Though I have not spoken to my father in almost four years, I still talk to him all the time, in vivid technicolor and exaggerated emotion. The landscape of sleep has always been visceral for me; my dreams often follow me into my waking hours, so real that I feel sure upon awakening that the things contained within my sleeping subconscious have been manifested into fact. The dreams I have about my father are a continuing conversation, one that simply picks up where it left off the last time. The settings are varied, the timeline shifting, but the one constant tether to reality is that these dreams never end well.
This latest time, we are walking through a house. He’s showing me the rooms, and while I tell him they look nice, I have to struggle to hide an ever-increasing sinking sensation in my gut. The walls are covered in mold, the bathrooms corroded, the furniture in pieces. It looks like it was a nice house, once, but it’s been caught in some sort of decay, eating away at it. Each room we enter looks more dirty than the last. I keep pretending, for his sake, but I wonder why he doesn’t seem disturbed. We get to the end of a narrow hallway and he opens the door to a small bedroom, a closet-like space, repurposed with bunk beds narrowly packed against the walls.
“This is for you kids,” he says.
“But we won’t all fit,” I reply, worry beginning to gnaw at me. I have to make him see that these are impossible living conditions. And there aren’t even enough beds, anyway, to fit all of us.
“No, you’ll be fine, you’ll see. You’ll all stay here, together. We’re a family.” He doesn’t understand why I think it’s such a bad idea to try and force five children of almost adult ages to live in such a tiny space together, just like he doesn’t understand why I can’t see how simple and logical this solution is, in his eyes.
“Dad, you could get a house with more space. We’d fight less if we weren’t so closed in.”
He is baffled by my resistance, just as I am desperate to make him come around. And then I remember, slowly, a fact wriggling in the back of my consciousness. I do not have to stay here – I have my own place. When I mention this, he quickly gets angry. I try to explain that it’ll be okay – with me on my own, my siblings will have more room. He grows more heated, and the yelling starts, and then things are a kaleidoscope of color and emotions, the walls closing in, words flying out of my mouth so fast that I can’t remember what I’m saying.
A storm is building in this narrow hallway, keeping pace with our shouts. Gray and black swirl around me; loose items hurling toward my head. I fight through the wind and make it to the front door. I turn and see him standing in the dark hall, hands out to grab me, to make me come back. I know that the words I say now are the most important ones, so I have to make them count.
“You think this is all my fault?” I ask him, dancing just out of his reach. “This is not my fault.”
I leap into the driveway, again evading his grasp.
“You did this to us,” I yell. “You set us all on fire.” I’m crying now, and as I get in the car to drive away, the house goes up in flames behind me, smoke whispering through the windows.
I wake up then, sweating, soaking into my sheets. My mind is fluttering at the edges of reality and my heart is racing. I have to turn on the light, grab my phone, remind myself that this was all just a dream. A dream, a dream, a dream, I repeat. It’s six a.m. and I am three years gone from that house, but a dream is not just a dream when you lived it for twenty years. It feels real, because it once was real, and I have to coax myself out of bed into the morning light.
It doesn’t take a psychologist to explain my nightmares. I didn’t know PTSD could affect anyone other than soldiers until I took a mental health questionnaire at my first therapist’s office. Since then I’ve become a bit more educated in the variety of maladies that can lurk in one’s head, and the way my PTSD manifests itself is mostly in dreams. The walls closing in, the slowly moldering family home, the tiny locked space he wanted to keep us in.
I wonder sometimes if my dad has those kinds of dreams about me, too. Does he have his own version, where I am the malevolent force, fire streaming from my mouth? Does he dream about finding me, holding my hands, asking me to come back, to stay just a little while? Maybe he dreams a morning scene, where he wakes up and finds me in the kitchen, reading my favorite sections of his morning paper, and everything else that happened before has been washed away and he asks me what I’ve learned while I’ve been away at school. I drink my coffee, he readies his plastic lunch pail, the same one he’s had since I was small, and nothing gets set aflame.
If I had to guess, though, I would think he doesn’t dream of me at all. How could you survive it, reliving it every night? How do you rationalize to your friends and coworkers the story of your child walking away? Do you put them on a prayer chain at your church, photos of them on the walls, speak of them as if there is a present tense? I wonder if he wishes I’d given him the chance to explain. I never addressed anything to him, only sending a few cursory emails to my mother after I made the choice that changed everything.
Why aren’t you coming home?
It’s been three years and five months and sometimes I still don’t know the answer.
No, I don’t think he dreams of me. How could he?
The truth is an ever-changing entity. They taught me it was absolute, back in Sunday school, but I’ve since learned how impossible that is. The truth changes, depending on who’s telling it. If I believe with absolute certain conviction that the truth is the story, the way that I tell it, who is going to dispute me? Unless, of course, there is another party in this discourse, and they see it in a completely different way. Their version of the story is their truth, and if they believe it, with absolute certainty and conviction, who is going to tell them that they are wrong?
You could sit every member of my family down, separately, and ask them each the same question. We will imagine a camera in the corner, a cup of water on table, the same mild-faced man running each interview. You could assure each of them that their answer is confidential, will not be shared with anyone else, that no other family member is listening right now, and then you could ask.
What happened to your family?
All of us would have a different answer. A trained mental health professional could look through the tapes and read all the clues and maybe come up with a construction of the most likely version of actual events. But we would all tell you the story differently. And we’d all believe it, to varying degrees of certainty and absolute conviction. We are not on trial, but if we were, caught in an excavation for the solid, immovable truth, it would be difficult to find.
What happened to us? Everything. Everything and nothing at all.
What happened to us? They all turn their heads to find me, somehow, in the room. She did.
I often argue the case in front of the jury in my own head. I come out with different conclusions, sometimes, but I have to run through events over and over again, from different angles and perspectives. Eventually I come to the same rough conclusion each time – I didn’t know how to do anything other than what I did, and that has to be enough. My life is so much saner now that I’ve left, and that has to count for something.
But the jury of my peers, reflections of myself, are not always so convinced. There is always the question that comes after the verdict, the one that asks “Sure, you did what you thought was right. But…what if?”
What if I had waited a little longer, stayed the course. What if I had found a way to save all of us?
I am only one girl, and I was only nineteen. What I did was make a single phone call. It was all that I could do to change things, but it was enough.
What I do now is constantly atone for the sins in my own head, the sins I’ve committed against my father, my mother, my church and my god. It doesn’t matter that no one else blames me for them but myself. In the moment that mattered, I did not ask “but what if,” and that’s when I made a decision I cannot take back.
You’d think I blew up the world, but what I actually did was leave an anonymous tip with social services. My dad is beating a minor. He’s done it for years. Yes, he’s done it to me too.
I did not set the world on fire, but I might as well have. Sometimes I swear I can still smell it burning.
PTSD often produces feelings of extreme guilt. Usually I’ve read about this in the context of of war zones, survivor’s guilt, the people who got out and don’t believe they should have. I have that kind of guilt, sometimes. I’ll think I should’ve stayed, that I would have been able to better help the people involved, even my dad, that way. I’ll think I shouldn’t be living a life without constant pressure of emotional and verbal barrages of abuse if they don’t get to live that life, too.
But I wonder if the guilt I carry is a different kind, if there’s anyone else who can ever feel the way that I’ve felt. Is it still survivor’s guilt if you were the reason no one else got out? Surely my guilt is much more deserved, much more my own fault, because I lit the matches and left them there to burn. I walk away from that smoking house in my dreams more often than I can count, and each time I am just so glad to be out that I don’t even worry about who’s left inside.
Maybe he does dream of me, after all this time. Maybe the new gray hairs on his head are a byproduct of all the times he wakes up crushingly sad. Maybe he dreams that his daughter is spreading her version of events on the internet for the world to see, but when he wakes up, he remembers it’s not a dream at all. Maybe he wonders how in the world I came to such dizzying conclusions, how one person’s truth is another one’s lie. My truth, his truth, my life, his reality. They’re fundamentally incompatible now, and that’s the real answer to the question of why I can’t go back. Not because I am scared, not because I’ve used the word “abuse” to describe the entirety of my childhood, not because I am afraid he no longer loves me.
His truth, my lies; my truth, his falsehood. I am still young, but I even I know there is no bridging that divide.
The truth is, I do not tell my story to hurt him. I didn’t make that phone call to hurt him, either. The truth is that what happened to us is carried in all of us; if his chest bears a great grey burden, mine is buried with it too. I tell the story of my life because it is the only way I know how to soothe the ever-open wound. I have to write it down, unravel it, slowly, bit by gory bit, because if I don’t it will fester inside of me. I will become rot and decay, and I cannot live like that. So I write and remember and unwind the burden, in hopes I will see it a little clearer at the end.
I tell the truth in hopes that one day I will only dream of happy things.
I tell the truth, the way I see it, so that I can one day step willfully into that morning light and be made whole again.
Becca Rose writes about feminism, religion, pop culture, and sometimes, boys. Her work has appeared on HelloGiggles, xoJane, and more. She has a degree in writing and high hopes for all her student loan debt. You can find her on Twitter @bookbeaut.