Overwhelmed by panic, I bolt out of bed. The covers are thrown to the side and even though moments earlier I was asleep, I stand at the foot of my bed, next to the dresser clutching my chest with my right hand. What made me panic? Was I dreaming about him again? My ex. My husband is awake asking what happened. Are you okay? He says. I try to explain that I must have been having a bad dream. I can’t remember. But I feel uneasy. Uncomfortable. Panicked. After a trip to the washroom for a drink of water I try to settle into sleep again. It takes me what feels like hours to successfully fall asleep after several more moments where my head pops up off the pillow feeling like I can’t catch my breath.
This is nothing new. I’m no stranger to recurring dreams and nightmares. As a kid, I woke up night after night after my shoe laces were sucked into the escalator at the Eaton’s Centre mall in Victoria, B.C. I wound up laying on my side in the food court, one shoe on, the other pulled all the way to the rubber into the escalator. Luckily my only injuries were likely bruised elbows and a sore ankle, but the aftershocks from that incident rippled into my nightmares. In my dreams, I wasn’t so lucky. My mind had turned this scary event into the worse case scenario: I was sucked into the escalator and ground and pressed between two metal plates.
After my ex and I broke up nearly seven years ago I began dreaming about him. It started almost as soon as he left. For a time, there were dreams of longing and wanting. Even though I was relieved he was gone something in me missed him and this came out in my dreams. While the longing passed the nighttime visions of my ex lingered.
For several years I thought I just couldn’t move past the pain and hurt of that relationship. It was my first serious relationship. My first love, which began when I was 18 and lasted for nine years (off and on). Maybe these things just take time to fade? But as my new relationship with the man that became my husband progressed, I worried my ex seemed to be haunting me. It wasn’t until a counsellor said the word “trauma” that I began to understand what was going on in the grey matter, the neurons, the cells of my brain that caused me to react in ways that for years I couldn’t explain.
It took me several weeks to come to terms with the fact that my symptoms were tied to psychological trauma. I was under the impression it was something that soldiers suffered from. Victims battled trauma. Until I found myself on that second hand couch in my counsellor’s office, I hadn’t even considered myself a victim, or a survivor of anything. Bad relationships happen. I’d been dumped and had gone through break-ups before, why was this one different? Trauma isn’t just something that comes with a major event. It’s been described as the result a huge amount of stress that overwhelms a person. It’s more than they can take. With my ex there had definitely been stress. There were multiple suicide threats and cheating with many women. As the definition of trauma suggests, it doesn’t have to be just one major incident it can be a build up, a piling up of intensity, of struggle, of tension, of stress that goes unacknowledged until the weight of it all becomes too much and it has to be dealt with some how. I’ve done counselling, and now I’m battling my past and my trauma as I write the pages of my memoir.
In the preface of Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir she wrote, “In some ways, writing a memoir is knocking yourself out with your own fist, if it’s done right. … The form always has profound psychological consequence on the author. It can’t not.” If I didn’t know this when I started my memoir and my MFA, I certainly do now. As I work chapter by chapter, writing first and second drafts, I am diving deeper into my past. Free diving further into the darkness and shadows I’d thought were gone and forgotten, given up to the depths of my memory. Unlike scuba divers who are equipped with gear and training needed to sustain them, I had to rely on myself, my resilience to sustain me as I dove deeper into what I thought was erased from my mind but slowly came back into focus.
As memories percolate to the surface a certain amount of sifting and sorting takes place. Like a gold miner shaking their pan relentlessly until a nugget, even a small, seemingly insignificant one appears, I had to separate what was conjured and what matched reality. Comparing my memories with emails and Facebook messages that remained in the recesses of the Internet. There was a sense of urgency and importance with this research. I had this feeling that I needed to know. The need came out of a responsibility I felt as a writer, as a story teller, as someone who believed in the power of nonfiction, the power of retelling personal stories, hard stories. I needed to tell my story because I believed my words could be part of an important conversation. Many moments with my ex sit close to the surface and are easy to recall. I remember the night he showed up at my door in Nelson driving through a snow storm. I remember the drug store where we bought condoms in Jasper. I remember the part of the highway we stopped at to smoke a joint on our way to Ainsworth Hot Springs. There was a time when all I wanted to do was forget, but now it’s like a matryoshka dolls of memories and nostalgia. But remembering comes with a cost, and living in the past meant waking ghosts that perhaps should have been left alone.
My hiking boots move along the soft forest floor. Salal leaves graze my calves as I walk behind my husband along a section of the Sunshine Coast Trail. I know exactly where we are. We’ve done this hike before, but in my head, I’m lost in my own thoughts. It feels like there is more than just the two of us here in the woods. The ghost of my ex is summoning memories, visions. I can see the snow on the old logging road. My cold hand tucked in my coat pockets. My ex next to me carrying our towels, empty beer cans and wet bathing suits. He flashes in and out of my head as my heart pounds and lungs ache the way they would have that evening on our way back from the hot springs. You’re doing awesome, we’re almost there, he would have said. Memories, or visions, like this, or darker ones, come out of nothing sometimes. They are tied to actions, words, songs, pictures that pass in and out of my day causing my ghost, my ex, to be sit with me, even for just a minute.
My day to day has begun to feel like a scene from City of Angels. Only I’m not Meg Ryan, I’m one of the random extras with a creepy angel lurking nearby. I lay in bed with my husband, listen to music while making dinner, click through old photos on Facebook and it feels like my ex is there with me. While sometimes it feels heavy to walk with my past in the present, I’m hopeful that the act of writing is something like an exorcism or as Karr wrote, the lancing of a boil: “To watch someone scrutinize a painful history in depth… is to witness not inconsiderable pain. You have to lance the boil and suffer its stench as infection drains off. For the more haunted among us, only looking back at the past can permit it finally to become past.” But do we have to translate everything we see in our past into our manuscripts. Does our reader need to be part of all the pain, all the hurt, all the trauma? Who are we serving my drawing back the blinds without giving context to what’s hidden behind? How deep do I need to dig?
I haven’t found the answer to the questions that plague me as I write. I don’t know where the line is, and so I write what feels right. It’s the creative equivalent of a gut check. I pour it all out into sentences and paragraphs for it to be second guessed and questioned later. My drafts are where I test my level of comfort, where I see how much past I can live with being in my present, and what I’d rather pay respect to and let it slip into the past, where hopefully it will stay this time. But until then I’ll likely keep waking up with two men: a ghost from my past, and my present and future.