I wish my headache was from a hangover or dehydration. I sit in the shade, my head pressed against the outer wall of the house. It’s cool enough, for now, but the harsh line between stark sunlight and my shade creeps ever closer to my toes.
It’s just a few minutes before nine. My heart thumps somewhere below my throat but higher than my chest. The sips of coffee don’t help the way I think they should, but force of habit helps me find solace in them. I’m a morning person, but it took herculean will to pull myself out of bed and down the ladder of my loft that morning.
Thoughts had roiled in my mind for a few days. The message I sent to my counselor didn’t make sense, even though I used complete sentences and “I feel” statements. I re-read it time and again, and my eyes burned each time. Its message never quite settled to me, something about what I had sent her always felt off.
Czar sighed against me and stirred. He had fallen asleep in record time, the benefit of being a dog so long in the tooth that little ones had worn to nothing. Falling asleep at will was something I envied of him. I wondered if he faked it, just a little, enough to both help calm me down and tune me out—a way to get skin contact and constant snuggles without having to give anything in return.
The app on my phone chirps and rings—my counselor is calling.
Online counseling works for me. I dig it. It’s not for everyone, but it’s perfect for someone like me. I live a good portion of my life caught in a riptide of emotions I struggle to identify. They consume me, and I’m submerged in moments, carried away by the current. When they crash, I often don’t know right side up from wrong. Navigating them is difficult, especially when in a traditional, clinical setting; one must hang on to them for a week or more at a time.
In this format, I can dump them all into an email and send them off without a second thought. They’re protected and safe and between me and my counselor. I’ve been through this enough that I’ve learned how to get my head above the surface and reach my arm out for assistance, even if I’m not sure where I am or what I’m caught in. And that is the beauty of online counseling.
Today is perhaps my second or third video session with Dee. So far, she’s been fine—anyone who has been in the system will tell you it takes a few sessions to get in the groove and comfortable with your provider. In most ways, I’m an obedient client, but I’m not exactly easy.
I tap the screen to accept her call. I suddenly wish that I was a smoker. The stress is driving me up the wall, crawling under my skin, making my scalp slip and my eyelids tic.
The first part of our conversation moves forward just fine—how is the special friend, tell me about your daily routines, what kind of this and that do you have in your life, et cetera.
Our conversation meanders. She is good at letting me start and guiding the conversation one way or another, leading it back to where it needs to go, and nudging me in the right direction.
I am the kind of person who will send a wall of text with no warning or any indication of context. Dee is paid to read and decipher them, but many messages and details are often missed in the crossfire. Especially when I discuss my mother and her specific antics and often subtle abuse methods, it is too easy to miss.
Mental health professionals are used to hearing the words “sexual abuse,” and “molest” when it comes to dysfunctional families. Even terms like “borderline,” and “alcoholism” are part of the standard fare. But sometimes combining them all with what we understand of family archetypes, connecting the right acts, roles, and tropes with the correct family member can misfire in a trained professionals’ mind.
My issues are complicated right now. I’m having a major setback as an untreated borderline, mixed with the excitement of a new relationship and the confusion that the person with whom I’m socializing and acquainting with isn’t my normal preferred gender—female—but rather, male. Further still, as pressing as these issues are to me in this moment, they aren’t what makes my hands shake or my voice quiver.
Our conversation has turned to my adolescence. Dee cocks her head to the side just a few degrees and asks me, if I’m comfortable, to share that process: how did I come to identify as a lesbian?
There is no solitary answer to this question. There’s never a defining moment. It’s a series of questions, of tilted heads, of nagging thoughts at the back of one’s mind. For me it can be summed up in moments as an 11-year-old, drawing portraits of popular actresses; of nights cuddling under the aurora borealis on rustic canoe trips; of stark moments when one realizes that the fluttering feeling in her chest isn’t anxiety or stress but a crush—it all goes on. And on.
And when I finally came out at fifteen, although I owed it to no one, I wasn’t met with scorn or excommunication. It was the opposite: I spent years convincing my mother not to tell other members of the family, not to try and set me up with anyone, and please for the love of god please do not hand me pornography—I was fully capable of discovering my own. My coming out was a novelty to be fetishized and objectified.
Dee’s brows furrowed as I described these things to her. I still really wanted a cigarette.
She assured me that, maybe, it was my mother’s way of showing her support. Perhaps misguided, but with the best intentions.
I scoffed. It cracked in my throat.
In the spaces between these moments in my life during this time, there’s a peppering of concern and discomfort. The moments when my mother slipped into the bathroom while I showered, her hand cupping my still-developing breasts, her parading around the house half or entirely nude and deliberately bending over for the world to see, the times she grabbed photographs from my hand of a popular singer and thrust them in my face frame by frame, asking if it was that angle I liked, or another one?
The lines in Dee’s face deepened. Her trained neutral expression shifted as I described just the acts and specific episodes I could remember off the top of my head in fragments, the things my mother had done, the denial that some in the family faced head-on.
Like a thread pulled loose from an old rope, I unwound entirely. In the years I had spent both acknowledging and recovering from the physical abuse she laid on me, far more damaging was the emotional and mental aspects—the parts of me that knew she had worked her way into my psyche and subconscious in more ways than biological.
My heart didn’t race when I recounted the darker moments of my adolescence. It was knowing that she was relentless, in all ways: she had made it to Texas to follow Austin, and, come hell or high water (a tsunami of Southern Comfort), she would attempt to find her way to me in California. It was only a matter of time.
My mother is clever, but even the last few years I had seen her, the alcohol had dulled more than her nervous system. However it slowed her cognition, though, it would not turn off her obsession and willingness to leave me alone.
And that is what I feared. I could handle facing and processing what she had done to me. I could always outpace her in the future, even just a few steps ahead are enough. But I could not face the possibility of her having any way to do any of it again, even by just being present or within a 20-mile radius of me.
With all the therapists and counselors that I’ve worked with, I don’t recall before now ever having left one speechless. It took a few beats for Dee to find her voice, stumbling through the information, grappling with the few details I had just shared with her.
I clutched my mug, even though it was pushing 80 degrees—my shaded spot, ever-shrinking by the moment, was still cool enough for the time being, but scorching sunlight nipped my toes.
“Yeah,” my voice wavered. “I suppose that isn’t what you expected when I said I had mom issues, right?”
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