The Secret Warning

This entry is part 8 of 12 in the series Issue X: Summer 2012

By Peter Schamel

“Pretty standard nightmare stuff, huh?” This wasn’t the first time I’d described the dark setting of my recurring dream – the only one I could ever remember – to a therapist. “With tunnels and trains from Psych 101, it’s just missing the parts about girls and patent leather shoes, and boys encountering teeth,” I continued, “because Catholic school nuns are all obsessed with sex,” trying to catch a flash of expression, or tilt of an eyebrow, that would tell me whether I was coming across as an appropriately ironic New Yorker, or just another narcissistic escapee from a Woody Allen casting call.

This was also, of course, where things had always ended, with me deciding that each shrink’s response was either condescending, or too intense; or that I just didn’t have the time it would take to slog through all the muck; or wasn’t sure I really wanted to, after all. Barricades are put up for reasons, and the one around my dreams, not to mention the entire first dozen years of my life, had served me pretty well, after all, hadn’t it? Look at my life: the jobs, the real estate, the relationship. I don’t know what made this time different. It wasn’t even the first time I’d gotten to this point with this therapist. Maybe I’d finally exhausted my ability to pretend that something about my “Secret” wasn’t holding me back; or perhaps I could simply no longer escape the sense that something was coming, whether I was on the train with it, or standing by the track, feeling gravel on my face as it passed by, and, well, why not ride? In any case, I was finally going there.

Dreaming, I slowly became aware that the floor, at this intersection of dark tunnels, was traced by long strands of something, forming a labyrinthine breadcrumb trail, or perhaps some sort of network – both images from my Internet work – one suggesting an escape route, the other, some sort of power, which was good, as long as I ultimately controlled it. One curiously sad strand seemed to stop, just before entering the chamber, then turned back on itself, as if frightened, or perhaps physically dragged, immediately back away. Some of the other strands seemed to exit as soon as they entered, through the next nearest tunnel, as if following a maze-game solution strategy. It was reassuring to think in terms of a simple rule: “always turn in the same direction, no matter what.” That, however, only works if it is a maze, and there is a solution, and there aren’t hazards lurking around the corners… like Ghost Monsters in Pac-Man, waiting to, literally, eat you. I briefly considered whether I might actually be just a hazard, or complication, in someone else’s dream.

In the dark, I couldn’t tell what the threads were made of, what color they were, how long they’d been there – anything objectively useful – and so I had to edge over into a dimension that had always made me uncomfortable: the subjective. If I couldn’t tell precisely what they were, maybe I could figure out why they were. Who had put them there? Did they lead to some kind of treasure? Were they a trap, or ruse, perhaps, like the cookie crumbs Google assures us are harmless, “…for research purposes …to help improve user experience.” Yeah, right. Thinking this way, it was easy to continue down an increasingly sinister list of possibilities. Gorey came to mind: A is for Accidents, when you’re not paying mind. B is for Bad Things, sneaking up from behind… Just the contents of the first chamber kept me occupied, for a while.

“I’m a little teapot, short and stout”

Subtle details of intent and consequence have been difficult for me, for longer than I can remember. To some extent, no doubt, this is because confusing them was such an easy way to expose my early vulnerabilities. Bullies and abusers have amazing abilities to find, and exploit, the smallest chinks in their victims’ armor, and deliberately confusing a child, to the point that even genuine acts of kindness and affirmation became suspect, clearly had been entertaining, and, possibly worse, productive, to others in more than one of my early environments. I could only imagine that my “Secret” was a response to it.

Mapping dream images into my waking world, it seemed as if, in the dim light of the dream chamber, only the rods, not the cones, in my eyes functioned, and the black-and-white images that resulted were like photographs from early times – images I’d seen and been told about, which then took the place of missing memories. Photos from those early years seemed to want to tell me something, but I could never make out what. One year, there was a standard-issue crew-cut Catholic-school boy, on a page with similarly-dorky classmates and a nun; the next, something was “off” – the chubby, “look-I’m-cheerful” smile suggesting more than the simple passage of a year, but the details, including what was cause and what effect, even now are unclear. Did I become a morose, overweight ‘tween to keep others away, or was I targeted for whatever happened, because I was short-ish, and round-ish, and book-ish?

I hardly remember anything, but did develop a relationship… with a word. J.C. Penney called their section, for kids shaped like me, “Husky” Boys, and I hated it. I also, as absolutely, knew that I’d been given a “Secret” Warning: “There is something inside you, something about you, that you must absolutely never let anyone know, or even know about, because it would have terrible consequences.” I was afraid to even let myself see, for fear that I would accidentally reveal it, and bring those “terrible consequences” onto myself. On rare occasion, when some trigger forced me to unclench my eyelids while I was where I might see it, I’d blink and squint as I turned back away; but was sure I could just make out a desperately needy little monster – the demon offspring of my parents’ most basic fears for themselves, of abandonment and unwantedness – hidden under layers of façade, and just waiting to scare away anyone else who got close enough to see it.

Even from the security of a therapist’s couch, it was difficult to allow myself to explore. Something about it was disturbing …unsavory. A strange word to come to mind. How many dark passageways were there? And anything could be in there. The doorway, that sometimes flashes into my mind, with someone in a robe – beckoning me into… a janitor’s closet? Or, perhaps, the man, from around the time my memories begin, in a locker room, who makes today’s Penn State headlines hard to hear.

“Here is my handle, here is my spout”

Eventually, I came to recognize the strands on the floor. Yarn. Long strands of it. Unearthing more half-memories: the process of rolling yarn into balls. This had satisfied some of my mother’s need for connection. Yarn is sold in “skeins,” and has to be rolled into balls, she explained, to be used for needlework projects. A child, careless husband, a visitor – anyone naïve, or slow, or unsuspecting, enough to look available, was liable to be conscripted. As a last resort, inanimate objects could do the job for her, but they lacked the element of human connection, along with the little dips with the hands, and twists with the body, that made it easier for her, as she rolled along. Something about the whole business, though, has never made sense: if anyone using the stuff needs it to be in a ball, why is it sold in skeins?

In the dream, then, the yarn: was it simply a way to take the edge off, hinting at partially-remembered attempts, or even just a desire, to connect? Anything else, I could have imagined as threatening; a seemingly-innocuous object or even a thought, could hide something, or perhaps be, itself, if I looked the right way, dangerous. But how threatening, after all, could yarn actually be? Even today, after seeing images of kitchen appliances, cars, and even actual weapons, made out of yarn, to me, it might be the one thing that I cannot imagine as a threat, that couldn’t hide a nasty surprise.

Safety and connection: the two things to which I was most susceptible; because they had been the most elusive. To some extent, thinking about them distracted me from the fact that I actually was following a trail… the trail – working my way toward the center of the maze. A secret often tells you more about the person keeping it than about those from whom it is being kept, but what does it tell, when someone is trying to keep a secret from himself? “Bellevue” comes to mind: the stock, black-and-white era, film image of a psych ward.

The final chamber, when my distracted wandering finally brought me there, was also dark, and large, but not impenetrably enormous. At its center, there was a chair, which was hard, and metal, and surprisingly impermanent-looking; like a folding chair in a church “multi-purpose” room. Deliberately impermanent, the kind you’re asked to fold and help put away at the end of a meeting, or rehearsal.

The many threads, the strands of yarn, having worked their way inward, finally converged. The arrangement, however, also suggested the possibility that they actually extended outward, and, if somehow activated, could become an immense spiderweb/comic-book weapon. Focusing, however, on the chair, I became aware of something else strangely familiar. As the many strands met, they became interconnected – literally “knit” together – in a familiar way. They obscured, but protectively, what was in the chair. My mother makes things like this, for the specific use of each of her teapots, out of bits and strands of leftover yarn; sometimes in a carefully intricate pattern, sometimes dashed off with carefree abandon. It was too dark to even guess at the colors, but, from the size and shape, this was for a child, ‘tween-ish and round-ish – a Boy Cozy.

“When I get all steamed up, then I shout”

From there, of course, the answers weren’t wrested from their hiding places in tense therapy sessions; they simply appeared, fully-formed, and wrapped around each other, one morning, in the shower. For the “Husky” boy, the great “Secret” was a child’s “Aha,” or perhaps “d’Oh!” I had been told, while impressionable, but already fearful of anything that looked like generosity: “In spite of everything, you trust, and want to believe in the good nature of, others. This is dangerous, and must be kept hidden, because if they find out, others will use it to take advantage of you.” Something to hide, but nothing monstrous.

For the adult, however, deciphering the “Secret” was not the ultimate transformative epiphany I’d anticipated, to be followed by: “and everyone lived happily ever after.” The comparison with Pac-Man would turn out to be unfortunately apt, for something extremely dangerous was lurking, and just around the next corner. Someone had discovered my “Secret” and taken advantage of it, in ways that still reverberate through my life.

As my internal world started to settle into a state of peace I’d thought unattainable, what surrounded it was becoming a massive waking nightmare – and from the last direction I’d have thought to look for danger: my “partner.” Not knowing any better, I’d missed the way that some of the wrong parts of our lives had fit together, and then made the specific mistake I’d been warned about: I’d trusted, and wanted to believe in the fundamental good nature of. another. And he took advantage of that mistake, first to try to blackmail me, and, ultimately, to destroy whatever he couldn’t pocket on his way out the door.

“Just tip me over, and pour me out”

While, and at least partly because, I’d been growing comfortable and confident with myself, this “partner” had been coming unglued. It’s really a bit too soap operatic to believe, even having lived through it, but somehow I had found – no, had allowed myself to be found by – someone who “fit” with my “original equipment,” missing parts, and all. Together we’d somehow managed to “complete” each other, but, as I learned to feel more complete in my own right, he lost what he’d needed to feel whole.

My best understanding is in Webster’s, next to “sociopath.” His vision of the world required that I be fundamentally flawed – damaged goods, that he could latch onto, and drive along, counting on my fear and lack of self-worth to drive the type of career for me that he thought would provide the money, the lifestyle, and the future that he wanted. He never showed the slightest self-consciousness about describing, to friends, family, anyone who would stay still long enough for him to get it all out, his goal of retiring at 50, which required that I continue to work, in the kinds of high-pressure consulting and executive jobs I’d done well at, but didn’t enjoy, well into my 60’s.

There had been warning signs, though they were subtle. As my self-confidence grew, we’d begun to have a few difficulties, and together sought the help of several couples’ counselors. It was in one of those sessions that he chose to announce that he had used my recent severance package to pay off his student loans, and prepay several big-ticket “cosmetic procedures,” before cleaning out the bank accounts and packing his bag to go home, that night, to his mother.

What ensued is a primer on “the rest of” why same-sex couples really do need all the protections of marriage. He dragged me through the seediest parts of our legal system, until I actually was bankrupt, with the aid of an attorney who felt not the slightest qualm about denying me even the humblest benefit of the bankruptcy process, though it provided nothing to her, or her client, and was negotiated after I’d become fully medically disabled, courtesy of “unfortunate side effects” of surgery to correct a congenital spine condition. There is, however, at least one person to whom this didn’t come as that much of a surprise. I should really have paid more attention, when, at our commitment ceremony – several years before he left, and pre-dating even the first state-level same-sex marriage legislation, and so having absolutely no legal significance – which was celebrated with our extended families, and conducted by both a rabbi and a Christian minister. Immediately after we’d exchanged vows and walked back up the aisle together, outdoors at a waterfront restaurant, on a glorious June afternoon, his mother found me, and smiled, as she whispered: “No back-sies.”

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