by Jessieh Ruth Averitt
I don’t know how to tell a story without the particular rhythms of the violence that visits and stays. I want you to meet tenderness the way I have, patiently. I need you to understand as I tell you that the only language I am capable of communicating in tosses in the bed of past and present. Sometimes those bitches steal the covers from me.
When I was seven, a woman with black hair tripped over a vacuum cleaner cord in the hall of the nursing home she lived in. My mother worked there. I didn’t know the woman was blind until later. I watched her fall over. She had a seizure and died. After having sex with (raping) a child, Jack shot himself in the driver’s seat of a truck. Once, a young woman was thrown off an overpass in front of my car. There was a half-naked dead or dying woman sprawled across the interstate. Everyone else kept driving. Great Aunt Betty was swallowed by cancer. After the life she had, it was a relief until we discovered no one knew how to cut the turkey at Thanksgiving. Later, I killed six birds in one morning while I was driving. The fog was bad. Birds explode when cars hit them.
This is just a fraction of the dead floating in the well of loss. That’s why they call it complicated grief. Attending to what lives is harder. As my dear friend Danny (leaving for an airplane, dropped dead on the way) used to say while smile grimacing, “so messssy”. All grief is complicated, silly.
Much like the use of a siren atop an ambulance, the culture must be responsive to the symptom or the symptom would not hold. If motorists did not attend to the blaring alarms and flashing lights in their rear-view mirrors by slowing down or coming altogether to a stop, there would be no use for the signal- another way of communicating a state of emergency would be needed or at the very least, desired. This is a story about emergencies.
Three years ago, my back broke me. I broke back. When I tell people about this time when I couldn’t walk for more than seven weeks, when I couldn’t stand for a few minutes without angry audible crying at the desk of a confounded neurologist- I see a familiar kind expression of concern sweep across their face. Then comes the question. What happened? How did you do that?
I’ve never had a good answer for this. Perhaps because no one else has either. One ordinary day, I went to get into my car and this breaking happened to me. A ripping in my groin. My hips clenched. My leg trembled. My bladder weakened. Electrical lightning muscle cramping vomit worthy agony happened. And then it stayed. It stayed for longer than pain of this nature should ever be allowed to stay anywhere. I would say it was unlike any pain I had experienced before (and sometimes I do) but that wouldn’t be (sometimes isn’t) exactly true. It was a pain that left language an impossibility and reordered my priorities, pain that inspires travel to a space outside of time, outside of body/forced out of sight, out of mind.
I am familiar with pains like this. This moment in my car, of breaking back- it was different, yes. But not unlike. I was an adult now and this was something my body was doing to me, not something being done to my body. I have been in exceptionally good talk therapy for over a decade, contending with the ramifications of childhood trauma not unlike this body breaking back and this new, present pain crippled me. Instantly. The magic powers that came so naturally as a 18.104.22.168.11.12 year-old were far superior to my then-present ability to fully dissociate. I would remember this pain very close to its happening. Disabled, instantly. I had no reason to believe it would be temporary. At the time, I had no previous experience that suggested pain like this could not leave its mark. I couldn’t stop crying without drugs. I needed drugs to dampen the fear of being punished for uncontrollable expressing, for not being able to stop the sounds of wailing screaming need from pain. I understood fully and really how opiates could capture my father, addict and kill innocents. I was afraid I would never be able to dance again. I was so lucky. I know that seems strange. I’ll get back (pun unintended) to it shortly. I need to tell you this story.
Things people have said, trying to help:
“Sometimes the things you say give me goosebumps and I don’t like being cold.” or
“I’m terrified of being close to you because I cannot tolerate being near to myself.” or
“It really worried me when you wouldn’t pet the puppy. Also, you promised you’d stop eating at McDonald’s and you keep doing it.”
And I’ve wanted to say:
Well, maybe you can teach me how to say warmer things because I’m cold sometimes too. I don’t know what to do about the fact that you don’t like yourself and the smell of wet animal grosses me out. I thought I explained that to you.
They’ve said, “My biggest hope is that one day you will be able to leave all of this behind you.”
Leave it where? It’s not some luggage I’m travelling with for decoration. There are essential threads reflective of who I am inside here. The packaging may change- may become a bit more designer, more educated, more mainstream; it may lose a few pounds around the middle, get lost somewhere but I’m sorrowful to report this heavy shit will always travel with me until I’m dead and I am not prideful enough to think of God as merely a personal baggage handler no matter how significant and essential the role of baggage handler may in fact be. I was made in a sacred image, consciously. AND I shouldn’t have promised about McDonald’s. The truth is I’m not able to choose between chicken McNuggets and you. I don’t know if I even want to. I’m grateful you want fully good and joyous things for my life. I know that’s what you mean.
This isn’t a story about McDonald’s or being cold.
SEE HISTORY: Female. White. DOB 06/08/1991. Mother has health issues that have left her unavailable. History of multiple strokes Biological Father. SEE HISTORY. SEE HISTORY of maladaptive Behaviors. SEE HISTORY of chronic trauma. SEE HISTORY of acute traumas, grief. Loses things, loses time, often forgetful. Dissociative. Disordered. HISTORY. Is driven, highly functional. Current symptoms include: hyper-vigilance to possible danger, occasional difficulties with swallowing and verbal communication. SEE HISTORY of lump in throat, chronic nerve pain, chronic fatigue, pcos HISTORY adverse childhood experiences. SEE HISTORY difficulty staying asleep, intrusive thoughts, difficulty with feelings, generally.
Wait. I should mention, I collect records. School records. Medical records. Court Records. I save every voicemail. Records limit language. They attempt to be as succinct and clear as possible. I’m trying to do that too. Sometimes, I limit myself to a certain number of words just so I can say anything at all.
Difficulty with feelings, generally. Difficulty with feelings, specifically. Difficulty with loving feelings. Difficulty with loving. Difficulty with love. SEE HISTORY of difficult love.
I should have started with blood. I don’t like the stuff. I haven’t gotten used to paper cuts or menstruation despite the fact that I have been depositing little red beta fish from my uterus (ir)regularly for almost two decades. That though, a story that turned into a story about my uterus wouldn’t wouldn’t work because it is a story about how human tortures no one wants to read about are always happening in the United States and about how I understand some things about bleeding and bodies and torture. But a torture story isn’t the story I want and there are worse things always happening right now, elsewhere, anyway.
You have no idea how much I just want this to be a love story but I’m not clear on how to start or where to end.
In the South, back home, I grew up not knowing the difference between a snake in church, a snake in bed, a snake in the garden, a snake that lies and a snake, snake. The kind that bites. It didn’t matter the difference. No one felt the need to explain the difference. I woke up screaming for my aunt on the floor of her bedroom, convinced that snakes were moving between my arms, my legs, any place a snake could move. The snakes turned into something that left me itching from the inside out and spiders crawled, wasps, and yellow jackets, and hornets and little buzzing bees- all swarmed around inside me and I let out screaming. My aunt carried me itching and scared into the bathroom, turned on the water and prayed for the devil inside to leave me. She told me about God’s love and rebuked all the snakes, her face all sweaty, and for a second while she was pressing her fingers into my skin, a washcloth against my forehead, leaving streaks of makeshift anointing oil all over my little kid crying face, I was convinced that somehow, with all the love and rage toward the devil she had to offer me, I could handle those snakes, the way the bible women did but no. No, I just kept getting bit.
You testified that on more than one occasion you were tied by the defendant? Did you struggle while he was tying you? You did not struggle? But it is fair to assume, based on what you have testified that the defendant hurt you? If you would, please tell us, how did- I will ask my question more clearly, your Honor. Did you experience pain when the defendant was on top of you?And if you could, please tell us, where were the other men during this time? They were waiting; waiting where? I know this must be difficult, but if you could please tell us: what were these other men waiting for? And were these other men, were any of these men related to you? So is it fair to assume, these men had no binding obligation to care for you?And please tell us; while your hands were tied, while these men, as you have testified, took turns waiting, waiting to, waiting for. At any point during this time. Please if you could. Tell us. At any point during this time did you believe these men, did you believe for a moment that the defendant loved you?
No further questions.
I’m trying to tell you how a blue soda can burned my lips once on a summer-in-Carolina day and made my legs tremble. I’m trying to say that it wasn’t the soda but the hands of a man. This was a normal enough man who groomed me for trauma. He introduced me to a small world of brutal men living normal enough lives- enjoyed sports, had families, listened to public radio on the way to work. One of these men held a higher (read: medical) degree. Normal. Raping children and taking them to get ice cream. Inflicting bodily harm then tending to it. Mindfuckery. Brutally normal things. One man is dead, one alive, likely still making girls tremble. There is another man in prison until the day he dies. And I already told you about Jack. The one who shot himself.
I was a child.
If this were that story I would tell you that bees have vision skewed to the blue spectrum in human sight. Therefore, bees are attracted to blues, yellows, and white. If wearing blue yellow or white or if those colors somehow shine out through your skin, you should learn something about how to run and run fast to get away from them.
Adverse Childhood Experiences are the essential public health crisis of our time.
No. Wait. I was telling you about the snakes. No. Pythons. The python has its body cut in half, its skin ripped away from it. The hunter separates the meat sections of the animal and then holds the heart of his hunt in the palm of his hand. The heart of the snake still beats, separated entirely from the body, separated entirely from its skin.
Sorry. Back to back breaking.
My back began healing in large part to a group of women, some practitioners of medicine. I used to think I could tell funny stories until one day, mid-story, one of these women (no relation to me) loved me well enough to gently hold my face in her hands, look at me with warm eyes and say,
“Honey, this is not a funny story. This story is death-like, heartbreaking.”
These women were willing to enter into the history of my pain alongside my then-present, agonizing injury. They helped me bathe myself when I could not manage on my own. They were able to hold space, SEE HISTORY. Their care for me was (is) so impeccably filled with health and love, unlike anything I had (without a doubt) ever known, exactly. I consider this blessing nothing short of miraculous. Miracles can happen everywhere.
Let me say this more clearly. This story.
I was taught when I was too young to know how the body can be startled (injured) by affection. My heart sometimes beats outside my skin. I know that unmet developmental needs can be attended to in adulthood. My body is familiar with brutality. I am not a gaping wound.
If there is any hope for addressing the public health crisis:
We must hold space for messy stories. For the body. The Body Keeps the Score. We must believe in miracles, wholeheartedly. I hope my body can always keep dancing. I may never be able to write about trauma without bringing my body to the page, not sure I would feel safe with myself if I could.
See. This story. It is a kind of love story, really. Knows no start, no end.
Jessieh Ruth Averitt is a researcher, writer and theatre artist living and working primarily in Philadelphia, where she co-established OTHER CASE NOTES ENSEMBLE in residency at Mascher Space Cooperative in 2014. OTHER CASE NOTES ENSEMBLE has since created three, evening-length performance inquires; Revisions (2014), Careful Injuries (2016), and Home Is Where She Starts From (2017). Most recently, she had the privilege of serving as the teaching artist for Dorset Theatre Festival’s Young Playwrights Program. Jessieh Ruth is a graduate of Bennington College where she studied Trauma, Recovery and the Practice of Drama through Psychology, Acting and Playwriting. Her days are currently filled with an abundance of love and her nights, dancing.