A breakthrough to healing can come at the most unexpected time. The other night I was trying to divert myself by watching a mystery episode from an old British series. Instead of taking my mind off things, this story pushed me into a past history I had long kept at a safe distance.
The film built its story around a soldier haunted by his experience of violent death in Bosnia, especially the sight of a basement floor piled deep with the corpses of women and children. Much later, after his return to civilian life, the shock of another act of violence brings back the Bosnian memories and plunges him into such an intense guilt that he loses his power of speech. A minister, he somehow internalizes guilt for such horrors that have nothing to do with his own actions and is even driven to seek atonement for them. And so he tries to find punishment by confessing to a killing he did not commit. It’s based in part on Pat Barker’s fine novel, Regeneration, about a World War I combat veteran slowly brought back to health through the efforts of a gifted psychiatrist. These stories bring to life the hard work of recovery.
Certain dramatic scenes often have powerful resonance for me, often triggering grief and tears, but I have never been able to understand what was going on. Why should such powerful feelings fill me in response to fiction? I could see reasons for such reactions when brought on by the real-life stories of veterans suffering complete collapse from the traumas of combat. However, I thought of that more as empathy for their suffering rather than as response to my own far less violent family disturbances. The other night, though, things began to get clearer.
I could finally feel that a gradually unfolding childhood in a family full of anger, blocked love, passive abuse, the refusal to show affection, all of it was a prolonged losing battle, a slow-motion shock. Over and over again, it seemed I didn’t measure up, couldn’t do things in quite the right way, didn’t take sides as expected to in the bitter arguments, the fist fights, the threats, sometimes with guns. But as a kid, unable to find acceptance from parents too wrapped up in their own sharp-edged disappointments, I could do the natural thing – take all the destructiveness on myself, find myself guilty of failing to set everything right, of being a coward, running from battle, a soldier trying to hide from confrontation. Instead of jumping into the combat, I watched it passively as it played out in front of me. It seemed to go by like an endless movie in which I had no role. Of course I was guilty, deserving scorn for emotionally stepping outside the raging feelings around me. There were times when I played the part and did small things I could really feel ashamed of – petty vandalism, lies, cheating. If everything else had failed, perhaps being bad would meet my parents expectations and win me a perverse place in their lives.
Repression is an unconscious thing, a costly mercy. A great trauma hits, especially when you’re young, and something clicks. Mind and feelings hide the whole thing away. In this case, I managed to get through the violent, angry scenes by losing awareness of all the intense feelings, the fear, the hurt, the rage that must have been there. All the feeling that I knew was the guilt. And so in time that part of my past receded more and more. I left it so far behind emotionally that I could joke about it with college friends after I had moved away and no longer had to deal with that life. Emotionally, the past became a non-event. It was taken care of without need for a thought, for a feeling, certainly not for the persistent guilt of childhood. Problem gone.
Many years later, something finally began to break open, and I could feel with the intensity I had pushed below memory. Mostly, though, the feelings rising to the surface come out only in the form of a deep grief. At first that baffled me – where was this coming from? I well remembered all the events of growing up but emotionally could not make the connection. I would just be moved to tears by stories about the losses and triumphs of others, their guilt, their regeneration into life, but not mine. For a long time, I didn’t know what it was I’d lost. There were only the grief and the tears that surged out unexpectedly.
Then I read Peter Kramer’s line in Against Depression that grief is not a common thing for severely depressed people since their feelings are so blunted and inaccessible. Grief is linked to resilience, to whatever life force is left to fight off suicide, to refuse, ultimately, to let your life be lost to this illness. It is a sign that life is flickering back up, that something good is finally coming from all that shutting down.
The story on film unlocked grief about the past, not guilt. Grief for what? Perhaps for everything lost, every bit of rage and hurt I might have let loose at the time, the loss of love, the hurt in the whole family – I still can’t get it quite clear in mind – though it’s clear enough in feeling. Such intense moments come back to me when listening to John Hiatt, who knows this experience so well:
I’ve cried till the past nearly drowned me
…. And I need to cry 30 years or so
These are tears from a long time ago
Are there breakthrough moments that you can share?