualized manifestations of unthinkable realities is common, like the one I had for a period of time in which I’d dream that all my teeth were loose in their sockets. I can still call up what it felt like to have my teeth wobbling around in my mouth, losing their rootedness.
While studies have indicated that these seemingly perverse preoccupations are often more self-protective in a complicated way rather than a creepy deep desire for or foreshadowing of what we aim to do — that overwhelming urge to jump from a high place actually has a bona fide name, unimaginative as “High Place Phenomenon” is — still, what are we supposed to make of it? What are we supposed to make of the convoluted, mysterious way of the mind, so disturbing in its exquisitely confusing logic? How are we supposed to figure out when mysterious self-protection passes through the threshold into a truly disturbed mind? The whole bizarre self-protective thing might just do a number on us and throw us over the edge itself, projecting us through self-protection into oblivion.
So how are we supposed to relate to such a mind when it does such things? In turn, how will our mind respond to our mind based on that relationship?
In my mid-forties when I finally did spin off the road after some top-level, cat & mouse workplace bullying messed with my sense of solid ground, it felt like I’d been in a car accident and suffered a brain injury. Home on medical leave, I couldn’t get the feeling out of my mind that my head needed to be bandaged. There were times I could actually feel it snap, crackle and pop. The synesthesic** sensation of my circuit panel sizzling in the aftermath of this “accident” was so palpable I swore I could hear it.
During this period of time I yearned for my broken head to be bandaged. I visualized it swathed in white gauze, perhaps not just to facilitate the healing but so people could understand that something real and so traumatizing had happened to me that I was now altered. Once I was gripped by an almost overpowering urge to take the next exit off 95 and drive to Eastern Maine Medical Center’s Emergency Department. I would explain about my broken head and tell them I was in urgent need of a cast.
A breakdown. I had had a breakdown. Fascinated, I said that to myself over and over again. Now I knew what this stigmatized, mysterious experience was like and, curiously, how one day my body had acted this metaphor out so literally, simply saying, No. I’m not going back to work until something gets fixed. As the minutes passed I became frantic, imploring my body to move, but it wouldn’t budge. The aptness was so shocking and exact. I was the driver of that disabled car on the side of the road.
Patty said she couldn’t get it. She could not make sense of this. I was so strong. And on many levels she was right about the strong part: I’m dogged — was once even called a bull-dog in the middle of a meeting by a co-worker who’d had about enough of my tenaciousness. I was always throwing myself full-body into projects. And I was physically strong, pridefully pleased at how I could outlast others in grueling work. While it’s true, I couldn’t hack the mind-deadening work of the DOT, I did spend that summer of 1980 touring state fairs across the Midwest, setting up and tearing down a massive circus tent every few days. The stage rigging alone was 5 tons.
So what was this flag girl part of me ready to say I am not having it? The part that, as time went on, was so in-tune with how-to details. “Hmmm, Mary Kerr keeps a garden hose at the ready in the trunk of her car,” I said to myself as I read her memoir, The Liar’s Club. “How interesting.”
To be continued in Part III, the final part
*Clarification: because I refer so often to Amy, Patty, Christine & Kaila since, as my original lifetime gang from the being, they have such a prominent place in my story, I want to make clear that the friend who thought Karol might have been better off dead than fat was not one of them.
**Synsesthetic is a made-up word based on synesthesia, the confusion of senses where information interpreted by one sensory pathway is, instead, perceived through another. Like tasting a sight or hearing a sight or smelling a sound.
Note: As a person who does wellbeing as a profession, I am all about suicide prevention. Read more about suicide prevention at the end of Flag Girl, part I
The stories in this blog are excerpts from my memoir, The Organization Project. While they are true to me and reflect how I see, I acknowledge there are multiple truths, including my own which change over time, even as the events themselves remain the same, whatever they were. What I make of an event 5 years out may not be what I make of it 10 years out or 50 years out.