Saturday, January 17, 2015

The body bears the burden

When I was in fourth grade, the nuns told us we were all going to leave our classrooms and go see a movie in the auditorium. We were so happy to get out of class to do something - anything - but school work.

The auditorium was set up with folding chairs and a large screen. As soon as we were all seated, a police officer stood at the front of the assembly and spoke to us. He talked about the movie we were all about to see and told us how  important it was for us to pay attention. The lights lowered and the movie began.

The story started with girls playing in a school yard. They were my age. But then a strange man appeared and I felt anxious. I could sense that something wasn't right. He offered candy to two girls and they got in his car.

I remember knowing that was a bad idea but kept looking for the happy ending. It was an uncle, maybe. Or he had a lovely surprise for them from their parents. The story continued with words of warning from the narrator. I started to think, "Someone will save them in time." "They'll escape and learn a lesson."

The next thing I knew, the girls were being hunted down in the woods by this strange man. They tried to hide but he found them. I remember feeling like I wanted to yell, "Run! Run!" but had to stay silent. 

As I sat there unblinking and horrified, the movie switched to crime scene pictures of two beaten, bloodied and dead girls. It was a real story and I was not prepared for that. I had never seen anything so evil in my eight years of life and I was sure that this evil would come and find me.

When I returned home that day (running all the way, terrified that I would be pulled into a strange car), I told my mother all about it. She was so upset that she went to the school to yell at the mother superior. But the damage had been done. I couldn't unsee that nightmare.

I was physically ill and lived in a state of complete panic for a week. I couldn't go to school or even out in my yard. 

At some point, my mother started walking me to school and doing the same on my way home. But it had to end at some point as my sister had just been born and mom couldn't always wake my sister up from her nap to meet me. 

I walked with my older brother to school who either hadn't seen the movie or was unaffected by it. He would often run ahead with his friends. I remember trying to keep up with him so I wouldn't be alone. I spent my school day looking out the window for strange cars or men. I could not erase that movie from my mind.

As always, time and distance help. I eventually moved on but it took many many weeks of feeling like my death at the hands of an evil man was inevitable. 

Fast forward to 2015. 

I read The Body Bears the Burden by Richard Scaer, MD recently. It talks about childhood trauma, PTSD, and somatic illness. The movie came back into my conscious mind and I started to remember how traumatized I was by that incident. 

I've always believed that my Chronic Fatigue Syndrome with crushing exhaustion, cognitive struggles and constant pain was the result of chronic anxiety. I suffered panic attacks off and on my entire life after that incident even into adulthood. They were always just around the corner even though I kept them at bay for many years in between flareups.

When I was in my thirties, the panic attacks became unbearable. I was afraid to leave my house or even sit in business meetings. I had that terrible feeling again that something evil was going to get me. I had been seeing a therapist but hadn't told her this story because I had sort of forgotten about it. Suddenly it all came flooding back.

It took me a long time to work through it. To be that child again and walk through the terror - only this time as an adult. After meds and talk therapy, I got to the other side. But I feel that the trauma I felt as a child had a long-term negative effect on my nervous system. A few years later, I developed CFS.

I googled the movie last night. I knew nothing about it except the following words: child molester film 1960s. The search returned a link to the movie on youtube. It is here:

It took me only a few seconds to decide to watch it. I felt that the only way to take the power out of it was to watch it in a safe environment as an adult. My heart raced through the 20-minute film. So much of it was familiar to me even though I hadn't seen it in almost 50 years and had only seen it once.

When the crime scene images appeared at the end of the film, I didn't feel trauma or panic. I felt sadness and anger. Not for myself but for the two girls. It wasn't me as a child any longer absorbing that evil in a way that made it all about my own fear. I was an adult now and its effect has shifted based on my life experiences since then.

I did more research on the victims and the murderer. Facts about "scary" events/diseases/people are very comforting to me because they take the emotion and imagination out of the equation. 

The girls were seven and nine years old - my age when I watched it for the first time. The man that killed them was 18 and had a long history already of child-related deviance. He had been institutionalized for a time but was released by a system as screwed up as the ones we have today. 

He eventually pleaded guilty after trying an insanity defense. He died in prison at 33. I would guess that that "system" took care of his ultimate punishment.

I could spend the rest of this post talking about how the nuns were clueless and some were even great proponents of scare tactics with children. But instead I think about the others like me who were forced to watch that movie and have been forever affected by it. 

Did it help? Did it save any of us from being molested or killed? Hard to say. I never had a situation where that was even an issue. 

When I was falling asleep last night I remembered one more fact about that incident. The police officer who showed us the movie was my fellow classmate's father. She, like me, was a little awkward and shy. 

Our paths crossed about five years ago. We exchanged updates about our lives since we had left that school. I moved away as an adolescent but she had not.

She told me that she never married. Her parents died years before and she still lived in the house she grew up in. She never left home. She went to college down the street from her house and works nearby as well.

I wondered for the first time what her life must have been like being raised by a man who thought nothing of terrorizing children. What was it like in her home? How many more traumas did she suffer at his hands? 

It was then that I added one more tragedy to the death of those two girls. My shy friend who didn't have anyone at home to understand her horror.