The valley of the shadow of death

TW: This post talks about sexual abuse and suicide.

In a typical month, I spend one to three days hating my life, caught in a bitter swirl of anxiety, feeling like there is no way forward and I am trapped and helpless. It’s premenstrual dysphoric disorder, PMS decked out with steroids, brass knuckles, and steel-toed stiletto-heeled boots. Usually I scrape through it feeling like it’s the only time I’m really honest with myself about how bad things are, but just when I think I can’t stand it anymore, it eases up and I go back to the lie that my life, while far from what I want, is at least okay. And then three weeks later, I’m back in the cage with fangs and claws. I expected PMDD to be worse during quarantine. But I wasn’t prepared for how bad it would get.

On the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter, I prayed for help. What I thought God told me was that all I needed to do was stay alive, just stay alive, and I would see God work.

That seemed pretty basic. I hadn’t felt suicidal in months, and I was sure those urges were behind me forever.

Hubris? Or just naivete?

On Easter, despair flattened me. It took away my hope, my sense of God, my desire to eat and exercise, my energy, everything. I cried until my eyes were swollen almost shut. I’d think I was all cried out and then I’d find more tears from some deep well. I curled on the floor in the shower and sobbed. I kept telling God that I can’t take this anymore. I can’t do it. I can’t.

God was silent.

What wrecked me most was a small, stupid thing: having to cut my own hair. I’ve done it before, but not recently. And not without a hand mirror to scope out the back, or an understanding boss waiting with her office scissors to even out a jagged place (true story). I told myself that by the time anyone could get close enough to notice how badly I’d mangled the cut, it would be grown out anyway. That didn’t help; it just reminded me of how long it’s been since I’ve had face-to-face contact with other people and how much longer I have still to wait.

And I can’t take being alone that long. Not for more weeks, not for more days, not even for the next hour. I can’t take it. I screamed out to God, and God remained silent.

But my wrists started throbbing. The razors under the bathroom sink murmured my name.

So, late in the evening on Easter, I called a suicide hotline. I expected to talk to someone who would help, because that’s the way they advertise themselves. But no: all they do is triage. They offered to send people to my home to recommend inpatient or outpatient services. Neither of which I can afford, neither of which will address the core issue, which is how deeply, terribly alone I feel and how being alone through this quarantine is the cruelest punishment God could devise for me.

Later that night and the next afternoon, I reached out to some friends, and they listened and talked, and that helped. One of them also called the police and requested a welfare check, so yesterday afternoon two cops showed up at my front door. I felt angry and scared and ashamed and humiliated and cared for. It was the closest I’ve been to other humans in weeks. They asked about work, my hobbies, whether I wanted to go to the hospital. Why does everyone think the hospital is the answer? Their eyes and voices were gentle, kind, concerned. They told me to call if I need anything. They told me the friend who contacted them had acted because she cared about me, and a lot of people love me. The older one said, “You know this quarantine will be over soon.” I said I have no hope that when it does, any of the things that are wrong in my life will be different, and that’s the real problem.

I don’t know how to change things. Nothing I try works.

The police left. I attempted to work but decided to take a nap instead. I felt so exhausted and my brain so fuzzy. I had barely slept the night before, even though I’d been almost too tired to get up off the sofa and brush my teeth.

I curled up under an afghan that a friend had crocheted and rested my feet against Rufus’ side. Rufus, one of the reasons I gave the police for why I can’t go to the hospital. Who would take care of Rufus? The cats? The reptiles?

I think I started to fall asleep. At least I felt lulled into a stillness beyond the anxiety and franticness and furor.

And then I was fully awake and not tired anymore.

Because I had this lightning-bolt realization: I am reacting to this situation, quarantine and loneliness and uncertainty and hormones, like a mortally wounded child. This has stripped away my coping techniques and my rationality and whatever adulting skills I possessed, and laid me naked as I was during the most helpless, hostile, horrible period of my life.

I believe the sexual abuse lasted for about a year, but I had regular contact with the individual for a long time afterward and I felt trapped, powerless, hopeless that whole time. I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t even let myself know it. I didn’t have the words to frame what was happening. It was too awful for words. I couldn’t put that label on myself. I don’t remember it in any sort of coherent, linear way; instead it’s impressions, sensations, images. They come back when I don’t expect them and have no chance to prepare: fall days so hard and bright they’re like glass walls; in class while my students are finishing a quiz. They take my breath away. Even now they are difficult to voice out loud. There was no way I could have spoken them then. But I screamed in every way I knew how. No one listened. God didn’t. My parents didn’t. I was utterly powerless to change the situation, to get away from this person, because no one paid attention no matter how loudly I screamed or how badly I hurt myself trying to escape.

I thought that if I had a boyfriend, he could do what neither God nor the adults in my world would: make it stop. Protect me. Keep me safe. Hear and see my suffering. Advocate for me. Stand between me and this unimaginably terrible thing that I was powerless against. But I didn’t have a boyfriend, not for a very long time, and the ones I eventually did have were never very interested in protecting me or keeping me safe or treating me with any sort of tenderness or care. And I think that’s where the deep, awful loneliness comes from and returns to. This idea, still, that another human being could stand between, or at least with, me against this awful thing — not just the virus but the loneliness, the economic fallout, the uncertainty, the grief, the existential despair so many of us are feeling, and that soul-crushing brick wall of divine silence against which I beat my fists bloody to no avail.

This is always the place where I find myself when things get bad. My thoughts don’t even spiral; they’re an avalanche that crushes everything in its path, hurling me into that space of being unheard, unseen, helpless, and brutally alone with a predator who uses my faith and my trust and my respect against me. Who tells me horrible things about myself that take such deep hold that decades later, they still wait like unexploded ordnance in places I’d never think to look for them.

The reality of being alone for COVID-19 quarantine tells me that the worst things he said are the truth: that I am unlovable, unwanted, irredeemably flawed, ruined; that I will never be anyone’s choice.

I don’t know where this realization leaves me. My chest feels raw and flayed open, and every breath hurts. I can’t even say whether the pain is physical or emotional. Several of my friends are pushing for hospitalization, and I’m going to discuss that option with my counselor, with whom I have an emergency appointment this afternoon. But my gut says it’s not the answer. My gut says I need to sit with these wounds. That if I’m ever going to heal from them, I need to walk through the pain, not bury it under medication.

This morning I asked God that if these beliefs about myself — beliefs that feel more true and real and terrible than anything else in my life, beliefs confirmed by the dreadful logic of what my life looks like right now — are lies, God will show me, in ways more real and true and meaningful and enduring than the worst things I believe. Show me who I really am.

I’m waiting. When I took Rufus out for a walk just now, the air felt fresh and new in the way of spring mornings that dawn after a hard, violent storm. I hope that’s a promise.

Published by Monique Bos

I write, read, take photos, engage in other random creative acts, watch bad creature movies, and love animals.

2 thoughts on “The valley of the shadow of death

  1. Hi Monique, I have been a sufferer of chronic depression all my life. In fact, I suspect that I may have been misdiagnosed and that I am actually a very mild bi-polar who leans on the downside more than on the upside, but who knows? To be honest, after years and years of dealing with doctors who are presumably experts I feel that no one really understands this condition at all. I connect with what you say. Some years back, I was in the same position as you and I ended up calling a suicide hotline, too, only to have that same deflating experience of being referred to a hospital that would have made my bad financial situation even worse than it was. I did go, all the same. I waited for several hours in the emergency room. Thankfully, by the time that it was my turn to speak to someone, I had somehow come out of the deeply suicidal mode and was just merely depressed. When the question came whether or not I wanted to kill myself right then and there, I said no, and apparently that saved me from being forcibly hospitalized at my considerable expense, and as the doctor on staff told me, the only thing they would have done for me would be to stuff me with anti-depressant meds (which I was already taking, but which I did not know where the wrong dosage and therefore not helping) and keep me there until they kick in, which on average takes two weeks. The hospital is not the answer, especially not now during this pandemic, but I do think that talking to other people can help. I know that when we reach those spaces of despair it is difficult to see ahead or to see anything with clarity. I just want to say that you are not alone. You are not strange or crazy for experiencing these feelings or for wanting someone to share your life with, especially when so many other things in our world feel so bleak and dreary. One thing that I find helps me when I’m really down is to watch some of the NDE experiences that people have had. The messages in those videos are always so positive and uplifting that it often helps me carry on. I am concerned, however, for this abuser that you refer to. I hope that you have taken steps to protect yourself from this person, whoever they may be. I know you and I don’t know each other very well, but I do care. Please, if you ever feel like you need to get out of your head and talk to someone, do reach out to me. I’m going to send another more private message but I wanted to respond here. We are definitely seeing very dark times. You are a sensitive and caring person. Of course, you are deeply affected. But you are not alone.


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