What are your go-to stories? To clarify, I mean ones you tell about yourself, not ones that have been told to you in novels or poems or songs or movies. We all loved The Raven but if someone asked you to tell them something about yourself you wouldn’t respond, “Oh dude. It was so crazy. I was just chillin' in my room and then once upon a midnight dreary…” We all have them; favorites we pull from our conversational quivers and loose on both the interested and polite in a practiced cadence of humor, seriousness, or sorrow, relative to the situation.
Here’s one of mine:
During class one day, our professor guided us through a round of active imagination. This involved ‘dropping us in,’ essentially inviting everyone to close their eyes and into a very low-level hypnotism, and then, by saying things like, “You’re walking over a big green hill, because there’s a storm coming and you need to be inside,” leading us into a house in our minds. In the house were many rooms, and many long hallways through which we were coaxed toward increasingly personal spaces. A living room with a desk full of family trinkets, a bedroom trunk waiting to be opened, diary inside, and finally the bedroom closet. In this closet, our professor said softly to our closed-eyed class, there were an infinite number of costumes. We needed merely reach in and pick one without thinking too much about it. So I did.
Afterward he went around the room asking what each of us had found hanging in the closet of our subconscious. One man had plucked a construction worker’s worn yellow hat and faded jeans, a testament, according to the professor, of his willingness to show up and do the work, to get his hands dirty for the things he cared about. The next woman had reached in and retrieved a flowing mermaid’s tail, which apparently spoke to her fearlessness around exploring the depths of her subconscious. I was brand new (rolling admission situation) and fairly well convinced I had somehow fucked up my imagination-land-whatever-the-shit, and as another woman was lauded for her ballerina-like grace in the wake of horrific familial trauma, I started hoping I could quietly become a part of the linoleum. No fanfare, no fuss, just poof. Linoleum.
“Next up. What was yours?”
“Banan- banana suit. It was a banana suit.” I left out that in my mind I was stark naked underneath.
I like this story for a few reasons. One, it’s simple. It has a quick reliable punchline that doesn’t punch too hard, and only punches at me. Two, it’s impersonal enough that you’re moved to neither comfort nor pry but three, it provides the opportunity for questions. “So if active imagination is kind of like hypnotism, did anyone take their shirt off?” or, “Oh man. Did she ever interpretive-dance her way back to happiness?” or, “What class was this, and how proud are your parents of you on a scale from one to ten?” Pretty straightforward.
Getting sober was less so.
Like many people I sustained my fair share of trauma at a young age at the hands of a parent and peripheral others. I was the oldest of three, and it quickly became my job to make sure two tiny humans were okay. We played games while my mom covered an eye driving us home, or got ice cream down the street to avoid getting in the car at all, or crept out the window so the yelling would stop. When I was thirteen or fourteen my safe haven, my grandma Florence, passed away.
I spent most of her wake making my brother, sister, and kids of family friends laugh to distract them and keep them from being sad. Honestly though, and I doubt this revelation will blow your mind, that wasn’t just for them. Yeah, it helped them feel better, but it also kept me safe. If I was focused on making them laugh, I didn’t have to spend time with what was happening around me. The equation imprinted on my heart was this: more laughter equals less pain. It was a pattern that served me super well, until it didn’t.
I held off on drinking until I was eighteen, but I dove right in once I found it. ‘Dove right in once I found it,’ I use this phrase a lot when telling my ‘how I got sober’ story. Anyway, in no time at all I graduated to ecstasy, acid, mushrooms, molly, cocaine, and the occasional, accidental line of bath salts. I dropped out of school and changed cities. I gravitated toward others who’d done the same. I moved around a ton, mostly with the same people, doing the same things. Alcohol, molly, cocaine, alcohol, molly, cocaine, mushrooms, alcohol, molly, cocaine…
Waking up we wandered into the kitchen and laughed about the drug plate that looked like a halo over the person still passed out on the couch. Life was fumbled through, menial jobs attended, text messages about the number of shots or lines or hours spent puking flying back and forth throughout like manic carrier pigeons. We skimmed food and cigarettes from our respective places of work and then, in a ghastly display of layered neuroses, would come home and reminisce about getting fucked up while being fucked up, sloshing our sordid compendium onto tables covered in beer cans turned ash trays.
This went on for, hmm, I guess five years or so? Until eventually, coming down became the scariest thing in the world. Even typing the words I’m returned to strangers’ futons in the fetal position, trying to breathe and slamming my eyes shut to ward off the dawning sun. It was fingernails on my brain. (Oh, again real quick, you see that phrase ‘fingernails on my brain?’ Also well-worn. I’m listing into recitation, plodding over the familiar terrain of constellated words become myself.) It was sleeping with anyone. It was nine a.m. shots of vodka. Please just let me pass out… It was the irreparable, irredeemable loss of time. It was shame and pain.
Yet still none of it was a problem. Why? Because it was funny. I mean, yeah, of course there were years’ worth of unexplored trauma informing our inability to confront ourselves, but the net that always caught us before any potential plunge was laughter.
“Ohmygawd, d’you remember when Brittany shit herself? It was cut with way too much baby laxative!”
“Yoooo you were so gone I literally couldn’t understand a word you were saying.”
“Dude I had to use my GPS to walk the three blocks home and then I yelled at a dandelion when I tipped over hahaha.”
These had become our stories. In vacant moments listing dangerously toward the contemplative, we could throw in an anecdote about the foursome we had with the neighbors a couple streets over. If quiet ever settled in, it was quickly dispatched by knocking on a nearby door and chuckling, “Duuuude last night was crazy!” We could glorify and relive and tenderize our experiences to the point of Pavlovian salivation until suddenly we were back at Union for mimosas, champagne flute unwittingly in hand.
We loved each other for these absurdities, and for our extravagences of personality scavenged from what were universally traumatic upbringings. Haircuts, sexual proclivities, music. We found each other for reasons, and we tried to connect. We really did. But what did that look like? I was tucked into a twin bed with a friend agreeing that if we could tell the person we were dating was nervous around us, we didn’t want them anymore. Sarah was showing me the scars on her arms, I was busy wondering if five a.m. was too late or too early to kill the whiskey on the nightstand. It was a quiet affirmation on a couch in my rapist’s apartment from someone I never saw again.
These things, however, never became our stories. How could we make space for them? They didn’t belong there, out in the open, where they might be seen or worse, have to be taken seriously. I’m not sure if you know this, but one of the best ways to avoid looking at something is to just, keep, going. So I did.
I moved to a few more cities, continued using but at a slower pace, and settled into an ache that became more home than any of the apartments or places I’d bounced between.
Then -and it always seems this way when it’s something big but I’ll say it anyway- suddenly, a pivot. It happened when someone I fell in love with stayed over one night. I all but begged her to stay, promising I’d be right in. Seven a.m. rolled around and she left for work, a whole ten minutes after I joined her in bed. I was in and out of sleep until around eight that night when there was a knock on my door. “Uh oh,” I jokingly texted a friend before answering it, “she legit just showed up at my house lol.”
I opened the door and she looked serious. We went back into my room and I curled up, surrounded by takeout, my head pounding. Couldn’t we just see each other tomorrow, when I felt better?
“So what’s up?” I asked, smirking, rubbing my eyes. I was aware that I needed to shower in that special way only being around someone you want to sleep with will make you aware of yourself, “How was work?”
“Work was shitty. I went out to dinner with Daniel and Parina but I couldn’t stop thinking about last night.”
“Ha. Yeah it was pretty crazy.”
“No,” she said, in a moment that seemed to flip the Earth’s axis, “it isn’t funny. We aren’t going to laugh about this.”
Oh. I was punctured.
In the wake of her proclamation I felt more naked than I had in any of the moments spent wrapped around strangers, losing myself in the distraction of their bodies, opening myself to their itinerant wants. Where had my shield gone?
I haven’t written this part before, or spoken of it to many people. It’s still intimate. That person was in my life for a couple years, and when she left it was like shooting a chicken. Feathers everywhere, each one a lie she told that I spent so much time frantically trying to snatch from the wind to rebuild something already dead. But along with other important pain, she left me with an understanding:
My suffering doesn’t deserve to be laughed at by me or anyone else.
This truth was wrenched from the margins and into the open space of my consciousness, and a slow transmogrification was begun. I had to look at myself, at my stories, and how I told them.
Beneath the falsetto intros and clapback outros was the truth: I wasn’t using because it was fun, I was using because I was terrified of being alone with a cumulative collection of painful wrongs about which I felt deeply helpless. Around every quiet corner was an amalgamous man waiting to make my body his own with words or force, a cowering child who couldn’t understand, a lonely young woman bellowing into an abyss made ever -if differently- nearer by the oblivion of intoxicants. It became my task to sit with each, to gently remove the clown makeup and big red shoes and say, finally, “I am so, so sorry for this pain. I love you. This was real, and it hurts so much.”
Not a simple task.
It took a lot of work, like, sooo much work. We’re talking leaving friendships, GETTING SOBER which there aren’t enough modifiers to accurately emphasize, establishing therapeutic relationships (notice that plural, there), like seven different emotional bottoms, and many shower-sob sessions, but I can assure you a thousand times over of two things, first: that trusting myself, seeing myself, loving myself enough to say I deserve better than this, was the most worth-it thing I’ve ever done. And second, that the stories you tell about yourself become your truth, they become who you are.
As it turns out, a lot of people pull banana suits out of their subconscious closets, along with clown costumes, or colorful jester’s outfits. We tend to be the ones, according to my professor, who, “...just love to make people laugh.” I’m actually super, super okay with that.
Tons of things are still hilarious without me having to kick myself while I’m down. Excited emus, for example, and cocky teens sprinting in front of their friends on rickety treadmills that collapse beneath their feet. “Hey it’s not funny, man. I couldn’t breathe.” It was though, Kevin. It really was. And thankfully life has seen fit to throw me a parade of my own gently embarrassing experiences, so that I too may surrender myself to the steady onslaught of punchlines that is life.
I’m now almost two years sober, and it’s been about that long since I’ve laughed at my trauma. You don’t need my invitation, but I’m sending it to you anyway. Work, try, care, build yourself a home within your own self-love. It takes a thousand different steps and more than half the time you’ll get it wrong, but return again and again and as many times as it takes to this: Your suffering does not deserve to be laughed at by you or anyone else. You were meant to be taken seriously. You are infinitely worthy of love.
You can find Rachel Bowling on Instagram @wholehumanheart