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How the Pandemic Triggered Memories of My Abusive Childhood

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I used to pick up in the middle of the night, jump on the subway and head downtown. Midtown at midnight in a metropolis renowned for its own insomnia. Usually, I ended up in whatever 24 hour diner I could find, where I would slide into a booth and drink one cup of black coffee after another — simply because I knew I could.

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What I couldn’t do was face going home. What I couldn’t do was shut my bedroom door and agree to make peace with the solitude of the night.

Growing up in an abusive household in which I was also schooled, hardly a day passed when I didn’t feel like a prisoner. I was rarely allowed to leave the house; permission to walk around the cul-de-sac nearby when I turned 12 seemed a luxury and a blessing. I never got my driver’s license: I was discouraged and, once I had an actual learner’s permit, disallowed.

Additionally, in a home where the minutest error was blacklisted as a harbinger of future failure (“You have no common sense,” I was told time and again), shame was inevitable and omnipresent. I took that shame into my childhood bedroom with its broken doorknob and watched the quiet small-town road below. Help me, I would think, to no one in particular. Please help me. Get me out. I need help.

Eventually, at the age of 22, I left to go to Columbia University in New York, where I graduated magna cum laude and made plenty of friends. So much for future failure.

But then the pandemic hit, and all of us were confined to our homes. For me, this sparked not just restlessness but panic. Never mind that those midnight subway trips hadn’t resulted in a sense of freedom (because I still felt too unwanted to have any part of this beautiful city look me in the face); I was afraid and desperate. I couldn’t bear the idea that here I was again, a prisoner in my own home, confined to loneliness and terror and the feeling that I would never be worth anything and had done something wrong — even if I hadn’t.

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has begun to lighten just that little bit. I can see some semblance of liberty in the near future; but in the meantime, I’ll be patient, staying home as often as I can. I’ll do whatever I have to do to improve everyone’s chances of resettling into something like normal existence.

Even so, I struggle with nightmares about being trapped in dangerous places. After innumerable failed attempts to flee this nauseous dreamscape, I wake up in a cold sweat, frantic to leave my apartment.

Six years after my arrival in the city, I still feel like a child denied access to life outside of abuse. I feel like an adolescent grasping at a world that I was taught didn’t want or need me.

I feel the urge to exit wherever I might be in the present moment, terrified that I will never be able to get out.

Getty image by nadia_bormotova

Originally published: May 5, 2021
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