When I was young and had my entire life ahead of me, my perception of time (as with many of us when we’re younger) was warped. I made “to-do” lists of all my dreams and hopes and neatly cataloged and archived them in the recesses of my brain to access them at a later date. As I sealed each folder and stashed it away on the shelf, I always gave myself the same talk.
“I will have time to do this when I have time. I’m just too busy with school.”
“I will do this when I have the means to do this, because money is just too tight or I lack other resources right now.”
“I will do this when I have the patience to do this, because I’m just overwhelmed and can’t worry about fitting this in.”
“I will try this out when I have time to kill, because it’s completely impractical to do it right now. I have more important priorities that need to be met before I allow myself to run off on a whim and chase some naive young girl’s foolish dream.”
One by one as I set them aside for later, I unknowingly robbed myself of precious time. When I was young, a few short years was an eternity, so I fooled myself into thinking I could set it all aside and fit it in later. I always thought that there would always be time. Never once in the rash impetuosity of my youth did I stop to think that I couldn’t control every aspect of how my life unfolded or predict what setbacks could befall me. I had lived through difficult periods growing up and came through it all, and I reasoned with myself that I had nothing to worry about.
I didn’t think about any of this when I was in high school when I allowed a parent’s lack of enthusiasm for the fact I had something I wrote published kill off my dream of writing. If she felt it was “nothing but a waste of time,” what was the point? And that same year, the guidance counselor at school forced me into a corner and made me choose between chorus and band, because I “didn’t have space in my schedule” to fit it in. Even when I showed them that if I gave up the useless study halls, I could still do both, they refused to allow it. I resigned myself to it, because I was expected to do big things, and writing and singing were just foolish of me to want. Chasing dreams, according to others, was impractical.
I didn’t think about any of this when I was away at college and one of my friends heard me singing and pestered me to meet with the band, because they wanted a female singer. I had no time with all the Japanese students I had to tutor, my work-study job, my classes, and the various organizations I belonged to on campus. There would always be time for me later if I wanted to. Besides, plenty of people can sing and they aren’t famous either. What was he doing to listening to me anyway?
I didn’t think about any of this when I postponed returning to college after the first year, because I had to move into my mother and stepfather’s house to protect my younger half-sisters from their father who was drinking and abusing them mentally and physically as my mother watched in silence. I told myself, I could always go back later when I worked out a way for them to be safe without me. Their lives were more important, and if the two people who should have been their biggest protectors weren’t going to guard my sisters’ well-beings with their lives, then I simply had no choice. I had to do it, and what I needed had to wait for later.
I didn’t think about any of this when, several years later, the older of my two half-sisters had enough of her father’s abuse and threatened to go report it with or without my mother by her side, prompting my stepfather to be removed from the house. My mother did not have enough money to meet all the financial obligations of the household, and even combining both our incomes I could not afford the rent on the house, so we had to move into an apartment, my mother, two half-sisters, and I. Over time, I had to ante up more and more money until it reached a point where I was providing the bulk of the money for the household: most of the rent, electric, and phone, the internet, replacing items that broke or stopped working properly. Then car insurance, repair, and fuel. And then doctor’s and prescription co-pays when my mother couldn’t find the money. Groceries. School supplies. Clothing. Christmases (at the time I still observed holidays). School trips. Taking them to dinner and movies and mini-golf to get them out of the house sometimes. And I didn’t blame my mother for the lack of money, and I didn’t resent them. They needed to be able to live, and I was the only one out of all the six older siblings who was apparently willing to do it. I didn’t question them as to why, I didn’t browbeat my mother for being in need. And I didn’t feel like arguing with the other siblings, even though they clearly had no concern for attempting to guilt me into it. I just did it, and I gave up living a life on my own so I wouldn’t have to worry about them eating or their health. Their needs were more important than my independence and my own space, so I gave it up. Because that’s what family should do. Right?
Looking back over the course of my life, I could count dozens of things I put off, cast aside, or sacrificed because I always thought I’d be able to come back to it. And after living the life I’ve lived, especially taking the recent history of abuse into consideration, all those things I always told myself I’d get back around to, all those things I didn’t do because people were telling me how impractical I was for even wanting to try, they’ve all turned into regrets. Things I wish I could take back. Things I desperately wish I would have at least tried, and now in their abandonment they have returned to haunt me into madness. Lamentations that eat away at my heart like acid.
But I didn’t know that in 2008, my ex would throw me against the bathroom wall and strangle me, leaving me with the constant feeling even years later of something constantly pushing in the left side of my throat. I no longer have the ability to maintain control over my voice, even when I speak. My voice cracks, it gets raspy, and sometimes the words just don’t want to come out. The only time I sing is when I’m alone, which really kills me because I love to sing. I always did. But now, if someone happens to be around me when I’m singing and my voice fails, as it so often likes to do, their reaction to it is just another reminder of something that I had taken from me. I can never go back to the way it was, and that foolish young girl will always be clawing desperately just beneath the surface, using all the energy she can find to try to escape to chase after an illusion. She’s too blind to realize that sometimes things change.
And I didn’t know my ex would be so fond of striking my legs with a metal bar that he would cause enough damage for me to have to go to a vascular surgeon to get it (mostly only cosmetically) corrected or that all the traveling around that I wanted to do was going to be made more complicated, exhausting, and painful than I ever considered it could be. That foolish, naive, impetuous girl who used to do things like jump on an international flight without a second thought and spend entire days exploring the towns around the base of Mt. Fuji before continuing on up to the highest observatory, sitting on her legs for hours on end on the floor around the chabudai (Japanese dinner table about 6-12 inches high) talking with friends after dinner, reading Japanese papers, or studying Kanji, and running up and down stairs in the busiest train stations racing against the trains and the undulating sea of people to barely squeeze into the doors in the nick of time can do these things no more.
Not without severe consequences, at any rate. If it gets too cold and damp, I can wake up in the morning literally unable to maneuver the bottom half of my body. My legs lock up and buckle, making stairs my enemy. Escalators may help avoid tedious climbing of stairs when there is no elevator, but the shifting of my weight onto one side even to step on this moving puzzle is enough risk to fall. Having to do so with luggage and/carry-ons is an exhausting feat that many people around me seem to take for granted. And my brain continues to be at war with my body, constantly rejecting the learned knowledge of consequences if I board a train or bus with luggage after having to perform acrobatic feats to make it through city terminals to my connection on time, or if I spend too much time walking, or if I get on the floor on my hands and knees to clean something too low to bend. The twenty-something year old full of life still trapped in my brain seems almost unaware (or maybe she just doesn’t care) of the pain I struggle through just to do bare minimum. I hate to tell her, but she isn’t likely to go back to Mt Fuji any time soon to climb it like she wanted to. I can’t even fathom what kind of physical repercussions that would have on my legs. Someone should tell her to dream her fill of it, because that’s all there is for her now.
Even worse, I couldn’t have known that my ex would take a liking to hitting my head against door frames hard enough that my eardrums would re-perforate and scar upon “healing” (the perforations never closed), causing irreversible damage to my already inferior hearing. Perhaps I think this was the worst of all for me, because ever since I was a child, I have been obsessed with learning languages. No matter what else I was interested in or what I wanted to pursue, I most wanted to become an interpreter or translator. I may have learned to talk before my hearing started to deteriorate, but being able to hear even slight variations in tone is necessary to be able to convey the right message when translating one spoken language into another. I’m lucky now if I can differentiate between “Where did so-and-so go?” versus “Can I have some gum?”
Most of the damage to my hearing was caused by chronic bi-lateral infections that were highly resistant to antibiotics, and he did the rest, even if he’ll never own up to it. The educated girl precariously trapped in my brain in the regions of disillusionment and despair raps against the white porous walls of her cell, fiendishly begging and pleading and screaming to get out. Occasionally she falls into a collapsed heap of eerie silence in resignation of her fate. That she will waste away into dust and disappear with no one to remember that she ever existed anyway. Right about now, she laments not pushing back when she was sent home from college, crippled from the reverse culture shock that smacked her in the face when her carefully constructed bubble of “make-believe Japan” burst away and revealed the reality she tried to run from but in the end could not avoid. The echoing conversations of going abroad to teach English torment her mercilessly in the nighttime shadows, mixing and mingling with all the other things that slipped away in the years folding out behind her. Regrets. These things are her demons now.
Sometimes, I plunge into mourning for all these things I thoughtlessly cast aside with promises of tomorrow, and it wreaks havoc with the contentment I’ve fought so hard to rebuild after the abuse I survived. They are not things that would make my life important – they don’t require or bring about status or rank or wealth – and I know that not doing them doesn’t make me a failure, even if today I feel heavy with burden of loss. But being able to say I even did one of them would have made my heart full. I know what I have chosen to use my story and circumstances for is probably more important and fulfilling than any of these things together. That the true measure of my life is not languages I speak, places I travel, jobs/money I have, or hobbies I toy with. That it’s the encouragement and strength and hope I impart each time I share my story, connect with another survivor of trauma and see their strength, and the days I overcome any struggle I have been faced with since leaving my abuser. The true measure of my life is how I impact others, how I improve their lives, and how I help give them hope and compassion and walk with them as they ascend from the depths of darkness. The true measure of my life is the joy I get watching each of them claim their story, elevate their voice, and overcome the destruction they once felt incapable to face. Watching others find themselves again and take their lives back is how I choose to measure myself.
But today, just for today, I allow myself to look back at all the things I’ve lost and miss them for just a little bit. Not because I’m trapped in the past or incapable of moving on from them, but because even if I cannot go back, grab them up and run forward with them with reckless abandon, they are still a part of who I am. They are and always will be me dreams. So today I allow myself this, because I am human. And if I can’t feel that, and if I can’t confront my regrets and reconcile them, and if I can’t acknowledge and claim my vulnerability, then what is the point of anything at all?