Tag Archives: Childhood Trauma

Flash, Bang, Flashbacks

Fireworks burst over Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Joseph Swafford/Released)

Fireworks burst over Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Joseph Swafford/Released)

Fourteen years ago, I formed my most vivid holiday memory to date. July 4, 2001 is a day I will not be forgetting.

Dirk, the true genius of DIY plumbing, made our family an arsenal of firework-powered weapons. Most notably, he made a series of steel pipe “guns” which shot bottle rockets. As you can imagine, my thirteen-year-old self thought many things about this. “Cool, guns!” and “Is my aim good enough to hit Dirk between the legs?” were the two that stand out most.

What didn’t occur to me (and cut me some slack, I was a kid), was that bottle rockets could catch things on fire. The list of flammable materials happens to include baggy tie-dye t-shirts. I was a BIG fan of baggy shirts back then. You see where I’m going with this?

After about 5 horrible, hilarious, terrifying, and thrilling minutes, I dodged a bottle rocket aimed straight at me. Except, I was a fat, slow, uncoordinated teenager. My “dodge” ended up being a “catch the bottle rocket in my right armpit.”

The initial explosion was kinda sucky. Loud, sudden, and hot, the BANG felt like I’d been punched. Right in the armpit. By a very hot fist. It took me a whole 3 seconds to realize that my underarm was hosting a exothermic party. When I realized I was on fire, I froze. I remember every damned millisecond of the following event.

There was a tickling sensation on the back of my arm. It felt like a warm hand was lightly resting on my shoulder. I thought about this, and couldn’t think of a single rational explanation. Then I looked over my shoulder. The smell got to me before my eyes got the picture. Smoke.

Not the crisp smoke of a wood stove, or the oily smoke of barbecue meat. No, this was an acidic, acrid, and all around chemical smell. My eyes saw a waver of smoke before my nose gave me the emergency update that my body hadn’t figured out yet: There was a fire in my shirt, no innuendo involved.

I tried to pull the shirt off, but it was, you know, around arms and a neck and stuff. Very inconvenient. I basically tore it off. The fire had cut away at the side, so it split pretty easily. Thank God for old cotton. The thin material was easy to tear, and there was no plastic to stick to my newly raw skin.

I inspected my shoulder, found a few burning threads hanging off of my elbow, and let the adrenaline take over for a minute. My animal-brain kept shouting “STOP, DROP, and ROLL, MOTHERFUCKER!” Meanwhile, my human-brain was shouting “IF YOU HIT THE GROUND, YOU WILL GET AN INFECTION, IDIOT!”

Obviously, I was of two minds on the subject.

As a tie-breaker, I ran into the house. I was crying uncontrollably now. Adrenaline has this side effect people don’t talk about much. It destroys your remaining energy. Adrenaline might get you out of the fire, but it might not get you out of the woods. I found my mom, showed her my shoulder, and asked for help. This part was all blubbery, as I recall, and I was an adult before I learned that adults actually CAN understand the gibberish their terrified children are spewing. Well, sometimes.

My mom tore off a chunk of Aloe Vera (that was a plant that paid for itself hundreds of times over, I tell you what), and rubbed soothing, healing, gooey plant blood all over my shoulder. The burn was minor, but it covered about four inches of my back, and about half of my armpit. I couldn’t hold my arm right for about four days. Thank God I wasn’t in school, writing would have sucked.

I spent the rest of the day inside. I went outside to see the fireworks (but only the ones that were pointedly aimed at the sky), and I went inside when I got uncomfortable. I remember an elevated sense of anxiety, and general discomfort from my shoulder. I was okay.

And then the nightmares came. Not long after, the flashbacks came, too.

Happy 4th of July. Happy birthday, America. Everyone: Stay safe, stay wise, and enjoy the show.

That Damned Well

From Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

From Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

I was thinking about my old house again (go figure), and I remember a nasty old well we had. Our water source had been converted over to County utilities years before we came to squat in my childhood home in Arkansas. Long before the fire got the property, the ice wreaked its havoc as well. That ice would give me a very fond memory. Strange enough, it’s a great memory of Dirk. Sorta.

Dirk was a smart man. Cruel, but very smart. Unfortunately, this made him think he was right all the time. Like all the time. In my ninth grade year (I think) we had a mean cold-snap, and Dirk thought that us being frozen at home was a great time to get in some child labor. He decided we were going to remove the defunct gas stove, and replace it with the new electric stove. It was under twenty degrees.

As ever, Dirk expected young, scrawny, malnourished, and abused children to be able to bear the strength and skill of an adult. Comically, he forced Oak and I to help him drag out a huge vintage gas stove out through the “back room.” The back room was a room which had a collapsed ceiling, and served as storage for things we were unofficially getting rid of. Saved hard conversations with kids, you know? “Oh, the ceiling collapsed again! I’m sorry, son. God must have thought we had too many things. It’ll be okay.” That kind of stuff.

Back to point. Oak and I did everything we could to help, but it was fairly useless. Dirk mostly just dragged it out on his own. He then indicated that he’d like us to help him set it on top of the cistern.  If you’ve never seen a really old well, a cistern is a pit, or pool, which holds water that the well has pumped up. The bad part? The cistern was frozen, full of ice, and the concrete lid was, well, ice cold.

For those of you with science on the brain, you might see where this was going. Oak and I flatly refused to help once the stove was out of the house. Neither of us wanted anything to do with a huge frozen slab of concrete. Either of us could tell you what would happen when Dirk dragged the huge stove on top of the cistern. The lid snapped clean in half.

I stared, dumbstruck, as Dirk was wedged between two huge slabs of concrete, a steel stove, and the ice slab below him. For my life, I cannot remember how we got him out. I know we didn’t get outside help, because the roads were totally frozen over. Not that Dirk would have been even a little okay with asking someone else for help…

I do remember Dirk’s leg was screwed up for a while. He blamed Oak and me, which was only to be expected at that point. At the time, I felt guilty, crushed by the weight of not helping. I was terrified that somebody I loved was going to die, or worse. It was painful to see him hurt, and it cut me to the core that he held me responsible. My overwhelming sense of guilt and shame would haunt me for years.

Thankfully, I’ve received some serious therapy since then. I’ve learned perspective regarding my relationship with Dirk. I now get to feel proud of my young self being aware of how the world works. I’m thankful Oak and I didn’t get hurt. We could have died, just as easily as Dirk could have. He was lucky; so were we. I would be lying if I said I don’t feel a little pleasure in his past pain. It’s a coping mechanism, what can I say?

Jenny just told me that I already wrote about this story. Well, shit. Guess what? It’s actually a pretty different angle, so I’m running this one too. Pretend it’s not a real post, if you like. I still enjoyed writing about it, which is the point.

Meth Fires

Found on Wikimedia Commons(CC BY-SA 3.0)

Found on Wikimedia Commons(CC BY-SA 3.0)

I just looked up my childhood home on Google Earth. We all do it, right? We wonder who lives in the room we learned to read in, or who mows the lawn we seeded years ago. I just wanted to see if my old chicken coop was still standing. It wasn’t. The entire house, the well, chicken coop, and the trees in the area were all burned down. I checked into it, and found out that the people my parents gave the home too (yes gave- it was that much of a shit-hole) were making meth in the house, and it burned down.

When I was about 16, my good friend’s house was condemned because her parents had manufactured meth in their master bathroom. It burned down not much later, when someone shot off a firework over 30 yards away. I recently learned that my cousin’s home burned down because his parents chose to allow their roommate’s meth manufacturing to continue in their attic.

I feel less real when I consider that the homes I once knew were just gone. I struggle enough to remember my youth at times, and this just throws a monkey in the mix.

Do you know why police have to condemn homes that are involved in meth manufacture? It’s because the chemical waste and gasses soak into the house. The walls, ceiling, even the floors, counters, beds, are all loaded with chemicals that cannot be removed. The house isn’t safe for human occupation. My friends lived in these homes. I now know why so many of them were sick.

When I was a teenager, my parents began trading in meth. As horrible as it sounds, one of the most considerate things Dirk did for us was insist that they not manufacture meth in our home. It saved my brothers and I from illness, and potentially death. The same cannot be said for our friends. Some have died. Many have lost their children.

As I look back, I realize a terrible fact: nearly all of my childhood friends were the children of meth addicts. When my twin brother and I would make friends, it was always with kids who seemed somehow similar to us. We learned later that every time we introduced our parents to another friend’s parents, we were widening their circle of acceptance and feeding their sense of community. It normalized it for them, and made them feel less like freaks.

I do everything I can to remind myself that I’m not to blame. It’s not my fault my parents were weak. It’s not my fault they destroyed their lives. I’m not the reason they are felons, nor am I the reason my mother cannot hold a job. But thinking about my friends who are now losing their children to protective custody because they followed their parents… It breaks my fucking heart.

Sometimes, I really should just leave Google alone. I definitely didn’t find what I was looking for today.