Old Trauma, New Reactions

“The best laid schemes o’ Mice and Men . . .” -Robert Burns (To A Mouse)

You might have heard the phrase, “The best laid plans of mice and men,” to describe the how seemingly foolproof plans often go awry.  But have you ever read the poem from which that phrase originates? It’s called, “To A Mouse,” and was composed by Robert Burns. If you can sort through the rough, Scots dialect in which it is written, then it’s a disturbingly delightful piece

The phrase is on my mind today. When I started going back to school a year ago, I was full of light and hope in my newfound healing. I felt like my life had made an enormous turn and, despite some bumps, I was finally headed in the right direction. For me, that direction has always been engineering, of any discipline or design. I’m fascinated by how things work, the math behind our world, and would love nothing better than to spend my life in search of new answers to the childhood question, “Why?”  But I’ve been having issues in school. Not the work or the concepts related to my engineering classes, thank goodness, my brain seems perfectly happy to function according to those needs. No, I’m having trouble with people; men, specifically.

I didn’t piece everything together until just last week. I was sitting in the office of one of my male professors and I was struggling to form cohesive thoughts. My hands were shaking so badly I had to sit on them. My brain refused to comprehend what was being said. My heart was racing and I couldn’t catch my breath. But I ignored everything and plowed forward, piecing together questions and answers with enough stubbornness to finally get what I needed. When I was done, I wasn’t sure my legs would carry me out of the office, so I asked my professor about a project he’d worked on in the past, and just let his story wash over me. Letting him talk was good. It gave me enough time to sort myself out and, when it was appropriate, leave the room.

At this point I was asking myself, “What the hell is going on?” I never suffered these symptoms in the past, but I know that they started when I came back to school. Over the last year I have explained them away as having exerted myself climbing the stairs, or having had too much caffeine during the day. But on this day, I took the elevator and, knowing I was coming in, chose not to drink copious amounts of coffee. I thought I planned everything out so that I wouldn’t be caught shaking like a leaf.

My science brain wanted to review the data. To alter the variables and test another theory. But honestly, what else was there to change? What else could be causing this reaction? And then, like a tidal wave, it hits me. I remember the pain.  I remember the words and the confusion. I remember the tears and the nightmares. And I remember why men scare me.

My abuse wasn’t physical, it was psychological. It came from my husband, a man I trusted, and it started right after we were married. He took every man I had contact with and turned them into monsters. He spun the truth into a nightmare, convincing me that I had been the victim of every man I’d ever known. It didn’t matter if the man in question was one I’d shared a long past personal relationship with, or just the guy ringing up my groceries, they were all used as weapons against me. He started slowly with a comment here or there to make me question their motivations. A derogatory statement about how I wasn’t respected for my mind, just my body. It was drilled into my consciousness that men were evil and I was an easy target.

It got to the point where I was so confused about the world that I rarely spoke to men in public. Further, if I did interact with a man in society, one who was not expressly hand picked for me to speak with, I knew to expect an argument. Those arguments turned into interrogations that wouldn’t stop until I made enough promises to placate his anger. I had to apologize. I had to prove that I only loved him.

I understand, now, that what he was really doing was attacking my sense of self worth to build himself up. If I believed that I’d been a life long victim, then I couldn’t trust myself and my own mind. If I doubted my abilities act independently, then I wouldn’t choose to be on my own. And if I wasn’t willing to be on my own, then I needed someone to protect and lead me around. And guess who wanted that job?

It seems so ridiculous that I believed anything that ever spilled forth from that man’s mouth. But in the moment? Over a very long period of time? Well, he’s a master manipulator and I had no idea how you could torment someone with their own memories. But you can, and, I suspect, it’s as powerful as any physical abuse. I have a physical reaction to men that I cannot control. I understand that it isn’t logical, and that I have little to fear from most men, but I can’t help it. Worse, not being able to stop my body from reacting is embarrassing, frustrating, and maddening.

(I’d like to say, that while I’m writing this, I’m shaking. It’s anger, mixed with pain, topped with anxiety. It’ll stop soon enough, but the story is important. Words have power, even if just written down.)

So I’m not sure what happens from here. I have a professor whom I greatly admire and respect, who I cannot be in the same room with without loosing my composure. I’m reticent to tell him why I’m such a flustered mess when I come in for help with my homework, but I also don’t know how to stop this deep-seated reaction. And what of future male professors? Colleges? Supervisors? Dare I say it, future relationships?

I know this is a lot of personal information to push out into the universe, but keeping it bottled up is never a good idea. Know that I have not one, but two lovely counselors that are working with me. If you’ve been through something similar, I’d love to hear how you dealt with, or are dealing with, it. For now, I just needed to get everything out in the open. I need to remove the power from those memories so that I can move on. I won’t let this fear stop me from pursuing my degree, but I will have to cope. And maybe coping will lead to healing 🙂

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