3:00 AM, Saturday June 25, 1975
I awake knowing I will be taken to a place—a place no child; moreover, no adult would want to be. I can hear footsteps getting closer, and then fading as if the owner did not want to disturb anyone. That would be my father.
Nor is it the gait of any of my brothers—they would be bare footed, since they should be in bed. Their footsteps would reveal a light, almost unheard padding on the floor—like a squirrel caught in the house, running on the carpet, trying to find its way out.
Under safer conditions, I would lie awake, watching the light and shadows from under my bedroom door. To my 8-year old’s eye they would dance; gleefully, frisking and frolicking as people walked by, forcing a break in the sliver of light under the door. I would laugh in delight.
These, though, are not safe times.
As the sliver of light enlarges, the door opens parallel to it.
The shadows no longer dance.
One of them enters.
The fear jumps to my heart.
It is time to go.
Fear Turned Terror
At age ten, I found alcohol would deaden any feelings I had, but it was a short fix. I began with one drink and by the time I realized I was an alcoholic, I was using anything I could get my hands on twenty-four-seven. I live with one of the dynamics adult survivors of childhood abuse must endure: fear turned terror.
In the late eighties, as I was trying to break out a niche for myself in this new city, I knew something was wrong, terribly wrong with me.
What’s Wrong with Me?
I would find myself walking in short, fast spurts over and over the same terrain. I never knew what to do with my hands. They only felt natural when I was clenching and unclenching them, as a visible shaking of my extremities appeared. I felt like I had been in a marathon. My breathing came in shallow, ragged breaths from my chest. The fear had settled in my stomach leaving me trembling, gasping for air and unable to breathe from my diaphragm. The chill settled deep in my bones. Nothing warmed me up. I looked in the mirror, only to see a reflection of someone hollowed cheek with hooded eyes and pupils large and dark—the look of a deer caught in headlights, knowing within seconds its life force would flow out—look at me.
“This couldn’t possibly be me,” I thought, as beads of sweat dripped from my forehead, ran the length of my face and fell into the dark recesses below. I felt crazy and constantly waited to be locked up. And this was only during the light of day.
Night time was a whole new set of fears because these would begin my fear turned terror period of time.
The darkness, the quiet and my old childhood pattern of listening for footsteps outside the door was a nightly occurrence.
Nightmares Bring Fear and Terror
When exhaustion finally overtook me enough to sleep, I awoke from nightmares, startled and drenched in sweat from the fear running through every pore of my body. Ascertaining that no one was in my room, I would lay rigid with terror for the rest of the night.
As the weeks turned to months, my fear became an ugly, powerful monster. The rearing of its head became a constant part of my day. How does one begin to explain a terror so overwhelming that it affects every single ounce of your body and every facet of your life?
Fear turned terror was left behind—could it really be worse than it was? I had now graduated to full-blown panic attacks. I paced until the strength in my legs gave out and I collapsed to the floor. My shaking turned to tremors. I was using the top half of my lungs to get oxygen to the vital organs of my body. I walked around in winter clothes in the middle of the summer and I lay in baths of hot water longing for warmth. I felt half dead and knew I looked it, too. It was uncontrollable until finally, I was hospitalized.
My spirit had broken. I wanted to die. The round of medications began. The meds quieted the monster enough for me to learn that what I was experiencing was common not just amongst survivors of abuse, but from war veterans who made it out of the trenches and came home—after seeing the atrocities that man can do to man. Most importantly, it was treatable.
Doctors recognize panic attacks as an illness—illness that can be controlled through medication and therapy. Avoiding alcohol, drugs and caffeine slowed the occurrence of these attacks. While in hospital, I began working with a skilled therapist to recognize the warning triggers—palpitations, sweating, shortness of breath, dizziness, obscure thinking and act upon them before I reached the craziness that my initial anxiety, turned to fear, turned to terror, turned to panic attacks led me.
Years later, I’m living in a condo with a monthly mortgage, paying my own bills and working on a website for survivors again. The fear I experienced has lessened with the help of years of therapy. It’s been five years since leaving therapy and I’m able to cope by practicing mindfulness, deep breathing and centering myself in the here and now. Most importantly, I check inside to ensure all my insiders, especially the younger ones, are having their needs met. New medication during the past twenty-five years have met many of aftereffects of childhood abuse. We, in many ways, are very lucky to live in a time where research into medications to help us is readily available.
I have lived with my ghosts from the past, and as a result I have lived a lifetime of fear turned terror, but I work from a place of healing instead of the horrors that fear can lead to.