Why Does My Trauma Make Me Feel Unclean?
Experiencing trauma, especially during childhood, can be painful and change you as a person for the rest of your life. One of the ways it works to change us is by taking what can never be reclaimed: our innocence. Being exposed to badness means understanding it, and understanding it is, in some small way, to be a part of it — and to have it be a part of you.
When I was a child, my life played out on parallel tracks. My parents got divorced when I was two. At my dad’s house, we were like a biracial Brady Bunch; I had lots of siblings around, my dad remarried and stayed married, and my step-grandmother lived with us and had a penchant for cooking up grand family dinners. We were assigned chores and would watch movies together at night. It wasn’t all sunshine and roses, but we weren’t any more flawed as a family than the average household.
At my mom’s house, things were chaotic. I am her only child. She had scumbag boyfriend after scumbag boyfriend. The next man she married after my father would beat her in front of me. We eventually snuck out in the middle of the night to get away from him. A child protective services case would be opened years later after she’d leave me with my cousin and his friend — both were drunk and high at the time — and they chased me around the house with aerosol spray and lighters, and then hung me by my feet over the stairwell. I was about 8 years old at this point.
When I was a teenager, my mom got a boyfriend, Phil, who had as critical a case of drug addiction as one can imagine. He had overdosed 6 times before coming to stay with us. She soon started using hard drugs as well, and our home devolved into complete filth. The walls were scuffed and dirty; there was a large patch of black mold behind the couch. A foreman grill with an overflowing grease collector sat day and night on the kitchen counter. A putrid mix of urine and dog hair covered the tile floors, spotted here and there with dead and living ticks — some the size of beans — and where there was carpet, it was black with dirt and grime. But I never realized until I left that place that what had been the most sullied was my very soul.
After performing chest compressions on Phil, as he lie on the bathroom floor overdosing yet again, I felt like an outsider when I next went back to my dad’s house. Everything there was so clean, so domestic and familial, but I felt dirty. I felt like one might feel when released from prison, or maybe even returning from a foreign post as a soldier, as if I was in an entirely new world, and the people around me had an innocence that I could never regain, and that I would always be to them morally unclean because of it. I remember my stepmom didn’t want me hanging around my little brother, so she told him I was a drug addict and that he should stay away from me. I had smoked a lot of weed, but not much else, so I don’t think I qualified for that description.
I remember sitting at my dad’s table with my siblings and looking at the sleeve of my shirt around my wrist. There was something surreal about having seen that shirt in my mom’s house and then in this one. It had crossed some invisible barrier that it was never meant to. It seemed natural amid the squalor, so how could it exist with just as much naturalness here? And I was the same way.
I felt like a moral foreigner. I was no longer familiar with the customs of cleanliness, kindness, productivity, and responsibility. My siblings were laughing and playing games on the couch a few feet away from me, and I felt like there was some part of me that was forever tainted, that would always be a source of personal vexation, and that could never really be communicated to anyone. The thing they don’t tell you about going through hell is that if you ever get to heaven afterwards, you’ll never stop feeling like a fugitive.
I’ve experienced something similar with police. People who only ever lived in affluent neighborhoods will never understand how the police treat the poor. If you grow up in a high crime area, you’re always treated like a criminal. As a teenager, I had been searched by police without cause. I had been accused over and over of doing things I didn’t do. Getting pulled over while in the car was a regular occurrence. My dad had gone to prison, and as his son, I felt I was somehow destined to follow suit.
One night in my teenage years, my friend and I were walking to a gas station on the far end of a Target parking lot; the Target adjoined the wall that surrounded our neighborhood. Towards the back of the parking lot was a police cruiser, and inside was the officer who would take shifts standing inside of the store when it was open. He’d often accuse me of stealing, though I never did. He got out of his car that night and yelled, “P*ssy! What are you doing over here f*ggot?!” I told my friend to just ignore him and keep walking to the gas station where there were other people. Then, he ran at us and drew his gun. We stopped walking and stared at him in alarm. He then laughed, returned his weapon to its holster, and walked back to his car.
It was a harrowing experience, like so many of my interactions with police. What I never realized was that they would make me feel a sense of culpability for the rest of my life. Whenever I see a police officer, I can’t help but feel I’ve done something wrong, though I’m no less law-abiding than any of my compatriots. It’s not the fear I felt that night that I dwell on, or the potential for actual harm, or the insult of being treated like a criminal — it’s that these officers succeeded in making me actually feel like a criminal.
The causes of trauma are horrifying as they happen. The memories of it are painful. The anxiety that it leaves you with can be unbearable. But, more than anything else, I just want to feel clean again.
Martin Vidal is the author of The Ambition Handbook: A Guide for Ambitious Persons