When I was young, a terrible thing happened. The teeth of that event, jagged and complex as they are, shaped the contours of my personality in a number of ways (though I think it can be argued that I never stood a chance of escaping childhood without at least a few neuroses). Be that as it may, it was a short time after the deaths of my friends that my personality underwent a severe and startling shift. I can’t pinpoint exactly when it happened. I feel like I continued to be pretty normal in the first few months after their deaths. It wasn’t as if I didn’t receive counseling afterwards. My parents talked to me about what happened, and they took me to see a nice lady in a tidy little office who asked me questions about my friends while I drew them as stick-figure angels with bright yellow halos. That lady must’ve thought I was handling the trauma all right, because I only remember seeing her once. In the meantime, my dad took a few pieces of leftover fence posts and some primer paint to make a roughly hewn cross that he hammered into the grass outside of their deserted home. They took me to the funeral — closed casket — in a starchy plaid dress. I sat, not internalizing anything that was said, as I contemplated with horrifying clarity exactly why the caskets needed to be closed and large portraits of their young, smiling faces be displayed instead. My second grade teacher, Mrs. Steadler I think her name was, was especially compassionate in the wake of the event, inviting me to speak with the class or with her if ever I needed to.
All told, I think I adjusted with the same easy acceptance that all children employ when synthesizing a terrible event with their reality: It was bad, and it happened, and I’m sad that it happened. And then you move on because you’re a kid, and without sustained, repeated trauma, chances are the catastrophes you witness aren’t going to define your personality like they would in someone older. Such is the extraordinary capacity of children to heal and to love, so effortlessly.
But eventually something changed. In what now seems to be an overnight shift, I lost all feelings of safety and comfort. I was afraid. All. Of. The time. Like, can’t-sleep-with-the-lights-out, must-have-the-doors-and-windows-barred, TV-on-and-blaring-or-else-shit-your-pants-in-fear kind of afraid. I had night terrors in which my deceased friends would come to me and tell me that the afterlife was lonely and they wanted me to join them. In my dream, I would start to suffocate, then wake to find my face in a pillow.
Prior to this constant fear, I quite distinctly remember sleeping peacefully in my bedroom with the lights out, window open to the breeze, moon light streaming in. Then a change happened, wherein I became so utterly terrified of the darkness that I never opened my windows or blinds unless it was light out. I kept the overhead lamp on my bedroom’s ceiling fan blazing all night long, and if my parents tried to exchange the 100watt bulb for something dimmer, I’d throw a fit. Not knowing or not understanding why I needed to sleep with the TV on, my parents would remove the set from my room if I had done something to incur a punishment. This lead to some explosive tantrums during which I tried, with a child’s inadequate articulation, to explain why they just couldn’t take that away from me. It wasn’t about entertainment — it was about survival: bad things would happen if I were left alone in my bedroom overnight without the television on.
I would scream if left in the darkness. Maybe they thought that, if left to my own devices, I would tire and fall asleep, but the fear kept me quivering and awake. Once, my mother stood in my bedroom door silhouetted by the hallway light as I cried and begged her to comfort me. She answered, unequivocally, that she would not, because I was a big girl and I could sleep in my own room. The dreadful thought that I was disappointing her, that she was ashamed of my behavior, only made me cry harder.
We weren’t a particularly religious family — we never went to church or anything like that — but I knew there was a God, that he had something to do with the gold cross my daddy wore and Santa Claus, and he could protect me if I played my cards right. This was the beginning of my ritualized behavior: I believed that if I said my prayers at night exactly the same way, in exactly the same order every single night with my hands clasped dutifully in front of my chest that God, like some combination of watch dog and genie, would keep me safe from whatever frightened me and also grant me wishes. If I forgot some line in my prayer speech (it was probably a few minutes long), I would have to stop and do it over again, because if I didn’t stick to the script, it wouldn’t work and any number of ghosts, goblins, or aliens would come attack me in the darkness. I went to one of those jewelry vending machines in the grocery store, stuck in my fifty cents, and got a cheap nickel-plated crucifix to put on my teddy bear. From then on I worshiped him like a fuzzy false idol, convinced that he was ordained BY GOD to protect me while I slept.
I still have that teddy bear, by the way. His name is Joefas, and now he guards my daughter while she sleeps, sans religious armor of any kind.
Looking back, I think this was the period of time that planted the seeds of mental illness that I continue to struggle with today. The beginnings of my irrational anxiety. The genesis of obsessive-compulsive, ritualistic behavior. The foundation for my fear of abandonment. All of those threads can be traced back, not necessary to Cheri and Nick’s deaths, but to what I experienced directly afterwards. Due to my sieve-like memory, I can only speculate on what extenuating factors precipitated my descent into minor madness. My less-than-Leave-it-to-Beaver upbringing, some kind long-buried abuse, or perhaps, just the small, seemingly insignificant watermarks of everyday tragedy, built up over time. Were my irrational fears, my gruesome visions of dead friends, all symptomatic of some other long-forgotten trauma? I don’t know, and I don’t especially want to go digging for those answers. All I know is that while the Terrible Thing is one of the only things I remember, it isn’t the only thing that changed me. The rest, since it wasn’t reported on and can’t be searched on the internet, will just have to remain a mystery. Truthfully, I think I prefer it that way.