I didn’t realize it for quite some time, but I didn’t breathe for years. I didn’t understand this until the day I finally took a breath. It was the first breath I had taken in such a long time, I was amazed at how it felt. It was an awakening. A strange sensation. Air.
I walked into the entry hall of my parents house when I was about 15 years old and stopped for a moment to watch the sunbeams coming through the window in the door. There was a lot of dust in the air and I could see hundreds of particles floating lazily in the bright, warm beams. I paused by the old pump organ that sat beside the entry hall closet watching the dust rising and falling when suddenly, I breathed. It was amazing to breathe. Just a tiny breath. And as I breathed, I thought, “It’s over…”
My father had been sexually abusing me for years. I think it started some time around age 4 or 5…certainly well before I was 7. It’s hard to pinpoint because there is so much darkness surrounding all of the events of my childhood. Memories are fragmented. Bits and pieces of them flicker in and out of the dark, then quickly fade away again. There is no way to create a time-line and neatly pin events to dates. Too many fragments. They’re all mixed together and everything surrounding them is very, very dark. Like words appear in the window of a Magic 8 Ball and then fade back into the blackness, so do my memories come to the surface for a fleeting moment, only to fade quickly away. There is no connectedness. They are shattered. Scattered. Broken into millions of pieces that no longer fit together, no matter how hard I try to put the pieces back together again.
Humpty Dumpty and I have a lot in common.
When I breathed, I suddenly realized something had changed. I somehow knew the sexual abuse had finally ended. I’m not sure how long before that time it had ended because, again, those darned fragmented memories make it extremely difficult. But I think it stopped when I was 14. And though I didn’t allow myself much, I did begin to take shallow, silent breaths.
I still sought to be invisible. I still tried to move without making sound or disturbing air. But breathing was incredible. Delicious.
I don’t breathe much. I try to take the smallest amount of air possible. Often, this translates to my physically forgetting to breathe. Many, many times I find myself suddenly taking a quick, small gulp of air, having stopped breathing for some time as my body becomes desperate with need. I have also recently developed asthma. My airway literally closes down and I have to use an inhaler to try to keep the passageway open. And I have a perpetual lump in my throat that often makes it feel difficult to swallow and breathe. Additionally, I won’t wear a turtleneck because I can’t stand the restriction around my throat. I don’t like blouses that button up high or that have a neckline that is somewhat tight or restrictive. I’ve had this phobia since I was a kid, but only recently connected the dots between my inability to breathe and the panic I feel when there is something tight around my neck. All of this, I suspect, is related to the sexual abuse. Oral sex can be frightening to a child. You can’t get air and, as was my case, my father was so focused on his own needs, wants, desires, fantasies, he didn’t know or care that he was literally and emotionally choking the life out of me. Not being able to breathe panics me beyond any other panic I have ever experienced. I suspect it isn’t pleasant for anyone. For me, it is torture.
When I was 15, I learned it was possible to take in air again, if only the smallest amount necessary to survive. I think I need to learn to breathe more freely. I think I need to learn to take in huge gulps of air. To breathe recklessly. I think I need to learn to really, truly, deeply breathe before I die.