Hesitancy Toward Happiness

When I think of my mother, I remember her arm across my neck, pinning me to the wall in the hallway outside my bedroom. Behind her was a large window that overlooked the court we lived at the bottom of, and I saw a car come and go as she said nasty things to me that have since faded into a vague sense of abuse that only sharpens into something clearer and cutting on bad days. The car loped slow through the street and I wondered if they noticed the window I was looking out of, calculating how quickly I could get outside. Was I even visible through the trees that were just starting to grow dense with leaves again?

Ten years later, I still think of fourteen-year-old Erica. At an age where every small thing was susceptible to seeming incredibly dramatic and world-ending, I subverted. Major problems were dealt with through a shrug. I ignored and buried and boxed up trauma until I ran out of room. It was so much easier to fixate on smaller, petty problems than deal with something that, at the time, seemed unfixable and much too complicated and scary to face the truth of. The sensation of being trapped--in my house, in the life I was living--was overwhelming. One day, when I had locked myself in my room and sat at the bottom of my closet, putting one more set of doors between us, I tried to picture what my life would look like in a year, in three, in five. I couldn't see it. All I could picture was the same days on repeat, the same fear and vulnerability playing itself out in a loop. I would be stuck, and all of the terrible things I was told were true.

No way out; nothing better waiting. I wouldn't deserve it even if there was.

How I ever came to believe such lies is beyond me. There was nothing but better waiting for me. I haven't had actual, intentional contact with my mother in about six years, and the happiness I've found in that time is unimaginable. When I think back to the times I felt helpless, I am endlessly grateful for having made it to where I am, who made me feel a little less powerless. I know I owe everything I've achieved and how far I've come to those I loved and those who showed me what it was like to be loved me back. My sister, my friends, my dad--people who, even unaware of what I was going through, showed me unfailing strength and kindness, shining examples of hope. At fourteen, I couldn't see a way out, or forward. At twenty-four, I see that there's nothing but possibility before me.

Now that I've had enough space and time to process things in a healthier way, I'm cleaning house. I'm unpacking those boxes, one at a time, and setting what's not useful to the side and holding onto the lessons I learned and the moments--however bad--that made me who I am. I know, for example, that I have an incredible capacity to care about others that I likely would not have achieved without those difficult times. My sister and I are as close as we are because I wanted to see her do more than I did and be happy and whole. I can endure more than I think, but instead of making me hard against the world, those experiences I survived gave me an acute sense of empathy and a desire to help, protect, and heal.

My hesitancy toward happiness is fading the farther I get away from her. It's been hard to shake the doubt when I have moments of peace, but I live my life better. I know that I am worth the contentment I wish for others, and I am capable of achieving it. It doesn't matter what I've heard in the past, because the voices I surround myself with are more supportive than anything I've experienced before; and the times when I start to forget, they're there to remind me. We are all so much more than we believe, and everyone deserves happiness and security.

I can't see my mother as a whole person anymore, only in flashes of moments, only in instances of anxiety. She rarely crosses my mind, but when she does, I remind myself of all that I want to be better at--I want to be kind and happy and vulnerable; I want to be honest and I want to love and defend, never harm. I'm not mad or angry at her anymore, though there were years where I struggled with something close to hate. I've finally reached a place of indifference. There are times when that slips back and I let her darkness worm its way back in, but I'm so full of light that it's nothing.

She seems so small to me, now. I never thought that would be possible. I never thought any of this would be possible, but here I stand, closer to contentment than I've ever reached before.

Mimosa Pudica

On the back deck of my childhood home, sheltered and shadowed by the heavy green limbs of the woods behind our house, was a potted fern. I sat there on my heels, hands folded close to my stomach as I watched my dad plant it, patting the dirt until his hands were wet and sooty with soil. I was still wearing my watercolor blue-and-pink dress from church, so I waited patiently for him to finish before I could run inside and change into something I could wear to run around outside and play.

"Watch this," he said once he was done, and he reached out and touched the center of the thin, soft leaves of the fern.

In a lazy ripple, the leaves folded in on themselves. It closed for a minute or two before slowly opening back up again. He did it a second time, to another leaf. It did the same thing, closing and opening.

"Try it."

With the gentlest manner an excited five-year-old could muster, I reached out and stroked the leaf, letting the fern curl around my finger for a second before letting go. I laughed, half relieved it didn't snap closed on me like I'd imagined Venus Fly Traps did -- catching prey in its mouth and digesting them whole -- and half thrilled with the fact that a plant reacted to my touch. Fern Gully being one of my favorite movies at the time, I could think of no greater excitement than having a thing of nature recognize me.

The little fern had thin, sensitive leaves, as soft as that robin's feather I'd found a few days prior. Immediately, I was mesmerized. I spent hours that day, sitting on the splintered deck in my dress and white buckle shoes, petting the plant. I gave it a name, though I can't remember it now. What I do remember is wondering if there would be a time when I could touch the plant and not have it close up; would we eventually reach a moment where the leaves would no longer feel the need to hide themselves and realize I was a friend, not predator?


The plant was a Mimosa Pudica, though I knew it by the less-scientific names: the sleepy plant, or the touch-me-not. It was the brightest green with small, almost translucent-purple bursts of flowers, and I loved it more than all of the colorful geraniums, impatiens, and marigolds that lined the railing, buzzing with fat little bumblebees. Even though it only lived on the deck under my bedroom window for one summer, it is one of the memories of the dewy months of May-June-July I remember most from my childhood.

Recently, I found myself thinking about it again. Out of nowhere, those leaves. The nervous plant that I felt some strange kinship to nearly twenty years ago. It's an apt and timely metaphor, as I've been fighting back some stubborn anxiety these past two weeks. It's been a stressful time full, and like the mimosa pudica, my instinct is to fold up, close myself off from potential harm.

Panic disorder is an incredibly skilled liar. It sends a signal to some primal part of my brain that there is a perceived threat, a predator before me. The alarm for fight or flight sounds, and all I can do is react. Sometimes I have a sense of control over my reaction (mainly, sitting there, still and silent, waiting for the panic to pass because -- guess what! -- there's usually no real threat before me and, with time, my brain might finally react as such). Other times, I have no control. I fold.

There's this article I read about the mimosa pudica and how it evolved in such a way to differentiate between threat and non-threat. The way it folded in on itself whenever the sensitive spines of the leaves were touched prevented it from being properly watered. It would rain, and the plant would seize up. Something that was good for was perceived as dangerous, and the possibility of a threat was enough to send it into its natural, ingrained reaction of closing. But, eventually, it learned not to curl up when rain drops landed on it. Scientists aren't sure how, but the plant's reaction changed.

The plant learned.

The plant opened up.

What a lesson to be learned. The times my anxiety wins and that fear in my head steamrolls over all other thoughts, I start to fold in on myself. Slowly, though, I'm reworking that reaction. I don't want to close down, to shelter myself to the point of being counterproductive. It's not protecting me; life is going on without me as I peel myself out again and realize there's no danger, no predators waiting. I just have to open up and let the rain drops fall.

Thunderstorm

He walks around like he carries 
a thunderstorm 
in his pocket. 

 Whenever clear skies are 
too much, he
disappears into 
his rain.

He holds his anger like
a gift.
For what else
could a lightning bolt
be?

Fear no fate

I have three tattoos, and depending on the weather, at least two are predominantly visible.

My first was a set of delicate quotation marks on my wrists, right over my pulse points. I was twenty. I lived in a world of fiction. Books -- writing them, reading -- got me through a lot of tough years. I wanted to keep that peace with me and be able to look at it every day and find it again.

Last May I got my latest tattoo. I was twenty-three, my sister was twenty-one. On the back of her left heel, she got the sun and I got the moon on my own right heel. I remember not being nervous, and I remember how brilliantly teal the walls of the tattoo parlor were with the early summer sun glaring through the windows. My sister means the world to me, and even more than books ever were or could be, she is my happy and bright, no matter how dark the nights.

But my favorite tattoo was my second. I was twenty-one, almost twenty-two. The days leading up to it were spent deciding where I wanted the tattoo placed, how big I wanted the lettering, which script was right. It was my sister's first tattoo (a quote from Rent across her back, in typewriter lettering). I wore my Ramones shirt. I had a panic attack on the drive there, making the tattoo all the more appropriate afterward.

Photo by Sarah Culver Photography

"fear no fate"

I decided I wanted the small quote to sit just under my left collarbone, a few inches above my heart. I wanted it visible; I wanted to see it every time I looked in the mirror.

Usually, the tops I wear cover at least part of the tattoo. (I noticed once, at work, that only the word "fear" was visible. It made me laugh, and then think about the importance of the two words that followed.) So, naturally, because it is a tattoo that is partially visible -- as in, visible enough to see I have a tattoo, but maybe not clear enough to make out what it is -- I get a lot of questions about it.

"Fear no fate." It's a line I cut out of my favorite E.E. Cummings poem, [i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]. It sits at the top of the second stanza, and in full, the sentiment reads reads: 
  i fear / no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)

Settling

When I moved into my new place last week, I was coming down with a head cold. In fact, as I sit here writing this, I'm still fighting it off, surrounded by blankets, electrolytes, and tissues that claim to be "angel soft" yet leave my nose the brightest blazing red. It's fair to say these last few days have been difficult for me to navigate (adjusting to the newness of everything, trying to feel comfortable being sick in a place that doesn't quite feel like home yet, the anxiety of everything). But I'm doing it. Even when it is difficult, and when I'm at my low, I'm doing it. Take that, anxiety!

Slowly but surely, I'm settling in. I'm almost finished unpacking, just three boxes of books left to shelve and a million tiny things to organize. (This would have been done by now if I were able to go 10 minutes without needing to sit and blow my nose.) I can already tell I'm going to be really, really great friends with my four new roommates--all of whom, before I moved in, were strangers to me. And, as expected, I love living in downtown Annapolis.

I celebrated New Year's in my new place this year, and on reflecting of the craziness that was 2016, I entered 2017 with not quite a resolution, but more an intention: In all things, be passionate. It's my goal this year to do every thing that I do as well, and as thoroughly, as I can. I want to commit. I want to learn and grow and challenge myself unlike I had in years' past. I want to pay attention to and appreciate the small things. To start, I've tried to take notice of moments or details I find beautiful and interesting in where I'm living.
  • I can hear church bells from every room.
  • The sun coming through my window at 11:30AM is the softest and most serene lighting.
  • Cars driving down the street in the rain sound like a restless tide, if you are just sleepy enough.
  • Wrapping yourself up in 10 blankets is much more fun than adjusting the thermostat up a few degrees.
There's still a lot for me to get used to, living in this new place with new people. But I'm excited for the change it's bringing. And in other news: the semester starts tomorrow, so I'll be going back to school for the first time since getting my undergraduate degree. I can't wait (and also I'm very nervous).

   

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