Stories of My Me and I (A work-in-progress)

(My Cow)

I try to imagine what it was like before I existed and to picture the world carrying on without me. But I cannot see the world without me because I is there working behind the scenes, ever aware of myself. Or if I manage to pretend “I” isn’t there, some form of “me” lingers in the fringes: A shadow, a painted prop, or a stranger in the background of a photo.  Oh, a paradox of the most frustrating kind, even more frustrating than trying to make sense of the contradictions inherent in the time traveling self.  And yet, I know there was/is an endless world without my existence. I/Me/My is not remotely necessary for the whirring of the world. And yet, I feel as if I’ve always been even though I can’t remember being born. Am I the same person I was when I was a child? My eyes linger on myself in photos, and more times than not, I cannot remember doing what I’m doing in the picture, not even when it’s a photo of some important event, such as a graduation or birthday party where I received the best presents. Which makes me suspect the identity of that little person in the photo. Was the I of now never her at all?

The very act of remembering reveals that some consistency exists compelled to tell a coherent story of  Self, one that changes, yes, one of multiplicity, like the ocean of an infinite number of waves yet one entity. Now, to what extent experiences, events, and situations have a bearing on the constitution of Self, to what extent they are a part of Me or I, I cannot say with certainty. But I’d like to know, and so I go into this project of telling the stories of my life, with the ambition of seeing what it says about Me My and I. Try and tell it like it is, resist the urge to apply order or meaning, to force unity when there may not be any. Yet, the force of order cannot be completely avoided, for one memory is certain to trigger another and another. And so it goes.

The fragmented, uncertain nature of memory leads I to embellish when memory fails. Another difficulty—often, I cannot ascertain whether what I remember really happened or whether it was a dream. If dreams are an amalgamation of lived experience and imagination, then does it really matter whether or not I can tell the difference? Our dreams and nightmares originate from experiences in the waking life and from wishes, desires, and fears, all part of who we are. And so, I tell my stories as I remember them, whether lived or dreamed, in hopes that any flourishings will not detract from the gist, which is everything.

(Anonymous Notes)

With no addresser or addressee, the words nevertheless struck me as purposeful, intentional, fashioned just for me:

You think you’re special, but you’re not.

            Or

You think you’re better than everyone else.

            Or

You’re a stuck-up Bitch. No one likes you.

Though I don’t remember the exact wording, the gist:

You are so stuck up. What makes you think you’re better than everyone else?

When I mentally unfold the first note, (were there others?), the words sting as much as they did when I was fourteen.

I feel weak and dizzy, then gain my bearings by latching onto memory.  Closing my eyes just makes the room spin all over again. Slack-jaws, chins on hands, elbows on desks and a sea of heads turning in my direction. My face reddens. I avert my eyes to the small cubby that holds the notes and my school supplies—college-ruled spiral notebook, Hello-Kitty pencil case, my sticker collection—childish hobby of trading stickers and displaying them in shiny album sleeves in the 7th or 8th grade. Montgomery Junior High in the 1980’s just minutes from the Mexican border. The school could not afford to purchase new desks for its minority student population, so our desks are wobbly, some balanced on slim books or wads of paper. She stuffed the anonymous letters into our shared desk, I believe, in English class or Reading. Reaching back in memory some 35 years removed requires a great deal of concentration. I fill in gaps. I see: Gum-smacking chatter and giggles, whispers and knowing nods. I glide through dizzying sights and sounds: feathered bangs, knickers, suffocating smell of sweet sweat and aerosol, my heart beating so rapidly it might leap out of my chest.

Could the letters have been meant for someone else who sat at that very same assigned desk? If I could somehow get to the roster, steal it when the teacher isn’t looking, or distract him and take a quick peek, then I could narrow down the possibilities. But what if I don’t recognize any of the names? If only I had gotten a school annual, then I could memorize the names and match them with the corresponding photos. What then? Stupid plan; even if I do recognize any of the faces from campus—but then maybe I’d remember a scowl, a shove of the folder through the hallways at lunchtime or morning break. I wake from my reverie and replay the harsh words in my head. You know me and you don’t. Who do I think I am, avoiding eye contact, hurrying through the hallways making a beeline straight for class?  And yet, if you really knew me, you would understand that my seeming aloofness is not an indication of some superiority complex, but rather of insecurity.

I search for the notes in my treasure chest to see if I had stowed them away with other mementos and objects I have collected over the years, an array of items of varying degrees of significance: typical souvenirs such as dried up pens from Disneyland and tickets from my first concert; my two front teeth I had pulled out in my early 20’s because they made me look buck-toothed; a broken angel given to me by the guy to whom I (mostly) lost my virginity. I say “mostly” because my gynecologist explicitly revealed that my hymen was only partially broken from this first sexual experience. I decide to hold onto the pink fairy-girl with broken wings and rosy cheeks, even if a bit creepy of a gift in hindsight—just in case—I’m not sure of what. To my surprise, the anonymous notes are not anywhere to be found, not stuffed away in a notebook or in the pages of one of my favorite books of my youth—Watership Down, Anne of Green Gables, or Beverly Cleary books. I look but to no avail. I tell myself that I don’t need physical evidence because my memories are lucid: crumpled college-ruled paper with frayed edges indicating the paper was torn from a spiral notebook, smudged lines and pencil marks, the words written in block letters rather than in cursive, the culprit intent on staying anonymous. I apply the skills I’ve acquired from practicing mindfulness meditation to squelch all thoughts but those that matter, to get closer to my antagonist’s identity. I pause for memory’s witness and give it my undivided attention. Nothing. Just as then, so now, I am no closer to identification. Someone who disliked me so, or someone envious for one reason or another, which frankly, is still beyond my grasp. Why has this memory stayed with me decades later? Why do I go at it like a mysterious case to be solved? Whatever the case, the sense of significance remains. The opinion of an essential stranger confirmed my skewed sense of self.

(When I started to become cool)

“A lot of guys like you,” tall girl with dirty blond shoulder length hair, or mousy short brown girl with stringy hair said while getting dressed in the P.E. locker room. Partially hidden behind the red locker door (red, grey, what difference does it make?), the deliverer of the unbelievable news stood with more confidence than I did in her bra and underwear.

“A lot of guys like you too,” I said, hugging the towel that draped my curve-less body. Just a little white lie I couldn’t back up with any evidence, because one, I didn’t know “a lot of guys,” and two, I didn’t know what they thought about her let alone what they thought of me. How could it be? My greatest insecurity: I–a nothing compared to the popular, athletic, cool kids who wore Mary Janes and brand name jeans, who got to wear heavy mascara and feathered bangs, while I wore a bare face and hand-me-downs from K-Mart sales.

That night I night-dreamed with my eyes wide open. Could it really be true? Should I ask for more information, such as “How do you know?” or “Who exactly?” “Elaborate, please.” No, let me indulge a little longer in the fantasy.  A lot of guys like you. I’d have been happy with one, even though I could not describe my dream guy. That would come later on in junior high, in the 9th grade, which means that most likely the anonymous notes happened around the same time. I was hated and loved? I was so confused. What had I done or what was Me like to arouse such opposite reactions? I’d never had a boyfriend. And that was just fine, I had no desire, no self-consciousness over the matter until my girl pals had admirers and were asked to go around. Until then, I had been happy reading books, collecting stickers, building things with Legos and play-dough. Once in awhile, being distracted by strange sensations.

*While dreaming, I reach into my panties and rub hard. When I awake and smell my fingers, they smell sour; there’s a powdery residue in the slit that needs to be rubbed again, this time with soap and water, but I’m afraid to be aroused again. I try to describe the experience to Mama, and ask her what this is about, and she says it’s normal, that sometimes she rubs that part on the faucet in the shower. 

(Either during 3rd or 4th grade—definitely elementary school)

We sat on the swings in the playground, me and my Filipino friend. She said, “Do you ever speak?” I nodded yes. I don’t remember much from elementary school but memories like this surprise me when I compare them to photos of Me as child. Close-up of big brown eyes rolling back in sarcasm, and in the background, an edible Christmas ginger bread house. Why was I so quiet? It felt like having eyes as one-way windows where I could see out but no one could see in, observing my surroundings with perplexity and wonder, yet not knowing how to articulate my feelings, or otherwise not wanting to.

(Awake)

All of me is trapped in my teeth. My jaws. If I catch a nasty cold, then I will be trapped in the one nostril that is clogged. If all my nose is stuffed and I have to mouth-breathe, what if my mouth gets stuffed with a sock? If not, then will I exit through my breath? Or will I be prisoner in my skull?

(Asleep)

My eyes are open but the rest of my body is frozen. I’m pinned to the bed. I try to speak, move my mouth, but I can only utter: Je-ho-vah, in slow motion, and only in my mind, because something is pressing against my face, I nearly suffocate. I am being possessed by the Devil, I’m sure of it, what had I done to deserve this? Was it because I watched the Smurfs and the little blue people in little figurine forms could invite demons into your home, whether you bought them brand new or from a garage sale, which meant you didn’t know anything about the family that sold the Smurf or anything about their private lives or practices.

(Fuck Big Bird)

I’m happy. But most of the time I’m not. Is that the way it is for everyone? The orchids on my balcony are dying. I try to keep my plants alive but can’t seem to do so. I read the directions for taking care of orchids, which said to water twice a week when it’s hot and once a week when it’s not. Do not overwater. They need direct sunlight. Pretty simple. I followed the directions to a T, and still my orchids are withering and dying. Most of the time I feel a sense of fear. I don’t know of what. And anger. I see and hear too many things at once. One morning on the trolley on my way to work, this guy on the trolly shouted something along the lines of: Fuck your mama. Fuck your brother. Fuck the wind. Fuck that tree. Fuck the trolley. Fuck this shit! Like everyone else on the trolley, cowardly, I looked away, pretending not to notice that this guy was incredibly angry about something. I took a glimpse. Like the typical homeless person, he wore dirty clothes and he looked un-showered, had absolutely no awareness of his surroundings. He went on: Get the fuck away from me and take Big Bird with you! I made a mental note of his words to share the anecdote with my companions: Funny ha ha, he said Get the fuck away from me Snuffleupagas and take Big Bird with you. Funny isn’t it, the kind of people you see on public transportation. In actuality, I kind of envied the guy for saying whatever the hell came to mind. I wanted to be uninhibited like that, for once.

When I was a child, I recall (or was it a dream?) Mama was mad at me for some reason, and so she reached into my shorts and pinched my inner thigh real hardI nearly cried. Had she intended to pinch my vagina but missed?

One of my very first therapists made me cry. I should have been suspicious when I arrived to find she ran therapy sessions in her home. She proposed a new therapy for my anxiety: “It’s called EMDR, which stands for Eye Movement…Desensitization…Let me see, I can’t remember what the R stands for. Let me just go get the paper. That’ll make it a lot easier.”

She told me that oftentimes panic or anxiety attacks stem from a traumatic experience way back in ones childhood that one re-lives in the present. It is re-lived in the sense that you feel the same feelings you did when the trauma happened minus the actual event. My heart started beating more rapidly as the thought occurred to me that maybe something traumatic had happened to me that I couldn’t remember.

“There are 8 phases to the treatment,” she said, reading off of a paper in her hand. Several seconds of silence passed as she scanned down the page before she read to me the first phase. “Sorry, my last client—that was really intense,” she said as if to excuse her absentmindedness. She continued, “Now I want you to think about the most recent emotionally disturbing event, and then come up with an image of it.”

I imagined and said, “I remember when my sister pulled down my pants and then pulled down her own and said we should rub our butts on the bed. She then quickly pulled her pants back up and then told me to do the same.”

The therapist eyed me above her bifocals and said, “Is that the most recent?”

“No. That was when I was 8,” I answered. “But you know, my sister also killed my pet hamster. She hated the squeaky sound of the wheel in the middle of the night. She denied it of course…want me to think of a more recent trauma?”

The therapist nodded, and “And remember, don’t recount the experience to me, just create a picture in your head that represents the event.” I thought and thought and couldn’t create an image, so I lied and said, “Okay, I have it.”

In phase 2, she must have been feeling me out as she asked me if I was okay and encouraged me to take a deep breath. And so I did. I felt lightheaded but didn’t say so.

She then showed me a laminated list of negative feelings and asked my to identify one or two that this recent traumatic event made me feel. “I am unworthy and ashamed.” I pointed at this one, even though I wasn’t sure of what I was unworthy or ashamed. She then asked me to pinpoint on the opposite side of the page a preferred positive belief. This was too obvious: “I am worthy and deserving of love.”

I was then asked to focus on the negative image that I had supposedly conjured up and at the same time the negative feelings that came with it, simultaneously moving my eyes back and forth following her fingers. The purpose of this was to allow new insights and associations to emerge, or to trigger a traumatic memory that reaches far back. She asked what distance felt most comfortable and at what speed. My eyes moved back and forth as she swept her fingers back and forth about midway between us, slowly from right to left, left to right. My heart beat faster and faster as I expected to witness an image of me being molested or raped at the age of 5 or 6, or maybe even younger. Nothing. Maybe the memory was repressed too deep. Back and forth, left to right. Any moment now. She told me to just notice. Nothing. Back and forth, right to left. Is this distance okay? she asked as her hand moved a little closer to me. Maybe she thought I would panic if she got too close. Yes, I said. I’m not going too fast? No, that’s just right. I felt dizzy and nearly out of breath. Just let whatever happens happen. Scream if you feel like it. It would surface any second now. I don’t know if I can handle this…

Nothing.

Her hand stopped.

“How do you feel?”

“I feel like crying.”

On the drive home, I formulated a list in my head of missing memories:

No heart-to-heart talk about sex, with either of my parents.
No explanation for my first period.
No explanation of why you had to get married first before having sex.

Memories of what was said:

God made man and woman.
God made one man for one woman.
When a man and a woman love each other, they marry each other and are bonded for life.
Love is not love unless it lasts forever.

Memories of what was not said but understood:

Sex = Love.
God is in charge of love; thereby he’s in charge of sex.
Don’t make God blush.

The therapist had said to take a deep breath and release. And so I took a deep breath and released. Somehow I felt like crying.

 

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