Trail Notes from the Serpent’s Mouth

Have you seen Good Will Hunting, Reader?  Do you know the scene?  The one where Will Hunting (Matt Damon) is brushing off his childhood abuse through an exchange with his counselor, Sean (Robin Williams).  A fruitful pause emerges between Will and Sean.  Sean shatters it with the soft utterance, “it’s not your fault”.  “I know” Will scoffs, but Sean persists repeating “It’s not your fault” over and over again until the young and damaged Will lashes out before bowing into sobs.  He’s mourning how many times his childhood devoured him and finally accepting that he couldn’t control it.

At first, that scene made me uncomfortable and confused. The emotional intensity put me off.  I couldn’t discern why.  However, the movie quickly became one of my favorites, and I understood that the reason I couldn’t embrace that scene the first time is that I couldn’t embrace all the things that aren’t my fault.  I elude to the many beasts I’ve fallen prey to in this blog.  You know, reader.  You know how I wrestle with this because I feel like neither victim or survivor.  My experiences are data points, and even when they feel more like poison than points, I only have my experiences as a frame of reference.  I don’t know any different.  But I do.  That’s the thing– I’ve grown into adulthood where I’ve witnessed healthier environments where not all words have strings and people touch to do something besides hurting one another.  My adulthood is owed to my mentors who have illuminated my path since the second grade.  I am still here because people wise than I am reminded me of my potential, of my worth, that what I knew was not all that would be, and I had an obligation to myself to demand better.  I remember this on the good days.  Of course, stress tests your learned skills against your habits.  My habits are winning these days.

My life is a series of descents and risings.  I’ve wandered through the teeth of wolves, dragons, whales, and serpents.  I have clawed my way from the gullet of the beast so many times before. Every time, I gawk at how I did it. How immovable everything seemed in the aftermath, how desolate my world felt during. The mouth of a beast is a dangerous place to be, how even when it isn’t chewing on you, you wonder how much more you can endure.

My eyes studied the mint stripes on my bedroom wall at seventeen. A boy strangled me on a tile floor the day before, and I spent the subsequent twenty-four hours contemplating if living was worth it.  Is a life where everything is a weapon worth enduring? There’s a specific prison where you have no agency but everyone has access to you.  That is a portable prison I carried with me from the wolf’s throat.  I ascended through shrieking and fighting and the furious gasoline of my rage that propelled me upward.  That is just one instance in a long violent history.  But I made it.  I outlived the climb.  Yet that makes it all the more devastating every time I am swallowed by another creature.  The beast is typically someone so hurt, so disfigured by their own carnage, that it transforms them into savagery itself.  I acknowledge that.  I struggle because I excuse so much damage because my tormentor is damaged, knowing full well that we all accumulate injury.  Trauma is the norm, not an excuse.  I don’t think I’m alone when I say I exert lots of emotional energy on comforting those who have hurt me, minimizing my scars to the person who gave them to me.  Then, the scars become too much, too visible.  Perhaps they are more faultlines than wounds because my patience wears away and I break open.

I don’t know if being called a “strong, independent woman” is positive for me or not.  I speak truth to power, partially, because there is this legacy for me to fulfill.  At the very least, my two little sisters observe my behavior.  I hope they’re witnessing an unapologetic, flawed woman who advocates for herself, who stands taller in the face of tyrants.  So, as fearful as I am fearsome, I speak.  I speak, and on hands and knees, I trudge back out of the beast.  I can be swallowed but not devoured.

Yet, my “strong woman” dogma prohibits me from saying and doing things that expose me.  Writing about how I am not ok right now– I feel exposed.  For years, I never spoke of how a boy hit me because I did not want to be the weak woman in silence.  I know I’m being hard on myself.  Survival is strength.  This isn’t poetic.  I’m rephrasing Darwinism.  The literal definition of evolution hinges on survival.  So every person alive is a survivor. I am not weaker for giving voice to everything I’m ashamed about.  The ability to provide a language for your experiences, to process and claim the complexity that it is — that is growth.  I am able to heal faster when I don’t flog myself with the blunt object of shame.

I am not a victim, Reader. I am not a survivor. I am a person living a life, and life is complicated.  Right now, existence feels more like an albatross.  Everything is an anvil.  My eyelids are cinderblocks and my stomach is a boulder.  I cannot specifically tell you what’s going on, but wordlessness does not mean weightless.  My story isn’t dramatic or desperate.  This post rejects pity or attention for my troubles.  Lest you forget that I am not a sight to behold, but a force to be reckoned with.  But this is a story and it is mine and it is ongoing. We are in the gray text, a chapter with a title it will choose long after it’s over. The middle ground is associated with balance, detente, stability, but the middle ground of my twenties is confusion, disenchantment, directionless hopes and potential I cannot channel into something constructive.  Motivation has me on read but does not respond these days.

It’s not my fault I am in the serpent’s mouth.  I need to climb out, but it is opaque inside.  Exhaustion overtakes my whole days.  My body is so prepared for attack that all stress signals are firing: acne across my face, weight gain, exhaustion, my prefrontal cortex is frozen.  My body is a historian on attacks, an atlas of the landmines in the aftermath, a refugee camp for the same folks who marred it.  But my body is also my most trusted friend.  My brain maps the wars and the celebrations.  She is plotting her escape.  She is chanting my sisters’ names to keep me going.  My brain, she is saying, “It is not your fault”.  With closed eyes, I muffle her.  Again, “Marisa, it is not your fault”.  My hands cover my ears.  She is a commanding orator, “Marisa, it is not your fault that this keeps happening, but it is your fault if you choose to stay”.  I have no rebuttal.

 

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