I was kept up all night by Julia’s new dog whining and feel spit out so when the young man at Jiffy Lube in the greasy jacket with no nametag gazes up at the TV while casually sipping coffee and says “Kelly Ripa looks so good for her age. What is she, like, 50?”, my irritation is a toxic brew of exhaustion and 50 year old defensiveness. Like, what exactly qualifies you, Mr. 20 Year Old Ballsac Express, to opine on the pleasing nuances of feminine aging when obviously I usually look better than this. Obviously. I was just, like, kept up all night and don’t even want to be here but my oil’s overdue and I’ve never even had a personal trainer/dietitian.
And I haven’t dreamt about mom and her husband in a long time but last night I found myself in a recurring one. In this particular one, I’m in a house with my girls and our pets and we’re moving and–standing around this almost-empty house–I suddenly knew my stepdad was coming. And like my previous recurrences of this dream, realizing he was coming brought on panic and fear, for in all iterations of this recurring dream, I’m grabbing my kids and my pets (and sometimes our foster kittens) to get out of wherever we are because my stepdad is coming there to hurt us. And in these unconscious spheres, it’s a horrible, helpless feeling, a feeling of being hunted by a foe large in size and rage, where I’m thrust into battle and being called to save from viciousness all the things I love most in this world.
And, as dreams usually work, the fear in this recurring one is based on reality. Mom got with my stepdad in ‘90–not fully divorced from dad–and not too long after (‘92) I was told I could either accept him or stop being part of her life. And during that time, I thought he was a chaotic post-divorce event as she rebuilt herself; he was an ex-con (sex offender), didnt have a job, a decorated cowboy on the rodeo circuit—a 180 from my dad who she’d been with for 20 years—so I thought he was her experimentation of self after my parents called it quits. But this was not the case and in the intervening decades, there’d been rages, screaming, silent anger– which if it wasn’t acknowledged would turn 2/…very dark–and a drastic moodiness covered up by pandering to keep him stable leading to events a la “I pushed him too far and that’s why he choked me,” punches to horses faces, convincing mom shooting my two dachshunds–and her dog Malone, among others–was an appropriate way to end their lives, etc.
And across my life cycle, I accepted, swallowed, became the powerless observer until blending together across time was the nonchalant creation of cruelty it was implied I’d just ignore. A cruelty which—after I became a single mother—loomed like PTSD to become—last night—the theatrical version. The version wherein he isn’t just coming for my mom, and me, and our former pets; he’s coming for my kids, the cat that purred on my lap this morning, and the neurologically impaired kitten I took care of yesterday. The version Wherein—in all iterations and settings of this dream— I’m doing all I can to escape but I can’t, and right up until I accept this unfortunate fact, I feel helpless and trapped then in the very next second, I’m calm and strategic and looking for the weapon I’ll use to kill him.
And at Jiffy Lube, waiting for my car—exhausted, old, and reliving— I can only just vaguely see the real emotion behind my nightscapes. The devastation and the tears I felt and shed are memories, and shadowy things I’ve since left behind to better embody love as a force for proactive helping and healing. Bad things do happen and people hurt vulnerable and precious things but I can’t live there; I live my days loving and protecting those same things.
Yet sitting under the TV, surrounded by greasy clothes, I relive shooting my stepdad in the chest, gasping as his flesh and bone exploded and splattered my face. And last night, finding an ax and strategizing how best to wield its weight so as to kill him with one strike.
What does it mean that erupting out of the spaces of my heartsickness has come not healing or love but the accepted solemnity of extreme violence?
A couple of years ago a friend sent me an mp3 file containing the testimony of a former gang member and ex-con. The young-ish man had gone before a panel of Utah politicians to try to inform them of how his life became that of a criminal, to dissect the trajectory so as to prevent other young men from following suit.
During his testimony, he talked about how he’d grown up in a violent home. His stepdad was psychologically wired to exact abuse of maximum potency and the young man detailed that this meant his stepdad learned not to spend the effort at beating the young man but rather to spend it torturing the things yge young man loved. So he’d make the boy listen while he beat the boy’s dog. Bringing the dog close enough to ensure the boy could hear, then abuse it, forcing the boy to listen as the dog yelped and cried and whimpered in fear and pain.
We start off in this world tender; as hearts that want to love and be loved, and which trust implicitly that the world wants the same. We aren’t born knowing what to do with cruelty and violence; aren’t emotionally inclined to the skill set of adapting to someone clearly lost inside themselves. So we spin events into alt-facts and create a means of empowerment to protect ourselves so that it doesn’t hurt us anymore.
We ourselves place on the menu a way to make peace with our helplessness.
That very first dream (circa 2010-2011?) is the one where I shot him in the chest. In it, my step dad wasn’t just coming for me and my girls and my animals: he was also coming for my mom. In waking life, I wanted her to get out of her situation but so many years and events had gone by that I didn’t have much hope. I’d learned you can’t make someone leave. You can’t make someone stop being cruel, you can’t make someone stop beating a helpless dog; you can’t take the rage inside someone else and nullify it without their permission.
And he was at least 7 or 8 feet away from me when I shot him. But his tissues exploded and—whether from the force of them landing on my face or from my shock and attempt to keep it from hitting me (I don’t remember)—my head was pushed backward as my mouth vocalized the gasp. I hadn’t wanted to shoot him but he’d left me no choice; and I had to kill him with the first shot because if I just hurt him he’d get up and we’d be in more danger. Sometimes when I’m alone, in my car, thinking about it, I reenact the gasp and my head flinging back. I wish I could reproduce for you what it felt like.
And this morning, in and out of my exhaustion—head resting into a Jiffy Lube window—I fell again into that dream, not fully knowing why I had it.
I stood—and stand, in all these dreams—to kill something because I want to. I create dreams in which I give myself permission to do so. And while I don’t necessarily know why and may never know, as I sat there, eyes closed, I gave all vulnerable and precious things the opportunity to feel safe and loved, slaying cruelty with an ax while waiting for my car and coming to terms with my place in the order of a gentle world.