What I didn't know I knew
Everything is right there, if you know what you're looking for
I don’t read my old books very often. My own work, to me, has always had something of a kinetic jitteriness to it. Keep joking, keep laughing. Keep running. Keep everything on a surface level. Hit that emotion, feel that pain, then follow it up with a joke.
I have always been running from something, but I didn’t know it for a very long time. Didn’t know what I was running from. Didn’t know that I was running.
I did notice, after the first eight books, that almost every book had a quirky mom character that I loved. Their daughters, my main characters, found their moms irritating and exhausting, but I loved them. Those moms did their own thing with energy and joy. They didn’t install a guilt button in their kids and then hit it hard whenever they wanted something. They were my dream moms. I was putting into my writing what I didn’t know I knew about my mother. Then I went into therapy and finally acknowledged a bit of what my childhood reality had actually been, and the mothers stopped showing up like that. The next mother I wrote was a stone-cold narcissist, and her daughter knew it.
In the next three books I wrote, the Lucy March books, which I wrote while married to a Very Bad Man, I wrote a British villain who had magically made himself devoid of empathy and did some terrible things in the absence of that empathy. My heroine, the one who knew her mom was Not Okay, resolved this problem by magically returning his empathy to him, both saving him and destroying him at the same time.
Gee. I wonder what I didn’t know I knew back then.
Anyway. I have a book I’ve been working on for years, the one I’ve already told you about, and last week after I wrote to you about doing one 25 of writing every day, I went back into that book and, Writer…
I’ve been working on this book for something like eight years, since before the VBM and I parted ways. I remember the idea coming to me while we were driving back to Syracuse after dropping the kids off at the Buffalo airport to fly out to see their grandfather. They were going to be gone for two weeks, which meant two whole weeks of time to write. While VBM drove, I stared out at the passing landscape and pieces of a story flew in through the window and assembled themselves in my mind. A rough outline. A couple of ideas.
I started working on it back then, but it was never quite right. There are always pieces missing, things that belong in a book that I just don’t have yet. But the missing pieces from this one kept eluding me through the years. I’d go back to it from time to time and play around, but I could never find those pieces.
Then the VBM lit my life on fire, as he was always going to do, and I spent five years painstakingly clearing out the debris. In those five years, I would revisit this story from time to time, but there were still pieces missing, so I’d put it back and go about my business, figuring those missing pieces would show up eventually.
It appears, Writer, that “eventually” is now.
I sat down with the intention of doing one 25, and I did about 4. My other work got shoved aside, and I just fell into this book like a warm bed. Every day, I’d start with the intention of doing one 25, and three hours later, I’d emerge from my office, blinking and needing a moment to transition out of that world and settle into this one.
I have all the pieces now.
It’s been great.
It’s also been terrible.
I had the first nightmare the day I started writing. Trauma nightmares are different from a regular nightmare for me. With a regular nightmare, I wake up with my heart pounding and realize with relief that the dragon isn’t real. The fear is sharp and specific, but eventually it goes away. I go back to sleep. By morning, I’ve forgotten the dragon entirely.
With trauma nightmares, I don’t remember a single detail. All I know is that I wake up feeling as though I’ve been soaking in fear all night. That was how I felt, every day, for six years. But because the fear came on so slowly back then, I adapted to it, boiling-frog style. Most of the time, I didn’t even know it was there. I didn’t know it was wrong. Now, that fear is unbearable and when I wake up from a trauma nightmare, it can take me out for a whole day. But I know, as someone healing from trauma, that those nights will happen on occasion. They’re typically isolated incidents, and they happen less and less frequently as time goes by.
So, I push through. I write. I work. I go for a walk. I enjoy my new life here in Colorado. But the next night, I once again soak in that fear.
And again the next night.
And the next.
But the night after I was too busy with other things to sit down with this book? No trauma-mare.
When you live with someone who is systematically ripping you apart while pretending to be the only thing holding you together, you learn to live with this low hum of fear. That constant low hum is useful to your abuser because it puts you just enough on edge, and you will do anything to avoid the fear becoming more intense. The abuser always has their hand on the dial; they can make it worse, or they can make it better. It’s really up to you. The low hum of fear is livable; the white-hot panic that happens if they turn the dial, even a little, is not. So you learn, like a mouse in lab, what makes him mad, and you don’t do those things.
Once the abuser is gone, if you get into therapy, if you go every week even when you don’t know what you have to say about it all anymore, if you keep working even when you don’t understand exactly what you’re working toward, eventually, that low hum of constant fear starts to subside. It returns from time to time; I mean, don’t be silly. The tendrils of code are in your operating system now. The panic will never be all gone.
It was designed to never be all gone.
The next time you live with a man, you’ll spend the first few weeks jumping at every sound and not even noticing you’re doing it until he points it out and asks if there’s something he’s doing wrong.
Oh. No. You’re fine. It’s me.
Eventually, you feel safe again and everything is fine. You’re doing great. The panic attacks subside for the most part, except when you watch a movie that’s a bit too close to your experience, or you have to call your abuser to have them sign some documents so you can sell your house. But as long as you keep moving, you’re good.
And then you decide to write again. To write about it. To deliberately go back into the space you worked so hard to leave and take a good, long look.
You go in.
You write like you’re on fire.
You don’t have to force yourself to get out of bed and write; you run to your computer, ideas dancing in your brain the second your eyes open. And as you write and feel the elation of being back doing the thing you love the most, you also feel the hum creeping back into your body, where it will settle in, once again, like a cat curling up by a fire.
Because you invited it back in.
Nightmares. Fear. Jumping at every sound. Your beloved asks if there’s something he’s doing wrong.
I will write this book, eventually. I feel the pull to write it even now, as I’m writing this letter to you instead. But first, I need to find a therapist in Colorado, because I’m tough, but I’m not stupid. When I walk back into that space, I will not walk in cowering. I will walk in with a baseball bat. I broke the hand that turned the dial, and then I broke the dial.
I can do this.