Photo: Kuba Bożanowski

Trauma Is Like a Snakebite

What comes out of my mouth is the cry a dog makes after being hit by a car, a shrill whimper. It’s the sound you go searching for in the dark, shining the flashlight into corners. What is making that terrible noise? For a moment, I chase the sound in my mind, wondering, and then I’m startled to realize: it’s me. I never thought I could make such a sound.

I’m being held in a taxi by two men and a woman, who keep referring to El Jefe, the Boss. They write ZORA – fox – which really means slut, on my stomach with a blue ballpoint pen that digs and struggles across my flesh. They laugh as they write, as though proud of themselves. I hear the sound of a camera shutter, once, twice and more laughter. ¡Puta! I am their animal, their captive photo subject. What will they do with these images? My body is horizontal across the backseat, hovering over their laps. One of the men covers my eyes with his hand and pushes down my head. A torrent of blows lands on my jaw, head, and chest.

There’s no doubt in my mind that my captors belong to one of Managua’s gangs, groups with ties to highly organized crime networks that fund and filter drugs across the border from El Salvador and Honduras. It was only seconds after I entered and shut the door that the driver slowed at a corner and their bodies rushed in. They pointed a knife at me, placed the cool blade along my throat. “Quita la ropa,” said the young man with a pink bandana tied around his head. My hands fumbled and pushed away his fingers as he reached for the fly on my jeans. “No, no, no, no…” I heard myself pleading. Anything but that.

And then, a shot of clarity: Maybe if they rape me, they won’t kill me.

One of them strokes my hair, whispering, “Shhh.” I tense my jaw and feel as though I could swallow my eyes into the back of my skull. My body is a charged wire on their laps, a single muscle. It occurs to me I shouldn’t have put on this blouse this morning, fine as a moth’s wing. Exposed, I long for wool, for wood, for armor. Their hands tear the blouse away like a flower.

And then, my pelvic bones are screaming through my skin. They want out, desperate to abandon the body. I see my pelvis, a black cave with wings like an image from a Frida Kahlo painting, floating high above me as their hands come down on me like spiders. It’s the only part of me that I sense I have to offer, to lose.

The rest of me can remain and pray for release. The rest of me can learn how to forget.

 

When it’s over, they dump my body off at the edge of Managua. They stick a rag over my face and I smell gasoline. Then they push me out and the woman screams, “Don’t look, or we’ll fucking shoot! And don’t you even think about calling the police – they work for us and we know where you’re staying in the city!”

I stumble out of the vehicle, my eyes closed like buds, my hands groping at air. I hear the car wheels connect on gravel, spin, spit and take off. When I open my eyes I see a tree and a barbed wire fence and beyond that, a farmer on his tractor. My backpack is lying empty on the ground like a deflated balloon. I quickly discover they’ve taken my purse, my passport, my cellphone, and my address book. “Esta mujer conoce muy bien la ciudad,” one of the men said, surprised, maybe even worried, as they found my contact information with friends and colleagues from the local organizations I’ve been working with on a community development project. What will they do with the business cards – tear them up and toss them out the window? Or keep them? It worries me to not have those numbers and emails anymore, but the thought of what they might do with the information worries me more.

I remember that my journal had also been tucked into my purse, and all of those lines of prose are now lost, the words that swam out of me at night, or early mornings when the forest trilled alive and I felt the opposite of fear surging through me. I long for the journal more than any other object they took from me.

I pick up my backpack and walk towards the highway. I should flag down a bus, I think. I should try and get in touch with someone. I pass a campesino, a small man with a wrinkled face. He looks up, surprised. “Which way to the city?” I ask him, without emotion. He jerks his hand to the left and keeps walking. A chicken bus roars by, a blur of bright color with the slogan VIAJO CON DIOS, painted boldly on the side.

I turn off at a fish packing plant. The workers look up, confused to see a foreign woman, flimsy backpack on her shoulders, approaching the main office. I enter a harshly lit room and walk up to the front desk. “May I please make a phone call?” I ask. “You’re going to have to help me find the number.” They are happy to help. It doesn’t take long to track down the number of a colleague of mine.

When my friend is on the way, I use the washroom at the fish packing plant, a dank space with a broken toilet and a dirty mirror. I stand there and lift my yellow shirt and read backwards what they’ve written, tracing the letters Z-O-R-A with my index finger. I look up and meet the gaze of this woman’s eyes. It’s me, but someone I don’t know. Her physical strength startles me. How is this body here? Standing erect, turning on the tap, scrubbing off the blue ink with a piece of paper towel, desperate to remove the stain of their violence. My mind tugs along: Get through, get through, an instinctive mantra. I know that it isn’t over yet. I will have to go back to the city, file a police report, and figure out how to get, as quickly as possible, out of the country.

 

Ten days later I am zipped into a black satin dress, the maid of honor at my best friend’s wedding in Vancouver. My hair has been done up at the salon. I wear foundation and my regularly splotchy face looks flawless, the dark half-moons under my eyes hidden. I run my fingers over my sternum; the bruise has already faded into nothingness, but the bone remembers and sings with pain when I press two fingers into where their fists struck me. All night, between awkwardly shuffling my feet on the dance floor, trying for fun and celebration, and sucking back copious amounts of alcohol, I keep stealing back to the washroom to look in the mirror and run my fingers over the bone.

The secretary from my old high school is here, and when she locks eyes with me by the bar she seizes her opportunity to approach. I know how the conversation will go: Everyone here knows what happened. I crave another drink. I am tired of people looking at me with their large, frightened doe eyes. “Oh my god,” they mutter, stunned. “That must have been awful.”

I felt their eyes on me as I recited the toast to the bride at the beginning of the reception. They wondered: Why is she here? How is she holding up? But they didn’t realize that it wasn’t me holding the microphone. I was barely in my body.

“I was so sorry to hear what happened,” says the woman and I nod and smile nervously, quelling her anxiety, her disappointment for not knowing what else to say. In the short time I’ve been home, I have already identified the reliance on those two words: “what happened,” a convenient euphemism for “kidnapped” or “assaulted” or “raped.” As though “what happened” could be a kind of safe house for everything, somewhere to stick the violence.

“But I know it won’t stop you from going back in the future.”

It probably won’t, I agree with her, though I have no idea whether or not she is right. I am focusing only on getting through the evening, the next drink, the next conversation. I take a sip of champagne and then another. Later, when I’m back in my hotel room and my head finds the pillow, I close my eyes and the darkness comes at me, spinning.

 

When I open the front door of my parents’ house to the outside, the northern Canadian October chill slips under my shirt and I realize suddenly that I’m not wearing a bra. There I am: 2 am, tits hanging, face to face with a local cop. I have been living with my parents for over a month since I returned from Nicaragua, half-heartedly looking for work and wondering what to do next.

My parents are away visiting friends. I woke in the middle of the night with a jolt. I heard movement, shuffling footsteps coming down the hallway. I shucked the phone off the holder, threw myself into the bedroom washroom, locked the door and dialed 911 in one swift movement. Shock flooded my brain with white light. I wept erratically to the 911 officer: Please send someone, please! Someone is in the house. Someone is here.

“The police are here,” said a voice. “I want you to run outside, unlock the front door. Go now. Stay on the phone with me.”

I ran for it, bolting down the long hallway toward the front door. Through the living room window, I saw the cop car lights flooding my parents’ front yard, exposing the dry rose bushes, the bleached white antlers that only northern folks would set out as lawn décor, and the basketball hoop set on a height low enough for me to slam dunk when I was a bored teenager.

I open the guest bedroom door for the police officer to inspect and he peers inside and sees all the misshapen, tangerine colored pumpkins piled on the bed. The week before, my mother uprooted the patch and carried them into the house, worried about frost.

“Wow, that’s a lot of pumpkins,” he smirks, trying for small talk.

Pumpkins, check. Rapists, none.

He checks each room for the Boogeyman, finding no one.

“When did you say your parents were coming home?” He looks closely at me and I worry he can see through my thin shirt.

“I didn’t.”

I am in my late twenties, but I look young for my age. He probably thinks I am sixteen and staying home alone for the first time.

It must be amusing, a break in routine for a Friday night in a town of 6,000 where the cops keep busy with kids’ parties along the riverbank. I wonder if they hoped, for a second, that someone was in the house, coming down the hallway.

“Something happened,” I mumble, wanting myself to explain to the young officer. We are probably the same age, I realize. Something happened. Those words again.

“You’re safe now,” he says.

After he leaves, I lay awake on the living room couch until the light beats out the shadows.

 

There are other things, too.

One evening, a few weeks later, I discover a mole that looks like Italy on the top of my foot. I search for images of “irregular moles” on Google, comparing my mole with other moles that are shaped like red wine spilt on white carpet and the Milky Way and walruses. The more I read, the more I convince myself:

Cancer.

Again, I dial emergency.

“I need a biopsy immediately,” I demand from the nurse on duty. She sighs into the receiver. She has already dealt with enough paranoia that day. But the red skin flakes off before I make it to the hospital. Blood blister.

 

Fear begins to twist itself into anger, rage, and resentment.

Nothing feels better than being drunk. Intoxicated, I can float in any social context. When my mind and body begin to swim in that warm tunnel of inebriation, I feel everything is going to be okay and I almost forget about my dislocation, my deepening anxiety. Almost. Most nights out end with me collapsing, awash with tears.

One night I pick a fight with two guys in an after-hours pizza joint who comment loudly on “doing a girl in the ass.”

I tap the shorter guy on the shoulder and he turns around.

“Do you know what a mi-so-gy-nist is?” I ask, flicking my pizza crust at his Italian leather shoes.

He looks down at my petite five-foot-frame, dumbfounded.

“Yeah, yeah – we know what that is,” his friend sputters angrily.

I want to throw my fist between his eyes. I feel disgusted with his arrogance, his violence, even his sex. I want him to realize the physical pain of his own words.

Before I can act, my friend gently grabs my shoulder and pulls me back, leads me outside and tucks me into the backseat of a cab. On the way home, the pretensions of my anger quickly cave into despair. I begin to cry uncontrollably.

“That guy, that guy,” I sob drunkenly, “guys like that should have their hands cut off.”

“Do you know what you’re saying?” my friend gently cautions me.

 

When I am not drinking, I do everything to try and climb back into my body again: Downward dogs and Ohms, Reiki healing sessions and stones and crystals placed on chakras, incense-burning, bread-baking, and time with trusted friends. A First Nations elder invites me to sweat out my sorrows in a traditional ceremony outside of Edmonton where I sit steaming like a clam for six hours next to strangers whose pain and trauma feel more complicated than my own. I mix bright acrylic on canvas and paint my kitchen lime green.

I attempt to write the story out of me. Sitting at my laptop and staring at the blank screen, I try to make a story out of what happened, but I end up paralyzed.

I am desperate to do anything to get back to who I was before. I seek out a psychotherapist named Joanne who tells me I am stuck on the “non-advancing internal story,” overdosing on the climax of the trauma, unable to get past the terror of what happened. I don’t know how to move my story forward, to get all the way out of that taxi in Managua.

“You’ve never processed the raw bits,” Joanne says.

When she says the word “raw,” I think of pink ground beef sticking between my fingers, and feel nauseous. I love Joanne’s metaphors, though. She is in her sixties, a silver-haired woman with a kindergarten teacher’s voice. She makes me do things like pretend to be a tree and sway side to side. She makes me sketch out my fears. She teaches me how to tap my wrists when I feel panic swelling, a form of needle-less acupuncture that is supposed to send off kinetic energy to emotional blocks. We do a kind of therapy where I have to travel back to the taxi and remember every sensory detail, but afterwards she has me retell the story, imagining how I am the superhero heroine who kicked ass, who escaped without harm, who laughed in my captors’ faces. She gives me mantras to repeat over and over again. I am safe. I am strong enough. I can get through this.

“I can see you’re getting better these days,” she tells me one morning, several months after sessions together.

“How can you tell?” I ask her, skeptical.

“Your body language,” she says. “You’re no longer leaning onto your right side. Did you realize that the right part of your body was acting as a crutch for the left? That’s where your body was storing the trauma.”

I want to believe her. When I look in the mirror, my eyes and skin do look brighter than before. Not knowing what else to do, I hold onto Joanne’s words. Though they don’t quite feel true to me yet, they keep me afloat.

After six months of therapy, Joanne begins to ask me, “What are you going to do next? What do you want to do with your life?” Her questions confuse me. Though the feelings of fear and rage are beginning to subside, I can barely think beyond our sessions together. I am functioning, holding down a job, paying rent. But planning a life? That feels impossible.

 

“What do you do with all the pain?”

It is the only question I ask the old woman in the dream.

I am twenty-eight years old, and it’s been two years since I was kidnapped and assaulted in Managua. I am no longer in therapy or turning to alcohol, but I am still struggling to make sense of my trigger-quick responses and my smoldering anger. Slowly, I’ve been moving back into the geography of my own body, relocating what was lost, putting the migrated parts back together.

The old woman has a full moon face, round as an apple. Her skin is creased and sagging, gone slack with the years. Her nose points crookedly off her face. Her eyes are a sad gray blue color. And when she turns to me, her sad eyes smiling, I realize that we are the same person; she is me in sixty years.

“You just learn how to organize it a little bit differently,” she answers.

 

It’s been five years now.

I no longer feel the teeth of that animal fear that held me down in the dark during those strange days, months, and years following the violence. I no longer feel as though my body is an occupied territory. The flyaway pelvis has floated back down to earth. Or maybe as a grimy starfish grows in dark waters, I slowly birthed back another. I’ll never know how – or when – the disembodied bits migrated back into my body. It was a gradual accumulation, a sort of biological repair with tiny microscopic organisms working their minuscule hands on me, barnacle upon barnacle, armoring me back up again.

Though I don’t move about the world the same way I did before knowing the stain that violence gives to daily living, I’ve never stopped traveling. The blithe spirit, on which I drifted before, distractedly chasing shiny things without much forethought, has become measured, cautious. I worked previously as a community development practitioner with vulnerable populations, but after experiencing and living in the aftermath of physical trauma firsthand, I’ve begun to feel a depth of empathy that I didn’t before. Pema Chodron, a Buddhist philosopher, believes this kind of reaction is owing to the “bodhichitta” – “bodhi” meaning heart and “chitta” meaning enlightened.

In her book, When Things Fall Apart, Chodron writes:

“Under the hardness of armor there is the tenderness of genuine sadness. This is our link with all those who have ever loved. This genuine heart of sadness can teach us great compassion. It awakens us when we prefer to sleep and pierces through our indifference. This continual ache of the heart is a blessing that when accepted fully can be shared with all.”

I’ve begun to explore my ache through the ache of others. I am drawn by the subject of what it means to be a woman living in the aftermath of sexual violence. How does the body survive? How does the body heal from trauma?

In a refugee camp in southwestern Uganda, working as a researcher, I listen to the stories of Congolese women who were displaced by the continued conflict in Eastern DRC. Many of the women were violently assaulted and raped. Some of them were forced to watch rebels and soldiers kill their husbands, rape their daughters, apprehend their sons, and burn their parents alive. I wonder how they manage to feel human again, to go about their routines, to relate to others and fall asleep when the sun plunges beneath the surface of the earth, when they are left to contemplate the dark. “I’ll never go back to Congo,” they all say.

“Trauma is like a snakebite,” says a Ugandan woman I meet in the camp. She is a social worker who organizes monthly healing groups for men and women.

“The snake bites you and leaves the venom running through your body. You cannot kill the snake to take away your pain. Even if you kill the snake, you will live with your suffering. So you must learn how to live again.”

Every season, the Congolese women dig and drop maize and bean and groundnuts into the soil. They grow their crops and raise their children on these refugee lands, the marginal lands left uninhabited. It is the worst place in Uganda to be a farmer, but still, they break open the earth and plant their seeds. With luck, there will be rain.

“Work is the best medicine,” says Hannah. She is thirty-two years old. She’s lost her parents and her two sons in the war. They were ten and eleven years old.

Hannah keeps a small garden behind her house. She grows bananas and cabbages and climbing beans. She’s dug a shallow pond where several ducks float.

“It saves us from being idle. And idleness is fertile soil for sadness.”

The women I meet gather every Sunday at church to sing and pray and mourn the ghosts of their former lives. They throw their arms around one another. They weep and smile through tears. They beat empty jerry cans, making a rhythm. Their bodies haven’t forgotten how to dance.

Hannah’s words never leave me.

In the fields of my own labor, I’m writing again. I’m learning how to pray for rain. I’m beginning to accept that the body remembers and that I am not who and what I was before. I cannot write the trauma out of me, but I can try to grow something from it.

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