The Warning

This entry is part 11 of 12 in the series Issue XI: Winter 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 feeling that something was coming, whether I was on the train with it, or standing by the track, feeling the gravel on my face as it passed by. In any case, I was finally going there.

Dreaming, I would slowly become 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. Working this way, it was easy as an avalanche to continue down the increasingly sinister side of a crater 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 can only imagine that my “Secret” was a response to it.

Mapping dream information to 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 was something inside me, something about me, that I absolutely must never let anyone know, because it would have terrible consequences. I was afraid to even let myself find it, for fear that I would accidentally reveal it, and bring the “terrible consequences” onto myself. On the rare occasion, when some trigger shook me to my foundation, I’d try to just blink briefly in its general direction; and it always seemed as if some horribly needy little monster, part of my basic personality, was just waiting to scare away anyone who got close enough to find out about him. I can now see how this maps to my parents’ most basic fears, but each of them reacted to theirs differently.

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 out there. The doorway, that sometimes flashes into my mind, with someone in a robe – beckoning me into… a janitor’s closet? Or, perhaps, the strange man, from around the time that memories start, in a locker room, who makes today’s Penn State stories hard hear.

“Here is my handle, here is my spout”

Yarn. Long strands of it. Ultimately, the strands reminded me of another half-memory: how it felt to be part of the process of rolling yarn into balls, It satisfied part 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 her needlework projects. A child, careless husband, or even a neighbor who’d once expressed some interest in knitting – anyone naïve, or slow, or unsuspecting, enough to look available, was liable to be conscripted. As a last resort, an inanimate object could do the trick for her, but that eliminated an 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 that had never make sense: if anyone using the stuff would need it to be in a ball, why was it sold as a skein? Then, again, why do hot dogs come in packages of ten, and buns in packages of eight?

The yarn, in the dream, then: was it simply a way to take the edge off, hinting at partially-remembered attempts, or even just a desire, to connect to someone, in a way that wasn’t fundamentally scary? Anything else, I could have imagined as threatening; a seemingly-innocuous object or even thought, that hid something, or perhaps was, itself, if I looked at it the right way, dangerous. How threatening, after all, could yarn actually be? Who, today, hasn’t seen some online image of kitchen appliances, cars, and even actual weapons, made out of yarn? For 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, in my life. 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; what, though, 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, usually.

When I actually got there, the final chamber was also dark, and was 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, converged there. 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 something like this, for the specific use of each of her teapots, usually out of bits and strands of leftover yarn. Sometimes in carefully intricate patterns, 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, the answer didn’t, of course, emerge in an active, gut-wrenching therapy session; it simply came to me, one morning, in the shower. The great “Secret,” from which I’d hidden myself for so long, was so simple that it was almost a joke, and misunderstanding it… a child’s “aha,” or perhaps “d’oh!” I realized that I must have been told, while young and impressionable enough, but already, also, fearful of what looked like acts of kindness, in a world that had not proven to be safe, something like: “In spite of everything, you trust and want to believe in the fundamental good nature of others, and this is dangerous, because if they find out, they will use it to take advantage of you.”

All that effort, protecting something that was, itself, a misunderstanding, from the outset! I was, however, less prepared to learn that deciphering this “Secret” was a beginning, and not the transformative epiphany I had anticipated. The comparison with Pac-Man was, actually, not a bad one, for there was something extremely dangerous, just around the corner. It would take at least a TV mini-series to do justice to that part of the story. Suffice it to say that, in spite of everything, someone had discovered my vulnerability and taken advantage of it, They made a sort of a feral, and, yes, unsavory, pack, the deceiver and his assistant ambulance-chasing Ghost Monsters.

“Just tip me over, and pour me out”

It was more than painful, realizing the nature and source of the actual danger. As my private world fell into place, and did not become the self-contained disaster I’d grown up anticipating, it was, nonetheless, turning into a massive waking nightmare. All the way from the beginning: “the relationship.” Pieces had fit together too well, while I was still unclear about some parts of myself, and I made the very mistake I’d been warned against, after all. I trusted, and wanted to believe in the fundamental good nature of another. And he took advantage of that knowledge, and used it to destroy the life and world I’d tried to create for us, together.

As I’d been growing comfortable and confident with myself, my “partner” had been coming unglued. It’s almost too soap operatic to believe, even after living through it, but somehow I had found – no, wait, had allowed myself to be found by – someone who “fit” with the “original equipment” missing parts of me: together we’d somehow managed to “complete” each other, but as I learned to grow more complete in my own right, he’d lost what he 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 constant fear and lack of self-worth/confidence to drive a classic Type-A career, that would provide the money, the lifestyle, the future that he wanted. He never showed the slightest self-consciousness about describing his goal, to friends, family, anyone who would stay still long enough for him to get it all out, 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, on into my 60’s.

There had been a few warning signs. We’d begun to have some difficulties, as my confidence grew, and together had sought the help of several couples’ therapists. It was in one of those sessions that my ex chose to announce that he had used my most recent severance package to pay off his student loans, and prepay several cosmetic “procedures” (Lasik, InvisAlign, months of trainer packages at the gym…), 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 “other side” of why same-sex couples (don’t all individuals?) need all of 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 slightest benefit of the bankruptcy process, even when it provided no benefit to her client, and after I’d become fully medically disabled, courtesy of “unfortunate side effects” from surgery to correct a congenital spine condition. There was, 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 earlier, and pre-dating even the first state-level same-sex marriage legislation, and so having no legal significance – but celebrated with our respective families, a rabbi and a Christian minister. Immediately after we’d exchanged vows and walked back up the aisle together, outdoors on a glorious June afternoon, at a waterfront restaurant, his mother found me and whispered into my ear: “No back-sies.”

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