Throw Pillows and Coffee Mugs: Accoutrements of Trauma, Abuse, and Recovery
by Alan Caldwell
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Including those with whom I worked when I was hospitalized for severe depression in 2012, Rebecca is my tenth therapist. I tell Rebecca my stories, the real ones, the ones about me.
I’ve been listening to the stories of others as long as I can remember, even when I wasn’t supposed to be listening—shouts from behind closed doors, whispers around corners, the unmistakable sound of flesh striking flesh—I’ve listened to my mom’s stories, the things my father did to her, the awful things, the things she should never have shared. They made me heavy, these stories I heard. I’ve always felt as if my legs were leaden, as if I were wading in thick mud. I suppose I shouldn’t have even listened to these stories that weren’t, but became, mine. I just didn’t know how to not hear.
I have been a teacher for well over a quarter of a century, so I’ve told plenty of stories, stories about wars and rumors of wars, stories about poets, preachers, and politicians. Sure, I’ve even told stories about me. I have an enviable support system: a wonderful wife of thirty-three years, a son who pulls people from burning buildings and mangled wrecks. I’ve had nine previous competent therapists. I never lied to a single one of them, but I never told any of them the truth either, not all of it. I think I wanted to protect them the way I was never protected. I didn’t want to burden any of them, my family or my therapists, with more than they could carry. I didn’t want any of them wasting time thinking or worrying about me when someone more salvageable, and more worthy, might deserve their attention.
So for five decades, I never told my story, and I never really got better either.
So now, I tell Rebecca everything. I didn’t at first. She seemed too clean to hear about such filth, so I told her I was simply sad. She told me I was full of shit—turns out she wasn’t that clean either. Maybe it was what she said, or how she said it, or maybe it was just her empathetic manner, or maybe it was simply time. Then these stories, my stories, began leaking. Sometimes I would even skip a session or leave early lest something embarrassing escape, but I couldn’t stop the flow.
I once saw a man carve a large wooden plug out of a pine slab and use a heavy hammer to drive it into a hole in a wooden boat’s hull. I suppose I didn’t possess a sufficient hammer or couldn’t fashion a sufficient plug. I couldn’t stop leaking, so now I just fucking leak. But I don’t just leak; I also build.
I construct throw pillow forts in Rebecca’s office. The Freudian couch presents as but a prop, but the throw pillows are tangible and pragmatic. They are not hammer-driven pine plugs, and they do not stop leaks, but they make the flow manageable. You know you’ll hold one of those protective pillows against your chest and talk about mom, but you will never lie back on that couch, your forearm shielding your eyes against the light as you try to shift blame sans empathy.
Therapy is about understanding, not blame. Here, we sit upright and allow those who hurt us a narrow window of explanation, and maybe even justification, clinging to the platitude that most people do just about as well as they can. But platitudes have limits, and Rebecca’s face is transparent, her capacity for maternal absolution limited by her own, presumably healthy, maternal instinct. I imagine her buttoning her own son’s coat up to his neck and walking him the eleven steps to his school bus, a coffee mug in her hand un-ironically identifying her as “Mom.” All children deserve such a mom, and all real moms deserve such mugs.
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I don’t know what Rebecca scribbles on her therapy pad with that pen with her name on it. I fear she might be scrawling a capital “BITCH” in bold letters and circling the word till the very paper gives way.
I will never forget the Saturday morning when my recently-buried mom made Rebecca cry and mutter, “that’s fucked up” in the same session.
It’s okay, Rebecca, she did the same to me many Saturday mornings.
I suspect she Googled, “should therapists cry?” as soon as I was safely off the premises.
It’s okay, Rebecca, I Googled it too … It’s odd, but perfectly ethical.
Too much dishonest therapy engenders bad healing habits and arrests the process. I became accustomed to initiating every story, every session, with flippant quips, anecdotes, and metaphors about throw pillows and coffee mugs, before getting down to dark business. I suppose I still do that, just a bit, hoping for an uncomfortable truth to become less so.
So here’s your explanation and justification window mama: I know your daddy drank himself into a stupor and then into a pine box before you finished grade school. I know you wore dresses crafted from sacks and shoes held together with twine. I know you shivered under layers of rag quilts, longing for Christmases that never came. I know the boys, the town boys, the older ones, the bigger ones, felt safe making you their rite of passage. I know that’s why you mistook a brute, or perhaps a demon, for your savior, for your husband, for my father, his knuckles covered in the blood of strangers, his hands around your neck, his pockets filled with the meager coins of your labor. I know all that mama. I know all of that and more. But I didn’t do any of that to you, and I couldn’t carry it for you. You shouldn’t have asked me to.
You gifted me the stupor and the rag quilts, and made the bloody knuckles and the meager coins my rite of passage. You had no right to do that. Those should never have been my stories.
I could not carry you or yours, and I am not him or his, that blood dying with him, when his last breaths, like marbles rolling on a hardwood floor, finally ceased. I know that now. Rebecca reassures me every other Saturday. She reminds me that those quilts and coins are not mine to carry. She reminds me that even people who are hurting have no inherent parental right to curse their children’s future. Rebecca suggested forgiveness.
“She was sick, ”Rebecca said, “but she had no right to hurt you just so she wouldn’t be alone, no right to tell you these stories, no right to touch you like she did. That wasn’t the best she could have done. You have every right to be angry. I’m angry at her too.”
I want to know I can finally set those things down, that I can close my eyes, sleep, and not wake wet and shaking.
I’m beginning to believe that I can now, like I might tell all of my stories without being a burden, as if I’m actually worthy of being heard. I have just begun writing them down in the last three months and have already had a couple published. For the first time since I can remember, I feel like I can, and that my legs, and my heart, are just a little lighter.
So now I drink from my own un-ironic coffee mug, a gift from a son who never had to carry his father’s burdens and was never asked. Every child deserves such a father, and every real father deserves such a mug. So I guess I’m doing just about as well as I can.