Growing up in an abusive home is sort of like constantly playing a game of the floor is lava, only it’s eggshells you’re diving for sofas and pillows about instead of magma. They’re everywhere, in the car on the way to school, under the dinner table, in the bathtub, in your bedroom, in my case they were even in my school. There was never a moment that I wasn’t walking as lightly as possible, using other sounds to disguise my footsteps, and praying that no one could see the trail of broken shells I was leaving behind me. There are behaviors you learn in that kind of atmosphere, tactics used to stay as safe as possible, that become constant companions. It becomes normal, and the behaviors themselves are often so benign that they’re almost impossible to clock until someone either tells you, or until you live with someone else, and can see your own behaviors reflected back to you or witness someone totally unafraid to shatter the eggshells.
That being said, having roommates again has been really strange. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen my behaviors through someone else’s lens. It’s not that my roommates aren’t traumatized, quite the opposite. It’s just that our histories span the ACE test and back again, making everyone’s set of built in eggshell walking skills unique to their abuse. I’ve known for years that much of what I considered to be innate to who I am is traumagenic. Living with three people who didn’t have the benefit of seeing my behavior in social settings prior to living with me and getting to weigh the behavior I observe in myself against theirs has meant that I’ve caught far more fear-based behaviors than I was aware of going in. It also means that I now have a far better idea of where my trauma lives in my body and why it’s been so hard to identify in therapy settings. It’s not as simple as identifying the sensation of fear, apprehension, anxiety, or loneliness. It’s about identifying the sensation of a cramping toe, the quivering antennae of a new space, and what feels safe when nothing else does.
When we first moved in, I noticed almost immediately how loud our floors are. We all did. As we were painting and cleaning prior to move in, we all hypothesized about whether the loud thud of a normal footstep would remain once we’d moved the furniture in. From the beginning, the sound of any of us walking through the house was so loud that it could easily be heard from everywhere but the farthest corner of the house. For instance, from my bedroom at the very end of the hall, I can hear footsteps in the kitchen, even with a fan and a white noise machine on. I can also easily feel the vibrations of those footsteps from the same distance. Now, part of that is a bizarrely good sense of hearing that I suspect I also developed during my childhood. The other piece, though, is that the floors carry the sound of footsteps better than any house I’ve ever lived in.
It took me under a week to adjust. I didn’t change the way I was walking intentionally, but I looked up only a few days after move-in and realized I was no longer audible on the floor boards. At some point I started walking on my toes, and now even when I’m alone I do not walk in a way that can be easily detected. It’s not about making sure my roommates don’t hear me. The problem is that being so easily heard feels dangerous in an almost superstitious way. Every thump of a heel feels like breaking a mirror to me or whistling after dark. Cognitively I know nothing will happen. I still don’t want to tempt fate if I don’t have to.
When I finally unpacked it, I realized that it made me anxious to be placeable in the house. If my footsteps were audible, even in my bedroom, that meant it would be very obvious exactly where I was. That doesn’t feel safe to me, regardless of who I’m living with. The habit of walking on my toes is benign, and also spares me the anxiety that crept in every time my footfalls rattled through the floorboards. It’s not a problem, per se, but it is an arrow I can follow.
I’ve also realized that, as best I can tell, I’m the only roommate who opens and closes doors by twisting the handle first so that there’s no click of the latch being pushed into place. To me, the two go hand in hand. Walking and shutting doors inaudibly are both part of the same tactic that kept me safe in my childhood home. Without them, the odds are good I would have starved.
I wouldn’t have clocked either of those behaviors as permanent fixtures were I not continuously startling my roommates. At least three times a week I walk down the hallway from my bedroom and into either the sitting room or the kitchen in such a way that I catch someone off guard. Had someone else not been here to see it, I don’t think I would have realized just how quiet I am.
There’s also the matter of how fastidious I tend to be. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not spending a ton of time trying to keep the entire house perfect. I mostly keep that tendency to my own bedroom, bathroom, and office. That said, I keep realizing that the spaces I like most in our house are not the ones that are perfectly clean, but instead look far more lived in than my own space. I’ve realized that no matter how much I love the bright, welcoming, maximalist spaces one of my roommates consistently creates, all I can really manage is pristinely clean with a maximalist take on wall art. For some reason, I can handle clutter on the walls, but when it comes to the floor or surfaces, it feels like I’m going to be struck by lightning if I leave things out of place. Every time I leave the bed unmade or last night’s pj’s on the ground, it feels in my body like sitting outside during a storm, counting the seconds between thunder and lightning, trying to figure out if it’s blowing my way. It’s safer to just keep it so clean the dust barely has time to settle.
What’s more, there are chores that feel like they’re mine regardless of whether anyone asked me to do them, and it makes me feel like I am actively in danger when they’re not done. I can feel my heart rate spike when I look around the kitchen and see that the surfaces aren’t clean or the dishes aren’t done. This is again absolutely nothing to do with my roommates. They have never once implied that it’s my job to keep that space clean. I spent far too much of my childhood banned from the kitchen and from food in general for messes like that, though, and it feels impossible to cook until I’ve cleaned those spaces up. Making myself ramp down that urge until I’m doing one load of dishes a day was hard work for me. It was certainly worth the doing, but still I had to fight the traumatized little lizard in my brain to not make sure every single dish was washed every single day. I always knew I preferred my spaces tidy. I didn’t know that I would experience emotional flashbacks when it couldn’t be.
With all the odd little behaviors I’d never thought much of tallied up, the difficulty of finding help for the way my brain and my body have stored trauma are making more sense to me. I’m starting to see why it never worked when therapists asked where I felt something in my body. I felt like I never had the right answers. Those conversations always spluttered to a stop when the answers I gave weren’t the ones my therapist was expecting. For me, fear is a cramp in the toe, the feeling of my throat closing around a sob, and the clenching of my shoulders and jaw so that no motion or sound can betray me. Safety is in silence. It’s in white noise machines, headphones, and locked doors. I feel best about my grief when there are no witnesses.
I kept asking my therapists to help me be more vulnerable, to help me show them more of what I usually hide behind raised eyebrows and tight smiles. One of them told me how self-aware I am and how I’d make a great therapist. The other told me to close my eyes and imagine a part of me that doesn’t exist. In the meantime, I kept telling them where I felt my fear, grief, and loneliness in my body. They always nodded like the understood then directed the conversation elsewhere. I’m realizing now that none of them ever really heard me.
I do still want to find another therapist. I want to try again, to see if there’s not someone in this field who can help me get where I’m trying to go. Until then, I at least have a place to pick the shovel back up and start digging on my own.