19 February 2022

We are the only animal that in the face of trauma continues to retraumatise itself, playing and replaying that which has already happened to frighten us.
Mark Epstein

I have led a sheltered life. In comparison. I have never ever been desperately short of money or work or friends. I was never stranded, lost or destitute, in a material sense. I never needed to pick myself off the ground all alone, there has always been someone around to lend a hand pulling me up.

But neither was I ever pampered or spoiled or handed opportunities, advantages, secret handshakes, that kind of thing, no family connections were played out for my benefit.

Mostly by my own choosing, naivete, ignorance or simply life, I have found myself in a couple of dodgy situations and sometimes, I could get quite scared remembering, imagining what could have happened. 

And then of course, I have had a smattering share of scary matters of life and health and death. Haven't we all.

But the most scary, frightening thing that ever happened to me is this - and while it happened a long time ago, the memory is as vivid and immediate as if it had happened yesterday.

I am in my early 20s. At this stage in my life, I am working as a bookseller and the local radical bookseller's association (yes, this was something that proudly existed at the time), has financed a trip for me to attend the annual feminist book fair. It is sometime after midnight and I am on the bus from Wales, where I disembarked the night boat from Ireland, to London. I am seasick and sit in the front near the door. The bus stops in a couple of places along the way and I hop out for a breath of fresh air when I get a chance. At one of these stops, literally seconds before the bus leaves, two men push something onto the seat across the aisle from me and quickly run away. It's not something, it's someone. A middle aged woman in a stylish coat, long hair, sunglasses. She has lost one shoe, wearing only one black boot with a high heel. A large handbag. And she is drunk. Absolutely, completely, utterly drunk. For the next five or so hours, we travel through the night and I am terrified. I force myself to stop looking, watching her as she mutters and curses, drops her bag and spills the contents, picks some of them up, lets her body fall forward and sideways, almost slipping off the seat, cries and finally, seemingly, falls asleep for a while. I am covered in sweat, paralysed by the fear of a lifetime growing up with an addict. Like the child I once was, not too many years ago, I am hiding, afraid she might discover me across from her, look at me, speak to me, ask for help. For, of course, this woman in her smart clothes, her shaky hands searching for her lighter, her cigarettes, that last bottle, trying to brush her hair, this wreck of a person is my mother. At least for a couple of hours on a night bus. 

I cannot remember what happened when the bus arrived. I know I met friends, attended the book fair, bought stuff, danced in a club, the usual.

How alone we are in the vast universe. 

my mother, my brother, me


Barbara Rogers said...

That does sound like an experience that you would have replayed in your mind/emotions, many a time...especially with the childhood echoes. Whenever I have confrontive conversations, I tend to replay them as I fall asleep, or in the middle of the night...which sure doesn't help. But eventually I'll forget them, until a repeat of that emotional sense of saying the wrong thing to the wrong person at the wrong time can be soothed away. We sure are emotional animals.

Colette said...

My father was a mean drunk, and one of my three sisters could be that woman on the bus. I had to cut her out of my life a few years ago, finally the meanness became too much. I just couldn't make excuses for her anymore. I was done. It is a horror, being triggered by the past and victimized by drunks. I can't imagine if that person overtaken by the demon alcohol was my mother. My sympathies are with you.

37paddington said...

You described my experience of life exactly until you climbed onto that night bus. How terrifying that was for you, and so riveting in the recounting of it. The child holds on to the memories, every feeling of fright, every taut muscle poised for flight. It is our protection.

Ms. Moon said...

The immediacy of these visceral memories can be terrifying. I am so sorry that you had to go through the trauma of growing up with an addict mother, of having that horrible experience on the bus. PTSD is real.

Pixie said...

I know we're supposed to have empathy for alcoholics but I don't. So many awful things have happened over the years to me, at the hands of alcoholics. And now I see the same scenario happening with my grandson and it makes me angry.

I can't imagine having a mother so unreliable, so drunk, so useless to her children and family. My mum was far from perfect but she was a good mum and I'm thankful for her.

Anonymous said...

The comments here have expressed all the things I would have written. These visceral memories can be triggered and the pain and reminder comes on full force. As Ms Moon writes: PTSD is real. From one sufferer to another, I bow my head and sit with you.

am said...

That is a frightening experience. Reading about it, I am there with you.

The photo is haunting, as are so many photos from your childhood, showing how hidden from view is the substantial childhood trauma that comes with having an alcoholic parent, especially an alcoholic mother.

I've read several of Mark Epstein's books. The one that I keep next to my bed is Going on Being. My perception, not Mark Epstein's, is that we are both alone and in some inexplicable way not alone in the vast universe.

"The mind creates the abyss and the heart crosses it."
p. 57

ellen abbott said...

I don't think I've ever felt fear like that. There have been times when I was desperately unhappy, times growing up when I dreaded my father coming home because he was unhappy and took it out on us kids picking one to berate on any particular night, hiding in my room hoping it wouldn't be me this time. And then later when my husband who had unresolved family drama was unhappy taking it out on me and the kids (he did finally get counseling and resolved all that) thinking what a horrible mistake I had made essentially marrying my father. But not fear.

Linda said...

The thing is, you never quite know what a drunk will do next. It is scary. That would scare me still today.

Steve Reed said...

I can see how your past experiences came up again with that encounter. Night buses are very strange, surreal experiences anyway -- the line between awake/asleep is blurry, the hum of the road hypnotic. I took overnight buses a lot in Morocco and they were invariably weird.

Joared said...

What a miserable night and bus ride for you. Situations stimulate memories that linger with us all our lives that we sometimes think we may have forgotten forever only to find we have not.

Elizabeth said...

What a wild and haunting post -- how terrible for you to have to relive that trauma. Mark Epstein is a radiant human.