The nightmares from childhood trauma are first lived, then never lived down.
I woke up this morning around 4:30 am in a cold sweat. I was awakened from a nightmare. It’s a recurring nightmare for me. It’s the kind of dream from which one awakens and feels it just happened, that all the sensations felt in a dream-state were just experienced moments ago.
In this nightmare, there is a girl locked in a closet at school. She is six years old in first grade.
The girl is screaming in isolation.The teacher keeps kicking the door and telling her to “hush.” Was she screaming for ten minutes or three hours? When she is that escalated, time stands still. It becomes a measure of energy versus exhaustion.
Once completely depleted, the girl crouches in a small ball with her arms and legs wrapped around eachother, which makes her feel more secure and steadies her from shaking. The neckline of her top is soaked with her tears and sweat. She wipes her nose and eyes with her sleeve, which her mama always asks her not to do, but she has no tissue. Her mouth is dry and she’s thirsty from the taste of salt in her mouth and her throat hurts from screaming; her eyes are puffy from sobbing. Her upper arm is throbbing from where she was grabbed.
She is exhausted.
She feels her chest rising and falling quickly as she takes deep breaths and her body begins to slowly restore itself. She can smell all the scents in the small space because she has a vivid sensory life, and in the closet, it’s always more intense. She smells paper, play dough, cleaning products, and something else. It’s the tuna sandwich her teacher stowed away in the space. She doesn’t like tuna because of the invasive smell, so being confined with it is irritating. She wants out. It is overwhelming her.
She is frustrated.
She continues crying, but as quietly as possible so the others can’t hear her. The teacher always says “you can’t come out until you’re quiet.” That makes the other children laugh. Those giggles are like daggers stabbing her skin. The sound of mockery makes her body feel like it is covered with cuts, and the laughter is salt. It hurts.
She is hurting.
Most think the girl has trouble with her hearing. They raise their voices when they speak with her and call her “deaf” all the time. When really, it isn’t that she cannot hear; it’s that she hears everything accutely. She hears the drips and flow of the radiator. She hears her teacher’s voice, the inhaling and exhaling of every soul in a room with her, a sneeze, a shoe tapping, a pencil drop, the buzzing of flourescent lights. When someone coughs, it’s jarring. All sudden sounds startle her. She hears the sounds in the halls, the birds in the trees near the playground. It all blurs together in a cacophony of white noise like the abrasive noise of TV static on full blast.
She politely asks, “pardon?” That is what her mama taught her to say when she needed people to repeat what they’d said. It’s not that she can’t hear; it’s that she has trouble processing what she hears. Deciphering between sounds is a struggle for her. It irritates people to have to repeat themselves. They always assume she is not listening intentionally. They get exasperated, sigh from frustration, then speak obtrusively loud. It hurts her ears, and their irritation more often hurts her feelings. You see, the girl wants to please people. So she has stopped saying “pardon?” She misses a lot, but at least she isn’t making others annoyed with her, so that is better.
She must not bother people.
She can hear the teacher reading the children a story outside her closet. She loves story time. She crouches up closely to the door so she can hear the story. There are slats in the door of the closet, and she presses her ear closely to the narrow openings. She is grateful they’re there to open up small windows to the world outside her lonely space. They feel like a life raft in a sea of shame and sadness. They let in a little light. The closet she was locked in by her teacher in Kindergarten didn’t have the small horizontal openings on the door to let in the light and it was scary because she was afraid of the pitch black.
She was not afraid of the dark before she started going to school, but she started associating darkness with being locked alone in her closet, so she did not like it.
She is alone.
One might ask, how did the girl end up crouched in a dark closet?
She is a bad girl all the time. That is what her teachers tell her, so it must be true. “When you’re ready to be good, you can come out.” Every time she sits curled up in the closet, she swears to herself she will try to be good from now on so she will never have to go back in. She really wants to try, but deep down, she knows she’s not capable of being good. Every day she tries her hardest to behave like all the other kids in the class. It is futile. The more she focuses on bahaving like everyone else, the worse she gets. She becomes so focused on being normal, she isn’t able to listen to what is being taught. As time wears on, the more times she is locked away, she begins to realize that maybe she is not capable of being good.
She wishes she was normal.
She likes her teacher. When her teacher punishes her, it doesn’t make her hate the teacher; it makes her hate herself. Children know when they are not liked, and the girl is keenly aware she is not liked by her teacher or her classmates. Kids torment her on the playground because she still doesn’t know the alphabet. Everyone knows the alphabet by now and most are reading. She looks at letters and they drop off the page. They make no sense. She is in reading group D, and the kids all say, “D stands for dumb.” D group are all the kids struggling with reading, but the girl is not just struggling; she cannot read at all. She gets bad grades, so kids call her “dumbest of D” or “retard.”
The children bullying her doesn’t make her dislike them; it makes her dislike herself more. If that is possible. It seems the well of her contempt for herself is bottomless.
She feels worthless.
The girl tries hard to learn and sit still like all her classmates. She wants to be smart. She wants to be normal. She wants her teacher to like her and to have friends.
Then, the fire starts. Under her skin, a tiny flicker of flame ignites until it feels like the house of her soul will incinerate to the ground if she doesn’t get up and run. The sheer force that moves her body from her small chair is like the winds of a Category 5 hurricane.
So, she runs. It’s thrilling. In flight, for a brief moment, it feels like a the release valve on a pressure cooker. She feels euphoric. It’s glorious, as though beams of light radiate from every pore of her body. She loses herself in the revelry of her movement.
Then, someone grabs her arm forcefully to drag her back to the classroom, with a wail of laughter from the class. Stop hurting her arm by holding it so tightly and agrily, please. She’s sorry. She didn’t mean it. Then the girl starts to scream because she knows what’s next, what’s always next.
Because the closet was where she belongs because she is bad and bad girls belong in dark places alone.
Sometimes, in the struggle, the girl urinates without realizing it. Or being in the room makes her have to go urgently. She chooses her outfits for school not by what she thinks is her prettiest. She prefers to wear pants because they soak up an accident on her legs. She dreads coming out of the closet with the evidence of her loss of control for all to see darkening the fabric of her pant-legs, but it was better than being in a dress and feeling cold. The kids have started looking to see if she has lost control every time she is freed from her confinement, and laugh uproarously at her failure, one of many of her failures.
You see, that is all this girl does is fail. At everything.
These nightmares I still have at age 54 frequently were from events that occurred to a small girl almost five decades ago. When I have this nightmare, it’s always so vivid, all the senses, from the sights, smells, and sounds. Most poingnant are the emotions of the little girl. I open my eyes and half expect to have wet my pajamas or to hear the sound of mocking laughter because the experience in my sleep is so visceral, so real. I often wake up from this nightmare crying, smelling tuna, play dough, or feeling the pressure on my arms from being grabbed. As the years pass, the sensations in the nightmares have not faded. I have them less often, but the sensory and emotions are just as intense as they were when I was a small girl.
You see, the girl was me.
I was diagnosed in 1971 with ADHD. I suspect I would also now be diagnosed with Dyslexia. This was a time before IDEA or IEPs or accommodations. I was fortunate to have a teacher later who saw I learned more easily standing and moving. She understood I needed breaks to release the steam pressure that built, had to be released, then again built, then released. She realized I could not read phonetically, so she taught me to memorize words. I was also placed on medication that helped me concentrate. A teacher with no background in special education instinctually accommodated me and changed the trajectory of my life. Mrs. Hertz didn’t see me as a bad child, but as a child who was struggling. She saw me as a human being. I have no words to express the profundity of my gratitude towards her.
Mrs. Hertz never once locked me in a closet. She asked me questions, that helped her circumvent my eloping by allowing me to get up and pace periodically. It was that simple. She didn’t try to change me; she modified my environment and her methods so I could learn.
More recently, I’ve also started shedding the shame of my closets. It was not my shame. That shame belongs to others. Seclusion was not my failure. It was the failure of people who make assumptions and don’t ask questions. Being locked in seclusion repeatedly as a little girl with a neurological disability was a nightmare. Not just while it was happening, but the fear of it all the other hours of my days at school and at home. The trauma is not just while a child is locked in seclusion, but every waking moment.
The photo above was of me in 1970 in Kindergarten, almost 50 years ago. After my mother chased me and forced me onto the bus, a regular morning ritual. I dreaded school every day. I’d sit down alone in my bus seat and think about my closet that I knew would be part of my day, along with the ridicule, the anger, and assumption of malice about a girl who just wanted to be like everyone else.
Seclusion didn’t calm me. It hurt me profoundly. I did not have the skills to calm myself, nor was I accommodated my first few years of school. The lack of supports for my disabilities exacerbated my behaviors. Once treated and accommodated, I was able to learn, and my distressed behaviors disipated. My behavior was not my problem. It was a symptom of other unsolved problems.
Rooms don’t calm children; compassion does.
Those closets own real estate in my brain; they are a part of me now. My nightmares about being secluded will never end. What can end is not subjecting other children to traumatic methods of behavioral intervention which will be their lived nightmare and the script for their future nightmares for a lifetime. It’s time to end the nightmare.