Waking up violently, I turn to the nightstand and tap my phone screen twice. It lights up. 5:23 AM, like it is every morning. 5:23 AM is always dark and cold, no matter the season, and the air sinks like a damp blanket until it cloaks you. At 5:23 AM, you feel everything in your bones.
It’s been 4 days since he left. Another one. He lasted a few months longer than the one before, but I wore on him, eventually. Some things are too difficult to live with. And 5:23 AM is perhaps the least difficult thing about me.
As I look up from my phone screen, I feel a warmth on my face that doesn’t belong there. A hand to my face; my nose is bleeding. I can feel my heartbeat in my ears and there are marks on my palms from where my nails dug in. Scars on scars from 100,000 nights of waking up covered in blood.
In the corner left of the closet is a shadow. At 5:23 AM, when I’m shaken awake by dreamt-up tragedies I can never seem to remember, the shadow moves. It’s the light on the neighbor’s lamppost changing as the night begins to toy with the idea of ending. This short-lived shadow is how I know where I am. It’s how I know I’m safe.
Holding my nose closed with one hand, I get out of bed, walk to the bathroom and turn the vanity light on. The light hurts for a moment, and then I focus on my reflection. The nosebleed is no worse than usual on this, the 100,001st night of the blackness and the phone light and the nosebleed and the shadow.
My eyes are a dusty blue, though in the light of 5:23 AM, they look grey - like heavy, hydric mud. In the light of 5:23 AM, everything about me looks grey, like the primordial soil deep underground the foothills of the Appalachians. I am clay and kaolinite. I am underground. I am neither here nor there, so I never move forward, and I'm also unable to look back.
He left the way they all do. The nights are tolerable, until one night they’re not. One night, it’s the last straw and what’s wrong with me overtakes who they see underneath, and they leave in the dark of the morning, after the screaming.
He used to hold me on the nights there was more than one time. I wake up wailing, the taste of blood in my mouth. Sometimes I know how to calm myself, in the darkest parts of the night, just past 0. But sometimes I simply cannot.
He used to hold me; they all did. One is the ghost of the last in a never ending series of small deaths. He would take me into his arms and hold me firmly, so I couldn’t run. So he could tell me where we were and that we were safe. So he could press his chest against my back with his hands over my heart while he breathed deeply, slowly, until I could, too.
It’s not just the nights - why they all leave. It’s the days, too. Occasional violent panic they can never predict; jumping at every unexpected sound. The vomiting, the hiding. The unintelligible flashbacks. Episodes. States. They all used different words; a love language of dysfunction and damage.
He wasn’t the first one to point out the commonalities of my personality and symptoms in people with CPTSD. He wasn’t the first to ask what happened at 5:23 AM. As if I know. As if - if I did know - I would choose not to do anything to help myself, to help him, to help us.
But sometimes I taste something else when I wake up after midnight, in the screaming. It’s the salt of someone’s skin under a subtle, musty smell. Sometimes, I hear the sound of springs squeaking in the back bedroom, as if someone is moving around on the bed. Sometimes, even though I knew he loved me, I would lose his face, and he would becomes something I fear.
And I can’t move forward because I cannot see back.
I am missing faces, places, experiences, emotions. I am missing parts of myself. And they always notice, eventually. He noticed, eventually. There’s only so many times you can stare at someone with a blank face when they ask you, with wild eyes, why you stopped in the middle of sex and ran from the room, only to be found crouched and holding your legs against your chest on the kitchen floor, against the lazy susan.
I never know why. But eventually, they stop believing me.
My psychiatrist agrees; something is wrong. She also believes the missing pieces aren’t missing - they’ve been redacted. My subconscious has scribbled them out with sharpie, but they’re in there nonetheless. And as redacted information in documents is typically the most sensitive and integral to understanding the document, she says, I cannot become something more than what I am now without knowing what is underneath the sharpie.
I do so hate her metaphors. This one feels particularly overworked, but admittedly, it’s extremely salient.
But nothing has worked. She knows the mechanism but not the operation. As hard as she tries, her efforts fall short, in counseling, in prescriptions, in CBT - all the things we’ve tried over the years and we’ve never managed to scrub the black ink from one solitary thing. If anything, I’ve gotten worse.
Was it my abusive mother? My troubled brother? The Church? Where had my father been all these years? There’s no one to ask; the three people who would know are dead, and my church shunned me years ago. There’s no one.
She asks why I self-sabotage. Is this a reactive behavior to prevent abandonment by purposefully being the cause of their leaving? Is it about trying to regain control over my life? Protecting myself? And then she asks,
What do you remember about your father? Did he ever hug you as a child? Call you a good girl or tell you he was proud of you?
And something broke.
The flood gates opened, and I become in a small, dark bedroom that smells like fear… and something else.
Good girl, there you go. Be good for Daddy.
I am in my childhood bed, lying on my back, half under a princess-themed comforter he’s just quietly peeled off of me. He takes off my pajamas; first the shirt, then the pants. He’s looking down at me, stroking my hair with one hand while he fiddles with his pants zipper with the other. He tells me to take off my underwear, so I do, even though I don’t understand.
Good girl. You’re okay. I love you so much; this is how much I love you.
In the mornings before he left for work. In the dark. Before Mum or my brother woke. When everything was quiet and he was sure no one would disturb him while he so deeply disturbed me. I feel his breath on my face, the tightness between my legs, the blood in my underwear and my sore throat.
Now or a thousand years ago, I look at the nightstand while he holds my small, 8-year-old hips from behind. 5:23 AM in red light. And then he finishes. He throws my pajamas at me and pulls his pants back up.
Sweet girl. I’m proud of you; you’re so special. I love you so much.
In my psychiatrist’s office, sweating on the armchair across the coffee table from hers, I vomit. It feels like blood and guts and childhood and my very soul, spilling out of me like an angry infection. I vomit again. She just sits there quietly for a moment, and then I begin sobbing. She asks what’s happened and all I can muster is,
Mum was right; he was a bad man.
And I keep crying, like I hadn’t since I was a small child, because this was always there, but it was so overwhelmingly present that I looked past it. The dead, wet, thick blanket of air that I had learned to breathe under so that I could live. And now so many things made sense.
It took some time. It will always take time. I will always be less than I could have been. But without the secret of the darkness, without the holding in, without the sourceless self-loathing, I can gut myself and slowly rebuild. A taxidermied animal with eyes that are still alive. The blood is gone, and so is the poison, so no one can hurt me anymore, and I can’t hurt myself.
Sometimes I still wake up at 5:23 AM. Sometimes I still scream in the night. But the remembering is easier than the not-knowing. And the man sleeping in bed next to me - the one who deals with the night terrors and the flashbacks and the dysfunction - this one’s not leaving, because at least he truly knows who I am. More importantly, I do, too.