CN: this essay mentions coping strategies subsequent to adverse events in childhood (there are no details of the events themselves)
When I was eight, A Very Bad Thing happened.
Afterwards, I stopped searching for fairy rings that grew on the marshy banks of Lake Monger. I stuffed away my unbounded joy and folded up my limitless enthusiasm. I became hyperaware of the air I displaced. I became conscious of my body, my laugh, the space I took up in the world.
I retreated into books and became Very Serious, in the way that eight-year-olds become serious and quiet and subdued. In books I found refuge and acceptance. I found guides to being a girl in the world. I found freedom and heroism.
I don’t remember The Very Bad Thing being discussed. It was silently and efficiently dealt with by adults in my life. But a chasm grew inside me and in front of me.
It didn’t start as a chasm. It started as a blemish, a not-meeting of a gaze, an embarrassed glance away, a hurried ushering into another room, another space, another age-group of children to be around at parties.
Fed by silence and mistrust, the chasm grew every day.
At first I didn’t notice the chasm. I was consumed by The Very Bad Thing. But as is the wont of children’s minds, my mind found ways to hide The Very Bad Thing, to make it smaller, to tuck it into the shadowy recesses where nightmares and monsters lurked. Every day the edges of The Very Bad Thing faded a little more, the shape of it became less discernible. Every day it grew more phantasmic. It became a whisper, a rumour, a myth. It became a speck, a blot, something to be scratched at and scabbed over.
That’s how healing works, right; you ignore the gaping wound and it scabs over without infection or abscess?
As The Very Bad Thing shrank, the chasm grew. It bloomed from inside of me, radiated to consume my organs, to fill up my lungs, to course through my veins, to pour from my pores. It oozed and rolled to form a shield, a force field, a protective exoskeleton that locked away my soft fleshy interior.
As my legs lengthened and my breasts burst forth, my chasm-exoskeleton hardened like cooling candy. New friends would tap-tap-tap at it, chipping away an edge here, a corner there, but never quite peeling it all back. And never ever shattering it all.
My chasm-exoskeleton was a living, growing, self-sustaining entity. With every chip and nick, it expanded and scabbed over and hardened again.
I was becoming a lobster-woman, a cockroach-woman, a carrion-feeder that subsisted on anger and an ever-present urge to flee.
When I was 17, a driver’s licence throbbing temptingly in my purse, I tried to flee my chasm-exoskeleton. I drove. Fast. Far. I tried to outdrive it, tried to shatter it with parties and bad choices. However fast or far I drove, however fast or hard I partied, however much I rebelled, I could not escape my hardened shell.
I learned to live with my chasm-exoskeleton that kept others at bay. I learned to embrace it.
I learned to dress it flatteringly — does my bum look big in this chasm-exoskeleton?
I learned to paint it, to highlight it, to slap lipstick and glitter on it — isn’t my chasm-exoskeleton glamorous tonight?
I wore it at a rakish angle, danger and grit glimmering from it — look how tough my chasm-exoskeleton makes me, look how impermeable to illness and injury I am!
I started university with a titanium-hard carapace and a sense of invincibility. I knew, knew, nothing could penetrate it. My bones might break, my skin might tear, but my chasm-exoskeleton would protect the most helpless parts of me.
Nobody could see my protective layer. It couldn’t be touched or felt or smelled, but it was detectable. New friends and boyfriends tried to break through to the eight-year-old harboured at the centre. These intruders, interlopers, invaders would be repelled or allowed momentary entry and then expelled with such ferocity that they left my orbit entirely. Until I met him.
He saw my shell. He didn’t run, didn’t balk. He saw its beauty and asked for entry. Gingerly, carefully I peeled it away in sections, exposing more vulnerability than I ever had.
Until one day, the remains of my chasm-exoskeleton lay in tatters at my feet.
And then, dear reader, I married him.
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