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Ambiguous Trauma Clarified

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I'm finally calming down from an intense panic attack. Writing this all down will hopefully help me calm down more. I need to share this. I just need to process everything and I need to talk to people. All of my friends are at work and this is the week my therapist went on vacation.

For starters, my name is Holly. I'm twenty-five now and I've dealt with PTSD, anxiety, and dissociative symptoms (namely depersonalization/derealization) following this really... ambiguous, for lack of a better word, traumatic event I experienced as a child. I'll get to that later.

At nine years old my mother hired a babysitter to take care of me in the summer while she and my father worked during the day. My grandmother had done the job previously, but my mom decided she was getting too old and should herself be babysat.

The first day Lily came over, I was an absolute brat. With my bountiful childhood angst induced by missing my Granny, I wreaked havoc on that girl. I refused to eat, I made a mess of my toys and paints, and when I wasn't spewing out the best of my nine-year-old insults, I was ignoring her entirely and doing whatever I pleased. I think I might have somehow had her cleaning up a piss trail off the kitchen floor at one point, honestly. Through it all, though, in retrospect, she did a great job keeping it together and not exploding at me. After a few days, I calmed down and started to really like her. She always made me delicious lunches and told me stories about what middle school and high school were like, per my request. She tried to tell me about her time in elementary school, but I wanted to hear the glamorous tales of being older. I made her retell the story of her first day of freshman year probably ten times. Lily quickly became my role model, though I tried desperately to not let it show (I'm sure it did though--kids aren't great at being subtle). I went to bed praying to any available god that when I turned twenty I would have her curly black hair, infectious laughter, and killer sense of style.

One Wednesday in mid-August, though, Lily didn't show up to my house. My mom waited an extra hour and a half for her but she never came. She didn't answer her dorm phone (no cell phone, I don't think. It was 1998 so maybe they hadn't caught on yet?) so my mom ended up taking me with her to work. After stopping to get dinner, we returned home to no messages from Lily on the home answering machine. My mom tried calling again, but there was no answer. "I always knew she'd do this, I guess it was just a matter of time," I remember her telling my dad. "I called the last woman she babysat for as a reference, and she said one day Lily just up and left. The woman got a phone call five days later from her saying 'I'm so sorry, I thought I told you I'd have to stop working then.' I had hoped it'd be different because she got on so well with Holly." I was really heart broken. I felt like she didn't like me after hearing my mom say that. I felt like maybe she actually didn’t "get on so well" with me, and what I thought was a sister-like bond was all imaginary. It was one of my first (if not the first) experiences with feeling rejected, and it hurt like hell for my 9 year old heart.

We found a different baby sitter, though, and I slowly moved on. The new girl, Julie, was fine enough, but definitely was no Lily. She seemed to be a little bit older than Lily, and she wasn't interested in indulging me in my fantasies of becoming a cool teenager. She just would put on a movie for me to watch and tried her best to keep conversations at a minimum. About 5 days after Lily suddenly dumped me, though, something really weird happened.

My parents were on vacation for a weekend so Julie was sleeping over to take care of me. She put me to bed at about 9:00. This is where the ambiguity of my aforementioned ambiguous trauma comes in. I've been partially convinced this was a dream, because it doesn't make sense, but it has traumatized me in a way that only reality can. After years and years of therapy, I came to the conclusion that my brain replaced the memory of the trauma with something more unrealistic to try and make me feel like it was "only a dream," so I could get over it more easily. It didn't work, but thanks anyway for trying, ol' brain.

This is how I remember it:I don’t know what time it was, but I suddenly woke up to the sensation of someone grabbing my legs. I looked up at the person grabbing me. It was a woman. It was Lily, but it wasn’t actually Lily. It was a warped, terrifying version of Lily. Her face seemed to be melting and bleeding at the same time, and her eyes didn’t look like they were set on her properly. The skin of her face was tattered. Her hair was scraggly and gooey. But it definitely looked like Lily enough for me to recognize her. I was petrified. “Lily” proceeded to do a lot of fucked up things to me that I won’t get into. I tried waking up over and over again, I kept telling myself it was a dream, but I couldn’t snap back to the safe emptiness of my room with the moonlight shining in the window across my bed. Every time I opened my eyes, though, I just saw and felt this twisted version of Lily abusing me.

After it ended and she left, I had no idea what to do. I was frozen in bed, terrified and confused. I couldn’t fall asleep but I couldn’t leave my room for what felt like hours. Eventually I got up because I had to pee so badly it hurt. I looked around for Julie to tell her about my scary dream, in hopes of her calming me down and reassuring me it really was just a dream, but I couldn’t find her anywhere. She wasn’t in my parents’ room where she was sleeping, she wasn’t in the living room where she usually hung out after I went to bed. I was completely alone in the house. I was scared fucking shitless.

When my parents came home the following morning I told them all about my “dream.” I told them it didn’t feel like a dream but it looked like one. My mom hugged me and tried to hold back sobs, and my dad asked where Julie was during all of this. I told him I couldn’t find her, and he ran over to the phone to call her. She didn’t pick up. He called the police and accused her of child molestation. Thus began a long and difficult process of dealing with the police and rehashing the events. My parents were convinced Julie molested me. I kept trying to tell them the person looked like Lily but scarier, but that didn’t make sense to them so they sort of ignored it. It only made sense that it could have been Julie, so I eventually agreed. We found out in the days following that Julie had been reported missing. My parents assumed that meant she knew she would get caught so she fled. My mother and father waited patiently for the day she was found so they could bring her to court and find some sort of justice. She was never found. A week after the incident, we moved to a new apartment an hour away.

Part of me still felt like it wasn’t Julie, even though it was the only logical explanation. My memory of that night is both very blurry and crystal clear. I felt like I was still dreaming for a long time following that night. Something in me just couldn’t believe it had been Julie.

It was the most horrifying night of my life. But tonight was a close second. Tonight is the night the ambiguity of the event lifted. I think I finally understand what happened.

Today I watched this indie horror film, Maniac, with Elijah Wood in it starring as a serial killer. I usually don’t watch horror movies because I find them pretty triggering, but I’ve been feeling relatively stable recently and it’s the middle of the day, so I said “Why not?” Plus I’ve been on an Elijah Wood kick for the past few weeks.

In the first twenty minutes there’s a scene where Wood’s character murders a girl he’s on a date with. He scalps her, takes her hair, and puts it on a mannequin. As I watched him comb the hair out with his fingers after placing it on the mannequin’s head, I felt my chest tighten and my head begin to pound. That's what Lily's hair looked like that night. I tried to calm down, but I couldn’t. My heart started racing and the familiar sense of unreality I feel when I’m panicking set in. My mind was flooded with images of that night and I couldn’t make it stop. I ran into my bathroom to splash water on my face and take some Xanax, but my mind would not stop remembering.

I saw Lily’s mangled face and tattered hair, her sunken eyeballs and absent mouth, hanging above me saying “Don’t be scared, baby,” in a low, growling voice. I remembered seeing Lily’s body at the foot of my bed and noticing how much bigger she had become since I saw her last, a detail I had forgotten. She was no longer the petite girl I knew. She was taller and wider. “Lily’s” eyes and mouth weren’t her own. They belonged to someone else. I remembered her hair again, how it looked gooey--how it looked bloody.

I was right. I wasn’t dreaming. I was wide awake for the entire thing. And it wasn’t Julie, but it wasn’t Lily either. I don’t know who she was, I don’t know how she found me, I don’t know why she took Lily or if she took Julie too, but I feel so scared and disgusted. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to move forward.

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