I went to find a ghost.
Inside, the house is familiar yet not. Though it is clean it still feels dirty.
It is empty, save for the ghosts.
It's been thirty-five years. The wood planked walls haven’t lightened but darkened. It feels like a shrine to denial. A boarded-up childhood, a family lost. No one spared.
My mother and I agree. There are certain breaches from which a family cannot recover. Individuals, grace be with them, may heal. But the family will never again be.
Laughter must have once trilled within these walls. There were children here, after all. And children, no matter how you harm them, somehow still laugh. Maybe it’s how we survive.
I can’t recall any sounds, only thin veins of moments, silent snapshots. The corner where our dog had puppies, slippery gray sacks that took my breath away. Puppies who lived and long ago died. The high shelf where the Halloween candy was hidden and secretly cleaned out. The bathroom where, at age ten, I obsessively weighed myself and hated my body for reasons I hadn’t begun to understand. The spot where the Christmas tree stood. The absolute agony I felt each December 25th when the day did not magically heal us, when nothing under the tree could fill the gaping void inside me.
Emotional echoes reverberate all around me and I remember. Loneliness. Fear. Boredom. Uncertainty. Terror. And hope, always hope. My fickle friend who baited me without conscience, dragging me along. Tricking me into another day. Saving me.
In the kitchen, beside the stove, I see double. My sister at age fourteen teaching me to bake. My sister now, eyes searching mine to see if I’m okay, ever my guardian.
Ghosts of our family before it was destroyed await me at every turn. They whisper to remind me: even when we were whole, we were broken. That kind of harm doesn’t bloom from nothing. It is there, a shadow, all along.
I make my way upstairs. I am here on a retrieval mission, seeking what I hadn’t realized I’d lost. The boards creak under my feet and I turn. I know she is here. She called me to come.
It is hard to describe trauma, impossible to assign, catalogue and file items that slip and morph when you grab them. Trauma is non-linear, smudged, foggy, weighted with shame. It is a memory that lives on in you, playing itself on a loop, alive long after the event. Without your permission it is the filter through which everything must pass. It overlays itself on any goodness or joy you manage to find. It colors the world gray.
Your body, the scene of the crime, becomes an unintended battleground. You live inside the conflict of needing safety inside the body that has betrayed you. A body that continues to betray you by becoming a time machine lurching you back to that dark room, to the terror, to the crush of your soundless “no” just because you smelled cigar smoke while walking down the street or someone accidentally jumped you or your partner forgot to call to say she would be late. Your body, your once hollowed place, betrays you over and over because, try as you may, it never, ever, forgets.
Here’s what people generally misunderstand about trauma, specifically sexual trauma: though egregious, the most damage doesn’t come from the awful act itself. It’s what the trauma does to your sense of self, the corruption of your most sacred inner space, that is the greatest violation. It’s the shame, leaked through in a perfect, terrible osmosis, that distorts you into someone you no longer know.
It’s a stealing of the soul.
Of all the treachery – the loss of trust, your body, your voice, your safety, your innocence – it’s becoming lost to yourself that is the fatal blow. Because when you are lost to yourself, there is no one to call you home. And because your body is no longer yours, there is no home to return to.
I don’t know how people ever find their way back from this nowhere land. I’m often unsure how I did. I wonder how I did not go insane, what kind of special guides, earthbound and otherwise, convinced me I was capable of this pilgrimage and helped me along the way.
I have been coming home for a long time. Gathering up parts of myself that were exiled, on a hunt for the greatest treasure of all. Myself. This reclamation is what I am most proud of in my life.
Which is why, when she called me to the house to get her, I knew I had to go.
In the stairwell, the dark wood is too tight on either side. Choking. Squeezing.
There, on my right, is the room where so much was taken. It’s not the only room of its kind but it is the only one I can physically walk into and so I do.
She’s there. In the corner, waiting. Alone. Frightened. Torn. Caught in between. I hadn’t meant to leave her, hadn’t known she stayed behind.
This is the unique risk for children violated by a parent: choose themselves and lose their parent or choose the parent and lose themselves.
But is it ever really a choice? What child can afford to willingly lose a parent? What child can allow her brain to acknowledge the horror inside her family?
But denial comes at the highest price. Because someone must carry the blame and the mountain of shame that comes with it. To keep your family, the thing you need to survive, you do what you must do.
Which is why some families need to be broken. It is on the only way.
In a flash she recognizes me. She knows why I am here, knows I came because she called, knows she can let go now. And so she does.
I hold her tight in my arms, fleeing past the dark wood and out into the sunlight. I steal her back, return her to where she belongs. To me.
My sister is there, and we hold tight to both the lost pieces and the found. We will never return, will never need to.
We walk, hand and hand, away.